With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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I tell my children stories about their father, the ones I can remember. He was a Marine, an Osprey pilot, and before that a CH-46 helicopter pilot. He did two tours of duty in Afghanistan. I tell them how he almost crashed on his first deployment when the huge piece of metal that keeps the rotors attached to the helicopter cracked in mid-flight. I tell them how the pilots in the other helicopters thought they were watching thirteen people die as the aircraft plummeted toward the desert floor, but that Russell managed to land it, saving the lives of everyone on board.
When we were first married, in our early twenties, Russell and I worked on the thoroughbred-horse farm his father still manages. I tell our son and daughter how Russell once caught a lime-green garden snake outside the foaling barn and put it down his shirt. How he planned to go up to their grandfather and tell him he had a stomachache while the snake writhed around on his belly. How the snake bit him and he just laughed and poked it back down; it bit him twice more before he let it out.
When Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” comes on the radio, I tell the kids how their father used to sing the words wrong to aggravate me. How he would tilt his head back and croon, “Hold me closer, Tony Danza.” I tell them how he actually cared what other people had to say. How he would never sit back and watch the Marines under him do all the work but would jump in to help sweep or organize tools or turn a wrench. How they loved him for it. I don’t tell them that he never read a book all the way through, or that he thought college was overrated. I don’t tell them that every time he got on a motorcycle, his body became one with it, or that he was the fastest guy at the track almost every time he went, or that he could ride a motorcycle sitting backward. I don’t tell them that he sometimes flirted with waitresses right in front of me. That he could be irresponsible: with money, with his own safety, with time. That he would often procrastinate.
These stories are my version of him. I am editing their father: Considering which faults to share and which to bury with him. Considering how far I can err without creating a father on a pedestal they can never reach, or a version of him that doesn’t live up to the original.
Warren started preschool at the age of four, six months after his father died in a motorcycle accident near our home in Southern California. The first couple of years after Russell’s death in 2012, Russell was always in the stick-figure drawings Warren made, tall and imposing, despite being made of lines and circles. The pictures seemed endless. Warren drew our family every day, as if to communicate a grief he couldn’t quite put into words.
Now that Warren is six and in kindergarten, the drawings are less frequent and more jarring when he extracts them from his Spider-Man backpack. They are simple. I am the tallest, with long brown hair and a red rectangle for a dress. Warren has drawn himself almost as tall as I am. His sister, Adrianne, is shorter, in a pink-rectangle dress and pigtails. My three-fingered hands stretch out toward my children on either side. We are all smiles. My stomach sinks to see just three of us, but I tell him how beautiful his drawing is. Warren proclaims proudly that this is our family.
A canopy of birch and oak trees sheltered our yard in California. At the back edge of the property a small creek ran beside the canyon wall. In one of the few flat areas of grass was a trampoline, and a tire swing hung over the creek, just before a short waterfall. Almost every afternoon Russell would take three-year-old Warren down to the creek, roll up his pant legs, and step with him into the cold mountain runoff. They would look for bugs, and if one of them found a praying mantis or a stick insect — their favorites — they would both bend to inspect it. Then Russell would lift Warren into the tire swing and push. Warren would squeal, and Russell would laugh: a father-son call and response.
The tire swung back and forth, back and forth. Warren would cling to the rope, his brown hair lifting in the wind.
Those moments exist only for me now. The kids were too young to remember. Russell is gone. I am trying to preserve their father’s papers and photos and possessions, and my memories, so I can pass some knowledge of who he was down to them. But I forget things all the time. I forget to help Adrianne pick out something to take to school for show and tell. I forget to brush my teeth. I forget what day it is.
Six months after Russell’s death I packed up the kids and moved back home to Texas. I bought a too-big house and left the boxes where they landed. My new home office is a jumbled shrine where his things are hung, stacked, and scattered.
All of his belongings have become irreplaceable. He will never write another note in his own handwriting, never buy another pack of gum at a gas station, never pose for another photograph. I bought a fireproof safe in which to keep some of his possessions. The couch is threadbare, but I don’t want another one, because he sat on this one. I can’t get rid of his underwear.
I do throw away his motorcycle helmet, jacket, and gloves. I sell the spare parts for his now-totaled bike to one of his friends. After they are gone, I feel as if I have removed a half dozen loaded guns from the house. When my children ask how Daddy died, I tell them the truth: He was as good as anyone could be on a motorcycle without being a professional. He did everything he could to be safe. Motorcycles are just dangerous. They are never safe.
The mounds of Russell’s possessions — model airplanes, childhood drawings, the contents of his desk — grow and shrink as I try to organize them. I begin to sort his clothes, transcribe our text messages, put photos in order, but I never finish. The size of the piles fluctuates with my grief.
I imagine Warren and Adrianne as little archaeologists, trying to unearth the bones of their father’s life, holding up shoes and hats they’ve disinterred, old letters, a college ring inside a carved wooden box from Afghanistan.
Sometimes I forbid them to play with his belongings; I want to save what is left for the future. But other times I relent, thinking they will have a better sense of who he was for having played with his things as children. I let them dress up in his too-big shirts, clank his marbles against the kitchen countertop, drop his old phones between the couch cushions.
I can stand a week of this, maybe less, before the fear of losing these remnants overwhelms me, and I gather them up and lock them in the office.
When he wasn’t deployed, Russell would come home from work every afternoon in his rumpled desert flight suit, smelling of jet fuel and Old Spice deodorant. He would sink into our overstuffed brown couch, and Adrianne would crawl into his lap. He might rub the down on her head, or gaze into her big eyes. She liked to pull the velcro patches off his flight suit — the black rectangle with his name, rank, and a pair of gold wings; and the squadron patch, a white knight on a tan background. When she pulled them off, the velcro made a ripping sound. He’s ours. He’s theirs. He’s ours. He’s theirs.
I tucked myself in beside my husband and daughter, Warren on top of me, all of us trying to get as close as possible. I leaned into him, my nose against his shoulder, and breathed him in.
Russell would tilt his head down toward Adrianne’s tiny hands, their heads almost touching, watching as she worked to free the patches. She was a year old. He died before she ever called him Daddy.
Russell was deployed when Adrianne was born. My C-section was planned for September 15, and the squadron’s executive officer sent him out on a flight the night before, to transport ballots for the 2010 Afghan parliamentary election. When the plane had maintenance issues, he and the other pilot were stuck for three days in the desert with a cargo hold full of ballots and no way to reach me. I had hoped he would at least be able to Skype. I wanted him to see our daughter for the first time soon after I did, but it was three days before he was able to call.
When he came home four months later, I rented a beach cabin for a week. He sat on the couch, a layer of fine desert sand still muting the green of his cammies, and held his daughter for the first time. He smiled at her while Warren clung to him. It was the first day of the best year of our marriage, and the first day of our last year together.
The cabin was drafty but beautiful, just steps from the ocean. It was January, so the neighborhood was deserted, and the house felt like our own insular world, comforting after having so much distance between us. The cold sea air seeped under doors and through the cracks around windows. I made roast beef and German chocolate cake, but he was too busy staring at Adrianne to eat. He gave her a bottle, played trains with Warren. I hung back, content to be in the same room with him and to watch as he filled the void in our son that I’d been unable to fill.
Eventually Adrianne fell asleep, and Warren started watching a Thomas the Tank Engine video. Russell sat next to me on the living-room floor, shielded from Warren’s view by the couch, and unbuttoned my jeans. He slid his hand down and put two fingers inside me. I held my breath until he placed his other hand on the back of my neck and kissed me.
Warren started to sing. I said, “Let me put him in bed,” but Warren wanted us both to tuck him in. So we helped him brush his teeth and put on his white-and-green frog pajamas, and the three of us lay down on the pullout couch outside the master bedroom. Warren snuggled in between us; Russell watched me as he rubbed Warren’s back. When Warren fell asleep, we got up carefully and went downstairs to a secluded bedroom.
A sliding glass door faced the beach, and the sound of crashing waves permeated the quiet. The hallway light was just bright enough that I could see his face, tender and boyish. He’d been gone so long. My body had held a life and brought it forth since he’d last seen me.
“You never did eat,” I said.
He put his arm around my waist and pulled me closer. “I don’t want to eat,” he said. “I just want you.”
Most nights Russell bathed the kids. He would put them in the tub, soap them up, and then dump water over Warren’s head to rinse the shampoo away. Warren never complained, even though he would have screamed if I’d done it that way. I had to put a washcloth over his eyes, tilt his head back, and gently pour the water over his hair. When they were finished, Russell would send both kids out into the hallway, naked and bundled in towels, and I would scoop them up, rub lotion onto their damp skin, and wriggle their arms and legs into cotton pajamas: polar bears for Adrianne, firetrucks for Warren. I’d read Warren a book, make Adrianne a bottle and rock her to sleep. Tiptoe out of her room, milk and drool on my shoulder, my chest still warm from holding her. Crawl into bed with Russell, put my head on his chest as he wrapped his arms around me.
We met in German class, a year before our college graduation. He worked construction on a nearby golf course, drove a ten-year-old Range Rover he’d paid for himself, and liked to drive off-road in places he wasn’t supposed to. On Valentine’s Day we went to a Korean restaurant and ate eel. He gave me a little stuffed dog with I love you written on it. I laughed and told him he should be more careful when picking out gifts; some girls would hold him to a message like that. On the way back from the restaurant he took a shortcut through the bumpy field near my duplex, and I banged my head on the passenger-side window just hard enough to hurt. He cradled my head, kissed it, and said, “I do, you know.” And I asked, “You do what?” even though I knew what he meant. “I do love you,” he said, and he kissed me again. I could feel the thud of his heart against his chest, and I told him I could stay in that spot forever and always be happy. He said that was silly; at some point we would need to get up and go to school, to work, to the grocery store. All our softer moments were tempered by his pragmatism.
Inertia blooms. Sometimes I don’t feed the kids lunch. I go days without bathing them. Our world contracts; the walls lean inward. I watch my children become more and more bonded to each other, creating their own language as I forget the language I shared with their father. I’m a distant buoy they can’t quite swim to.
I go outside to sit in the garden, pull my skirt up around my thighs in the heat, light a cigarette. Weeds have sprouted up and over the stone planters. I don’t want the children to lose their father to death and their mother to grief. They need me to be fully alive.
When I was a military wife, I imagined widowhood would be a tightening, a shrinking of the self: My hair in a sedate bun. A black blouse buttoned up to my throat. Lighting candles at shrines. But widowhood is a loosening, an attempt to forget the past and to re-create the self. I pick up men in hotel bars, let my hair down, and answer to no one. Widowhood is a reckoning: I am not exempt from tragedy, but I am also not the one who died. Keeping my husband’s memory alive, as if it were my purpose or duty, feels too much like martyrdom. But the kids deserve to know him, and he deserves to be known.
I decide, again, to organize some of his things. Among the clutter I spot a recordable storybook. Russell sent it to Warren when he was on deployment, so Warren could still hear him read a bedtime story. Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. I open it expecting to hear Russell’s deep, raspy Texas accent. Instead there is only silence. The batteries are dead.
Fearing the recording hasn’t survived, I grab a screwdriver. The batteries are not only dead but corroded, and after I clean out the plastic compartment and replace them, the book offers up only a discordant warbling.
I don’t have another recording of him talking to the kids. I cry for two hours and then send a message to a widowed friend, needing to talk to someone who will understand. She advises me to put foil between the battery and the connection and try again.
I rush to the kitchen for the aluminum-foil box and bend over the book, tearing tiny slivers of foil to wedge around the batteries. I open the book and hear a faint static, then his voice: “Twinkle, twinkle, little star. How I wonder what you are.”
I tell my friend she is my motherfucking hero, and I immediately record a backup. My relief is transcendent, so light I could float on it.
Each year without Russell brings a gradual, almost imperceptible lessening of our grief. We grow the way small trees do when they are covered in vines: slowly.
I don’t mention it to Warren and Adrianne when their dad’s birthday passes. We don’t bake birthday cakes for our dead. Think of the effort, the flour on the floor, the bits of batter dripped, the sticky sugar and milk. Meanwhile the kids need their cups filled, their asses wiped, their foreheads kissed. And there is no one but me to do it.
We don’t visit the cemetery. I took them to see their father’s grave once, and then never again. Time spent at the cemetery is time we could be reading a book together, or watching a movie, or playing outside.
Days after I repaired the Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star book, while I’m driving the kids to school, Warren asks me about the waterfall. Surprised, I ask, “What waterfall?”
He looks out the car window at fields of languid cows and says, “The one in California.”
“I know that waterfall. What do you remember?”
“There was a trampoline, and the water was cold.” I glance at him in the rearview mirror. He is still looking out the window, his six-year-old face serious, brow furrowed.
“Do you remember who used to take you there?” I ask, resisting the urge to offer any hints. I don’t want to alter his memories with my suggestions.
Warren breaks into a smile: “My daddy did, and he jumped on the trampoline with me, and when he would jump even a little bit, I would bounce really high. My daddy was the best at that.”
So many times I’ve wished he would have just one real memory of his father, one experience that was truly his. And he does. And it doesn’t change anything.
Russell used to hug me quickly, tightly, then release. He would do this three or four times in a row, always making a humph noise as if he were really exerting himself. I do it to the kids now, and they do it back. Adrianne calls it a Daddy hug.
The kids love the Daddy games. Adrianne’s favorite is to look me “eye to eye,” the way Russell and I did when we were in a goofy mood. She will come near me, positioning one eye so close to mine that she becomes a blur and I feel her eyelashes and mine touching. We chant, “Look me eye to eye, eye to eye,” in silly voices and then roll away from each other, laughing.
Warren and I have staring contests. I always lose. Russell claimed no one could possibly be worse than I am at staring contests. I can’t go longer than five seconds without blinking or giggling at one of Warren’s funny faces.
I try to resurrect these little traditions that made up our family culture, to keep them alive. But a resurrected thing is always changed in some fundamental way. The traditions, in this new family of three, lose some of the dimension and nuance they had when we shared them with Russell.
I struggle to keep Russell at just the right distance as I watch my children thrive without him. I try not to think about the way he held them, how much he wanted to watch them grow. I imagine Warren and Adrianne as visitors in a museum. All the displays tell them something about their father, about themselves. They take turns putting on his flight helmet and pretending to fly an airplane. I think of all the history that helmet holds: the memory of his flights, the near misses, the dirty jokes told in the cockpit, and the moments when he stared at the landscape below him in wonder. I see the children move through the exhibits. I see them press their faces to the glass.
Wendy Hill’s essay “Archaeology” [August 2017] was moving, especially this line: “It was the first day of the best year of our marriage, and the first day of our last year together.”
I rarely cry, but Wendy Hill’s “Archaeology” made me realize I’m still an empathetic person. When she thought she’d lost the only recording of her children’s deceased father, I was right there with her: tightness in my chest, throat closing up, panic. Thank you for sharing such a poignant essay.