Some stories are haunting, in the very best sense of the word, and that is how I feel about this story by Michael Rowe. It gets at the very essence of all we talk about at The Good Men Project – men and manhood, identity, sexuality, fathers and family, violence, and that eerie place where the past and present collide. It’s all very grounded, very real, yet I’ve read this several times, and each time it gives me goosebumps – not a little wimpy, prickly back of the spine tingle, but a full body sensation that is hard to shake off. –– Lisa Hickey, publisher, The Good Men Project
I saw you standing just inside the wrought-iron fence around the graveyard at the corner of Winchester and Sumach this evening when I was out with the dogs, right around sundown.
I waved, but you didn’t wave back.
Two 14-year-old boys went right by you on skateboards through a cloud of dead autumn leaves. I didn’t see their faces under their helmets and untidy dark hair as they flew past through the lengthening shadows.
Remember in the 70s when we were kids and no one ever wore a helmet for anything? We used to make retard jokes about kids whose parents made them wear helmets, even for skating. Isn’t it odd how something that sounds so cruel today seemed so funny back then? I never wore a helmet for hockey. You never played hockey.
Remember that time I teased you about how you should be wearing white skates with black heels and done figure skating with the girls? Dad always told me to shut up when I teased you. Once he even slapped the back of my head, hard. I pretended that it didn’t hurt, but it did. I hated you when he did that.
But he was right. It was a mean thing to say. You couldn’t help the way you were, but I could probably have helped being an asshole about it.
You didn’t even look at the boys on the skateboard. I figured they reminded you of the guys we grew up with in Auburn—guys like I was: guys who played hockey, who chased girls, who weren’t afraid to get into fights.
I wonder if they even saw you? I wonder if they might have felt a sudden cold as they thundered past the cemetery. What would they have seen if they’d looked up?
But still, I wish you’d waved.
This week, I drove west on the 401 to Auburn, like I always do at the end of October, to see Dad. We don’t talk much anymore, but he likes it when I check in. Since Mom died, he doesn’t do a lot around the house. There’s a widow lady from church, Mrs. Normoyle, who has a thing for him. She’s always bringing him food and tidying up. He tells me she’s annoying, but I think he’s a lot happier she’s there than he likes to let on. It’s lonely up in that big house on the Milton Escarpment with nothing but memories, especially in October.
It’s the month of ghosts, especially family ghosts.
The rooms seem darker now that Mom is gone. Maybe Dad turns the lights on less, or maybe he keeps the blinds drawn more than he used to. Dad always says Mom took the light with her after when she died, after 40 years. Even though he didn’t mean it literally, the other day I remembered that another word for ghost is “shade,” which made me smile. It also made me switch on a couple of lamps in the living room next to Dad’s chair.
In the lamplight, pictures everywhere. On the walls. On the tables.
Mom and Dad’s wedding. Mom holding me in her arms when they brought me home from the hospital. Me, at 5, reaching up to touch you when they brought you home from the hospital. Birthdays. Disneyland. Hockey pictures—me, not you. You, at your modern dance class recital. You, gently holding Maven when she was a puppy. Maven licks your face with her pink tongue. The colours have faded, but Maven still looks like a small bundle of soft black mink. Your smile is beautiful in that picture. You’re cradling her in your arms like she was your baby.
“I know,” Dad says. I didn’t hear him come up behind me. He puts his hand on my shoulder. “Never a day goes by. A handsome boy.” His voice sounds unbearably old all of a sudden. “It was easier when your mother was alive. It’s against nature. It should have been she and I. You two boys should have outlived us both.”
“I’m still here, Dad.”
“I know,” he says. “I know you are. I wish you had . . .” His voice trails off. The bitterness has mellowed over the years like old brass. It’s still there, but it gleams dully.
“Dad, stop it. Not now. It’s not fair. Not after all this time.”
“I’m sorry, Robert. I didn’t mean it that way.”
When I look at him, there are tears in his eyes. Old-man tears. I touch his shoulder. I want to hug him, but I know he’d rather not have the human contact right now. So I squeeze his shoulder, the way real men do. Fucking real men. Jesus.
“Yes, you did, Dad,” I whisper. “You did mean it that way. But it’s OK. I agree with you. I wish I’d been there that night with Scotty too.”
Brothers. Loaded term. Born of the same parents, raised in the same house. One normal, one—well, different. We knew you were different, but we never talked about it as such. Mom called you “sensitive.” When you were little, you’d follow me around everywhere. You drove me crazy with your love. Later, you embarrassed me with your mincing and prancing. My friends laughed at you. I joined in their laughter. My girlfriend, the incredibly hot born-again Christian to whom I lost my virginity, asked me if you were an actual fag, or if you just acted like one.
Dad was angry with me when you came home with your latest black eye.
“Why can’t you look after him? He’s your brother. He’s the only brother you’ll ever have. You’re stronger than him. You need to protect him.”
I said I’d rather have no brother at all than an embarrassing queer one.
Dad slapped me across the face. “Be a man, Robert. It’s time for you to grow up and act like a man.”
I told him that I hated him, and I hated you more. I stormed out of the living room. When I saw you crying in the doorway to the kitchen, I passed you without a word. You held out your hand. You touched my elbow as I went by.
“Robbie, I’m sorry. I—”
“Fuck you, Scott. I hate you. I wish you were dead.”
Three years later, when I was home from university, you told us you were moving to Alberta with some guy you were “in love with.” Mom cried. Dad went to his workshop and locked the door. I told Mom and Dad that I was done pretending.
I drove back to school. In my dorm, I threw the only framed family photo across the room. It shattered against the wall, spraying shards of broken glass across the floor.
Dad called me from the hospital in Calgary. My girlfriend woke me up and passed me the phone. It was 3:00 a.m. At first, I didn’t recognize his voice at all. It was the voice of a man nailed to a cross.
“Your brother’s been hurt,” he said. “We’re in Calgary. Mum and I. Can you come right away? We’re at the hospital.”
“Dad? What happened to Scott?”
“They hurt him,” he said. “They beat him up. He’s in intensive care.”
“Who?” I asked stupidly. “Who hurt him?”
“Who else? The same ones that always hurt him.” Dad was crying now. “Damn them.” He was silent for a few moments, trying to compose himself. “Your brother needs his family with him now. You have to come.”
“You come now, Robert. I mean it. It’s time for you to be his brother again. It’s past time.”
Then he told me what they’d done to you in that alleyway outside the bar.
Three hours later on the plane to Calgary, I dreamed horrible, unformed, crimson-tinted dreams. I heard the terrible crunch of bones cracking beneath the weight of fists and boots. I saw the puddles of congealing blood. I must have cried out because the flight attendant asked me if I was all right. I told her I was. She handed me a napkin. I reached for it, suddenly embarrassed to have allowed this woman see me cry, even in my sleep.
I landed in Calgary on the bluest October morning. The houses across the street from the hospital had carved pumpkins by the front door. Of course, I thought. It’s Halloween morning.
“We did everything we could,” the doctor had said, holding a clipboard under the fluorescent light. “I’m so sorry.”
Perhaps his clinical choice of words had been intended to be anesthetic—blunt force trauma, massive head injuries, persistent vegetative.
As the machine measured out your remaining heartbeats in flattening spikes of green light, I touched your broken fingers and promised myself—and you—that I would be strong for Mom and Dad.
When it was over, we stepped out of the hospital into the sunlight. Across the street from the hospital, two little boys displaying the effortless familiarity of brothers raced along the sidewalk to school, laughing. One was draped in a bed sheet, a ghost. His brother wore a pirate costume. The older of the two, the pirate, reached out and took his younger brother’s hand, pulling him joyously along the sidewalk towards school.
It had taken me exactly 17 minutes to break my promise not to cry.
These days, I can quantify my remaining decades. I can measure them out in life-events. I can gauge my value as a man by who I’ve loved, who has loved me, and by the ones I didn’t love nearly enough. My marriage didn’t last, of course. No one was surprised.
But our son, Scott—named after you—is the one thing we did right. He’s away at Western this fall. He’s your age. The age you were when . . . well, when whatever.
I believe in ghosts. And I see you everywhere.
The first time was just before I turned on the soft nursery light, the night we brought Scott home. You were standing over his crib, a familiar shape in the dimness.
Scotty, I whispered. Then I turned on the light.
The room was empty except for my sleeping son. I felt no fear, just the gentle spectral aspect of something peaceful and benevolent.
But you were there. I know what I saw.
I’ve seen you many other times over the years, sometimes more clearly than others. I’ve seen you in my son’s handsome sensitive face as he’s grown. I’ve felt your spirit in his sweetness, his trusting nature. I’ve heard your voice beneath his.
I feel your spirit moving in me when I react with patience and kindness to the fact that he’s not like me, and in fact couldn’t be more like you in many, many ways.
And in loving that in him, in knowing that he might someday tell Susan and I what you told Mom and Dad that terrible afternoon 30 years ago, I’m granted some sort of absolution, a redemption I don’t deserve, in knowing I’ll know how to love him at the moment he’ll need my love the most.
In my dreams I see you rising out of that bloody alleyway on a fountain of radiance like some sort of immortal angel full of fire, full of power, full of light.
But other times, like tonight, by the graveyard in late October when the daylight is short and the night chill settles in early, I see you very, very clearly.
I wave. And I wish you’d wave back. Just once.