By Riley McGraw Hart
The photo box was plain cardboard, unmarked except for my mother’s handwriting on the front end. It was stacked in the back corner of the closet, where I’d been snooping for stationery to write a letter to my grandparents during the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve always preferred the personal element of handwritten letters over the indifferent tenor of email, despite the delay in delivery. But this time, I found myself waylaid by the thick black sharpie spelling out my father’s name. I’d never seen it written in my mother’s handwriting before.
My father died just months before my second birthday. My mother never spoke about him while I was growing up, whether her choice represented a mixture of pain, protection, or shame. He was shot to death by the estranged husband of his “other woman.” Apparently, he died in a bathtub. Then his killer committed suicide.
My mother never told me what had happened to him. Until I was thirteen, the circumstances remained shrouded, only to be uncovered by a simple Google search. The results led me to the truth. And to some extent, I was surprised that she even kept the photographs.
Growing up, sometimes I imagined what the crime scene must have looked like: the bloodsoaked carpet, the discarded gun, the shrieking woman left unharmed. I wondered how my father ended up in the bathroom; in his last moments, did he drag himself towards the porcelain tub? Did his killer start his morning off knowing how the day would end? Whenever I tell my friends what happened to him, they look at me, boldly stricken with surprise.
“That sounds like a movie,” they all say.
But it wasn’t a movie. It was my childhood.
I pulled out the photo box with a bridled breath. While I’d seen pictures of my father before, the memories were few and far between. Those who knew him made sure to remark on our similar bone structure, comparable to an almost eerie degree. “If he hadn’t died after your birth, I’d say you were his reincarnate,” someone told me once. As I repeat their words, I find myself gazing at my father’s mirrored image each time I turn to face myself.
There were at least fifty photos in the cardboard box. While I shuffled through each captured snapshot, I was ever more grateful for my solitude. Tears of laughter and unresolved grief deluged me. I held the evidence of my father as an actual human being, instead of the mythological man he’d come to resemble in the decades following his death.
In one photo, he held me as a baby in the crook of his arm. Even as I was a toddler, our features were near reflections. In other pictures, he gazed down at a petite woman who barely reached his shoulder, as though he was perhaps unaware of the camera. His mouth curved in a soft smile, his eyes were bright and gleaming, and his high cheekbones were stained a whimsical pink. He was looking at my mother—and I knew.
I knew that he loved her. I was assured that at one point, they—and the three of us as a family—were happy.
I had always hoped and assumed that was the truth, but now I knew.
Try as I might, no photograph prompted my memories of my father. I studied his smile, his features, but I couldn’t hear his laughter or his voice. In this reckoning, I realized that I didn’t know very much about the man himself. Any information I had was secondhand, stumbled upon, or dragged out of dark corners like the photograph box. What I could say with certainty was that he loved the Redskins football team, and he hated fast-food. My godmother told me so. I willed my brain to release a long-hidden memory of my father and me together, but in the end, it was a helpless pursuit. My first memory was his funeral; it washed over me, unbidden.
The memory of my father’s burial was a beacon—a brief and shining moment, blurred only around the periphery, bleeding into a myriad of dreams, or memories or stories or . . . . There’s the issue with time and memory: it’s never linear. It is woven around unfamiliar perspectives, the edges trimmed by dull and rusty blades.
A memorial service was held right after he died, and then he was cremated. My mother purposefully kept his urn on the mantle until I was old enough to remember his actual burial service. As a mosaic artist and potter, she made the urn with her own hands. My father’s last anniversary gift to her was the kiln she used to make it. She cemented the clay that bore his dusted body into dirt and worms herself, six feet under, left forgotten under a stone.
When we buried his ashes, I tossed a drawing into the grave instead of a pile of dirt like everyone else. It was plainly drawn with colored crayons on white cardstock. The picture was of a simple yet impossible ideal: three stick figures holding hands and smiling in thick, U-shaped crescents. I let the image float into the grave, like an autumn leaf breaking from the bough, where it softly landed on the urn. People started crying around me, and I understood that it was because of my drawing. Their sorrow felt like leagues of open, uncharted water, and I was seasick on the waves.
I rose from the crouch where I’d dropped my drawing into the grave. There was a smudge of dirt on the hem of my dress, and I’d scuffed my new patent shoes. I wanted to jump into the pile of loose ground next to my father’s burial spot and spread it across the cemetery, so it could never cover him up.
I imagine the drawing I buried with him decomposing into nothing by now. I wish somebody would have mentioned the process of decaying to my younger self or at least offered to laminate the damned thing. Pottery can last for centuries, and I wish my drawing could’ve stayed with the urn—with my father—for all that time, too.
I wish they. . . . or that. . . . and what if?
What if he never died? What if he never met that woman? What if he never went to her apartment that day, or at that hour? What if he was only shot once? Would he have survived, if the paramedics arrived in time? What if he lived? I went down, down, down, wondering what if this, what if that, what if what if whatifwhatifwhatif. . . .
I gasped for air, rising above the sea of questions threatening to drown me. Eventually, I resurfaced.
It’s taken me a long time to realize that questions of “what if?” are just the mark of fools who recoil in the face of reality.
It doesn’t help to wish my childhood was different than it was, or that my father made choices that didn’t result in his death. It isn’t healthy to crawl inside the crevices of time, the past, or in daydreams built on the bones of speculation. I think remembrance and dwelling on the unchangeable are different things—but it’s a thin tightrope to walk, keeping one’s balance all the while. The difference between the two is perhaps easier to discern: does it heal, or does it hurt? Does it enable you to go forward, or debilitate you and hold you back?
For me, chasing my father’s remembrance is healing. The photographs saddened me just as they were elating to see. In many ways, they stitched up the fraying seams within my soul. Perhaps my childhood was tinged by tragedy, but sorrow always passes, because the world never stops. Neither does humanity, as we shift and falter and grow. I no longer wonder about the crime scene of his death; I wonder about his happiest memory. I wonder what he was doing at the time, and I wonder if it was with me. I wonder what he had against the fries at McDonald’s.
I never ask myself, “what if?” anymore, either. I’ve come to understand that the question in itself is irrelevant. I only have the present, and I choose to be mindful of the immediate moment. Such a principle applies to relative normalcy, but also in a social lockdown. I untangle the strands of my grief, swapping them out for a relentless urge to move forward, and I process what it truly means to do so. Part of that endeavor is healing by remembrance: sifting through the photographs, reliving my earliest memories, contemplating our similarities, and writing. I love my father by loving myself, and by striving to create the most fulfilling life I can—no matter the circumstances, the unaccounted future, or the uncertainties of “what if?”
Riley McGraw Hart is a creative writer at The New School contributing to Honeysuckle Magazine as an editorial intern. She is also part of The New School’s award winning literary magazine, The 12th Street Journal, as an editorial staff member. Riley is currently writing on a memoir about grief, family, identity, and the pursuit of individualism in the face of trauma.