He Stays With Me
2011 by Lauren Shanahan
Written in the voice of Rachel Shanahan.
My father died February 12, 1989 of a drug overdose. I was ten years old.
The Virginia heat was just beginning to warm our skin and the blueberry blossoms were opening. I knew summer vacation on the California coast was fast approaching. Staying at my aunt and uncle’s beach house in Santa Cruz was always my favorite part of summertime. They lived directly across from a big open field that was full of yellow mustard flowers and ladybugs that I used to collect and put in glass jars. Just past the field were the old wooden stairs that led down to Seacliff beach, where I would dig for sand crabs or walk along the pier to the cement ship.
In the summer of ’89, my mother and I visited my aunt and uncle, but it was not the same and my feelings had changed. The field of mustard flowers no longer held beauty for me, just like the ladybugs in jars no longer gave me a sense of wonder. The beach was too cold, and any bit of enjoyment I felt during the previous summers was now replaced with sadness. It was a sadness I could not express, I could not talk about it. My only demonstration of grief was through the sorrowful songs I played on my mother’s black and white baby grand piano. I swallowed the reality of my father’s death into the depths of my stomach, swallowed it just like he swallowed those pills.
I remember the call. It was nighttime and I was just slipping under the covers into bed. I was used to not seeing my dad too much because he and my mom split up a few years back and he was now living in California. He called often, fearful that I would forget him if he was absent from my life for too long. The night of February 12th, I heard the telephone ring and believed it was my father, calling to say goodnight. He had a voice that was calm and melodic, and I remember the nights he would sing some of his original tunes to me before bed. I can hear his voice now, deep like his dark brown eyes, whispering the lyrics to soothe me to sleep.
Bless my soul in the morning, bless my soul in the evening, take me to the preacher man, he will help you honey if he can.
My mom says I get my musical talent from him. She used to tell me stories about when he was younger and was in a band with his two brothers, uncle Ricky and uncle Jerry. My dad was the lead singer and my mom says he used to swoon all the girls with his smooth voice. He had a Hendrix quality to him, and uncle Jerry told me that he used to write songs like mad.
Every band practice, my father would rush into the dingy garage where the boys rehearsed at the Shanahan brother’s house on Willowgate Drive. He was always hyper about a new song he had just finished writing, eager for the boys to learn and rehearse it. My father was always enthusiastic and passionate, believing in the band’s potential to produce a “hit” that would make them all famous. His lyrics were different, unique, as if my father were an old soul, spilling his thoughts out with his songs. I think of him now, the bedtime whispers release off my lips, and in a slow breath I sing the lyrics that are as embedded in my memory as a birthmark on my skin.
I cry cause I can’t be seen, the emptiest song, running high on the wind, rolling along. Crying is what I will do now that you’re gone, cause you, chartered away.
With my white down comforter pulled up to my chin, trying to keep out the winter chill, I waited for my mother to come into my room, hand me the phone and tell me, “Your father wants to say goodnight Rachel.” But I never heard his soothing voice again. Instead, I heard my mother begin to cry, her cries quickly becoming sobs. The type of heavy sobs that break open the chest, lungs, that rattle right to the heart. I became frightened and I jumped off my bed, bare feet plodding on the hardwood floors. I ran down the hall toward my mother’s bedroom. Her lamp was still on and it illuminated a yellow glow through the door crack, the only light that guided me down the hallway. Her sobs became more shrill, more wrenching, and suddenly I heard a crash. The light went out and my mother began screaming. I pushed open her door and saw her hunched over the bed, the lamp knocked off its dresser, dry heaving in a fury of uncontrollable panic, pain, and disbelief.
When you hear the words that someone close to you has died, it doesn’t register right away. You disbelieve it. Maybe even deny it, shaking your head as if to shake away the words that have the ability to crush spirit and soul. Then, maybe ten seconds later, grief hits you with the force of a solid punch. My mother became wild, reacting with sadness so strong that she was blind to me entering her room. Suddenly weak, she drooped over her bed, crumpling to the floor heavily, as if heartache adds fifty pounds to your shoulders.
“Mom!” I ran to her side and knelt down. Her face was buried in the bed sheets, but she was still screaming.
“What’s going on mommy?” I draped my arms around her heaving shoulders, but I couldn’t hold on tight enough to stop her sobbing.
“Your father, Rachel your father.” She gripped my nightgown with both hands, twisting and turning the fabric as if to mimic her whirring thoughts, as if to stop the information from seeping too deep. Her chin hung to her chest and her body continued to heave. The painful cries began blotting out of my consciousness because my own head began to vibrate and spin. Every horrible thing a ten year old can image was spilling into my thoughts.
“He’s gone baby. He’s gghhahaaawwnnn.” This last word, gone, reverberated in my brain like an echo in an empty cave and escaped from my mother’s lips like a caged wild animal. I felt like vomiting. I felt like running away from this scene. I felt like screaming. But nothing came out of my mouth. It was swabbed dry by emptiness. I realized I was crying only when I began to shiver from the dampness of my tear-soaked shirt.
My mother didn’t tell me for a long time how my father died, and I never asked. I felt as if asking would reopen the pain, and for me, if I didn’t think about my father being dead, I didn’t feel sadness. But eventually, the addiction, the pills, the reason behind the divorce, and the reason for his death all surfaced. And when it did, I was angry. I felt betrayed, as if my father had chosen drugs over me, his only child. Images of my father replay in my mind, conjured up from stories my uncle and mother told me.
I see myself sitting at the kitchen table as a three-year-old, crayons in my hand, swinging my legs high above the floor. I can hear my parents’ voices in the next room, forceful yet hushed and I know they’re fighting. My dad bursts through the door into the kitchen and sees me, coloring a picture of our house and family. He stoops over me, kisses me on the top of my head then pinches my arm and tells me he’ll be back soon. From what I can remember, my dad always liked to tease, pinch, and poke me. It was his way of expressing affection and I loved any attention he gave me. After a soft tug on my braided hair, he turned back towards me, still with the crayons in my hand. With a quick wink of his droopy eye, he opened the front door and walked out.
After my father’s death, any anger I felt was never shown, never expressed. I only allowed myself to become affected by it all when I was alone. I would lie on my bed, staring up at the textured ceiling and let all unhappy thoughts flood my consciousness. These thoughts would lead me to dreams of my father. Memories I had then that I no longer can recall. I would wake startled, my eyes flinging open and my heart pumping, to find my mother sitting on my bed brushing the falling tears off my face with her thumb. She and I didn’t talk much about it, didn’t talk much about him. Maybe that’s why I no longer have any memories of my father.
Although no one was present when he passed away, I have my own ideas about how it all happened. He died on the back steps of his mother’s mobile home, in San Jose, California. He had been abusing prescription drugs and eventually began mixing them, creating a toxic cocktail that eventually forced his heart to stop. It was the middle of the day, but his mother didn’t find him till that night. I cannot image what my nanny must have felt. Her oldest child lifeless, his cold body missing that nourishing beat. It’s possible she anticipated it though, his siblings tell me that he was past the point of hope or rehabilitation. I refuse to believe that anyone is hopeless, let alone my talented father, Tim Shanahan.
When I think of the day, I envision him dressed in dirty blue jeans and his worn brown leather jacket, his thick, long brown hair disheveled. I imagine him on the back porch smoking a Marlboro, beginning to feel tired, his heart pace slowing down. He sinks down onto the second step, propping his feet up on the first, maybe leans his weight backwards onto his right arm while his left grips the white painted rod iron hand rail. The cigarette dangling from his mouth eventually drops to the concrete driveway, the fire that kept it alive stubbed out, just like his breath.
When the drugs finally fatally poisoned his body, I imagine his thoughts are of me. Maybe he envisioned me as an adult, married and with my own kids, him not being around to see it all, saddened by the thought of not living long enough to be a grandpa. Maybe he was thinking what he would have changed in his life, had he gotten a second chance. Like quit smoking and drinking, work out his marriage, or take the time to teach me to be a song-writer. Maybe he relived memories of himself singing me to sleep, his song lyrics the last words to leave his lips. But these are only my imaginings and I will never know what happened on those steps.
My father was addicted to heroin from the first time he tried it with his brothers back in the 70’s. He lived hard, playing rock n’ roll shows and staying out all night, drinking whiskey, shooting drugs, and whatever else. But my mother believed she could change him, especially after she had me. They would fight a lot, mostly about him not being around to raise me. He was too busy getting hopped up on heroine, and when the needle became too much for him, he switched to prescription pills. I like to think he hated the drug. Despised its hold over him. I like to think that when his mind was free, his thoughts were pure, hoping the best for his family, for my mother and me. Unfortunately, heroin turns you into anything but free.
When it became clear that drugs were too much a part of his life, they split up and my mother and I moved to Virginia where I spent the rest of my childhood and now am living out my married adulthood. Even through the separation and the pain of his death, my mother never spoke badly of my father because he was a good man, with a good heart, trying to be a good father. She realized that she couldn’t blame him anymore. The heroin took over my father’s body and mind, put a brown paper bag over his head and forced him into the life of a junkie. When it takes over you, you are completely under its power and chances are, you’re not getting out. But the reality of his life never build resentment in my mother and if I asked her today if she still loved him, she would probably say yes. He is the father of my daughter.
Throughout my younger years, I found comfort with my distant family, my father’s brother, Uncle Jerry and his wife Aunt Jeannine. It was with them that I spent my summers, playing with my cousins at their beach house, pretending that nothing was wrong and that I didn’t feel sadness. From the outside, I’m sure my aunt and uncle would tell you that I seemed unaffected, quiet and reserved, yet unemotional to the inevitable pain. I guess I lived out my childhood with the only mention of my father being in my thoughts. No one pushed me to talk about him and honestly, I think I just wanted to feel like a normal kid.
I remember playing the piano for hours while my aunt and uncle videotaped and my cousins watched in awe. They had a Wurlitzer Spinet, which is a small, apartment-style piano with the conventional glossed black wood and ivory keys. My cousin Tyler was about seven and was learning to play as well. We would sit side by side on the bench and play duos, while Jerry, Jeannine, the twins, and the new baby sat around and listened. When I finished, they would clap and beg me to play more and I was always happy to. It was an easy escape from the hurt I felt because while playing the piano I felt composed, impenetrable, sitting upright with my back straight and my chin tilted proudly, my eyes dry and my mouth smiling.
From an early age, I had a natural musical talent and playing the piano remains a passion of mine. When the individual keys form together to create a song, I feel close to my father. I can close my eyes and feel that musical part of him flowing out of me through my fingertips onto the ivory in a meaningful melody. I know he loved me and I know that he wishes he could be here in person to see who I’ve become, my college graduation, my wedding, my career. But the sorrow I carry of my father’s death still lingers. It lingers in the poignant sounds of the piano keys, where the memories are stirred and the love for my father remains. It floats on the wind in the shape of musical notes every time I sit down to play for him.
Lauren Shanahan is a recent graduate of California State University Monterey Bay’s Creative Writing and Social Action program within the Human Communication Bachelor of Arts degree. She is from Santa Cruz, California but currently resides in Seattle, Washington. Her works represent reoccurring themes of nature, landscape, self identity, personal experience, and critical inquiry of social action concepts. She is a poet at heart but enjoys branching out with creative nonfictions, short stories, and rants. She is inspired by her surroundings, both natural and man-made and loves capturing beauty not only in writing but in photographs and ballet as well.
(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)