The Seventeen Seconds of Odette
Hidden in Sight
Resentment as a Kind of Relief
Over the Kanawha
Culled from the Flock
The Beauty in Fracturing
The Beauty in Fracturing
It started with a broken light bulb. My dad had noticed that it was burnt out while he was working. His goal was to replace the device and get back to the blueprints that had taken over his desk. He could have called a custodian, but as a self-declared handyman, he was fine doing the job. He left the office that day with a sore shoulder and a plate of leftover birthday cake that the office secretary had made for him: thick German chocolate cake, his favorite.
Three weeks later, he’s at the doctor’s office complaining of a numbness spreading throughout the right side of his body. It had begun in his neck and upper back and was now slowly moving down toward his waist. The doctor tells him it’s a herniated disc, a rupture that is forcing pressure onto his spine. The options are either a low risk surgery or monthly steroid injections. The answer is simple. The surgery is scheduled for the next month. At home, the date is circled in black Sharpie, and a red plus sign is drawn onto the square that represents March 17th. That morning I watch him go—my face pressed against the front door, small hands waving furiously. He gives me a crooked smile and waves back.
Whenever I think of hospitals, my mind immediately turns to plastic cups of lime green Jell-O. It was the only food my father was able to consume after the surgery on his throat. It was the first time I saw him as someone other than my father: he was someone who felt pain, someone who could be hurt. He had always seemed so strong to me. It was strange to see him as something other than my dad: he was now a vulnerable figure dressed in an oversized, pale blue gown. I’ll never forget how it floated behind him when we brought him home for the first time in weeks.
It was the month of whispered phone calls and closed bedroom doors. It was weeks of yogurt and mashed fruit and multicolored pills that looked like candy. It was a confusing and scary time, and my mom had to do her best to reassure my siblings and me as well as explain what had happened to our dad in a way that we could understand. She told us that, during the surgery, the doctor hit my father’s left vocal cord accidentally, causing it to not work properly. The damage left him unable to speak. The doctors had arranged for another surgery so they could implant a vocal box in his neck, with the hope of giving him back a voice. She told us that he will be able to speak again, but he wouldn’t sound the way that we remember. She told us it was a mistake, a horrible mistake.
I am ten. I don’t know what any of this means, but I imagine a small robot sitting inside my father, feeding words into his throat. When I look at him, all I see are the dark stitches lining his neck. They look like tiny little spikes, and scabs are beginning to form over the flesh rubbed raw beneath these marks. Dad spends weeks recovering in the house, and I find myself fixating more and more on his chest: sometimes I trace the outline of the box I imagine in the center of his body. But when I poke his skin, I feel nothing but muscle and bone. It makes me wonder whether anything is different.
With my father weakened, my mother becomes the head of the household. Along with taking care of us, she assumes the role of his nurse, scouring the Internet for knowledge and advice. The two of them create a new language together, one that is comprised of nudges and hand motions: his upturned palm means that he needs more pain medication, a squeeze of her wrist means that he wants water. The two of them are inseparable; they both need each other to make it through this.
She spends her nights tossing in bed, rising to check on him every couple of hours. The memory of her husband is slowly replaced by the image of his hunched form. She wakes up in the morning before he does to prepare his medication and liquid breakfast; she brushes the hair from his face and waits patiently while he attempts to eat. She starts going to church two-tothree times a week. Other than when she goes to the pharmacy or store, these trips are the only reason she has to leave the house.
During those weeks, my dad could not laugh or speak, but he could cry. It was something that I had never seen before: tears would stream from his eyes, wetting the wool blankets that he draped across his shoulders. They continued to fall, no matter how many times I cupped my palms over his eyelids. No matter how many times I tried to hold the water back.
My mother is crying in the waiting room of the hospital. I keep glancing over at her, worried, but somehow her suffering doesn’t seem out of place in a room covered in clumps of gum and stained brown carpet. Right now, it’s past our bedtime, and my siblings are taking turns rubbing their hands along her curved spine. The waiting room’s television is showing Animal House. It’s two in the morning and I don’t understand what’s going on. There’s a party and a man in a horned helmet; everyone is loud. My dad lays on a table further on in the hospital, spread out as industrial glue is being pumped out of his eyes. We’re separated from him at the entrance by huge, sliding glass doors. The room is empty, but it is also full of scuffed chairs. We wait there for hours—I try to follow the movie. By the time we leave the hospital, Delta Tau Chi is on its way to another party.
When our father is finally released, we pile back into our car and head home. It is still dark outside: the sun won’t rise for several more hours. When we arrive back at the house, our mother tells us that we can’t turn the lights on. The doctors told us that dad’s eyes will be sensitive to light for the next day, possibly longer. They said that he’s a lucky man. If his eyes had been exposed to the adhesive any longer, the damage would have been much worse. I watch as my father dons a big pair of sunglasses and moves through the house confidently. Even though his eyes are hidden behind thick layers of gauze and bandages, he knows every inch of the house he built by himself so many years ago.
He is too energetic to sleep, so I put on his favorite movie, Dune. We watch it together: scratchy blankets pulled up to our chins and a popcorn bowl pressed between our clothed laps. The movie depicts harsh deserts, colossal worms and ethereal figures with glowing eyes. I’m trying to watch his face as he mouths the dialogue to his favorite scene, but the light of the television washes out his features. The only thing I can make out is his lips forming syllables but producing no sound.
“My name is a killing word.”
It’s summer now, and the heat wraps around our bodies like a vice. Sweat pools in the hollows of our skin and drips down our backs. My siblings and I are on summer vacation, and middle school is a distant thought in our minds. The hardest part of our days consists of attempting to catch the ice cream truck before it rushes past us to greet the other neighborhood kids with crisp dollar bills in their hands.
I know it’s Sunday, because my father is lying on his makeshift throne in the living room. The black leather recliner cools his fevered flesh. When the humidity reaches its peak and the air in the house becomes hot and itchy, he and I will lay on our stomachs across the black-and-white kitchen tile. We’ll press our cheeks to the floor, our faces forming new impressions the harder we push them into the ground.
We play a game together: I draw animals on the skin of his back with my index finger, and he tries to guess which ones they are. It’s a game that neither one of us is good at. The problem is that I can’t draw, and he can’t recognize a sea turtle when it crawls along his spine. His back is tan and splotchy and covered in freckles. He is still young—the lines of his laughter have yet to settle in the corners of his mouth. His hair is still a dirty shade, and it’s beginning to curl at the top of his neck.
The back of his body is marked by a pink scar that runs down from his neck to his lower back. My sister and I like to use the broken flesh as a starting line for our toy cars, running their tiny wheels across his skin in dizzying circles. My small finger feels like silk compared to his mangled tissue. The scar is older than I am; it joined the family after an accident at his construction job where he would spend half the days pouring cement into highways.
My mom has always told me that my dad ignores pain until it’s too late. He’s always told me how much he hates the work—the buzz of the machines, the brutal sun. That job left him with a few torn ligaments and two ruptured discs in his lower back. He has to undergo two back surgeries, and the doctors say that he is fortunate to be walking. If he had waited another month, he would have been in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. They tell him that he’s incredibly lucky, that this is a sign.
It always seems to be that way with him.
This past winter break, when I was out of school and he was off of work, my dad and I spent a weekend watching old home videos: birthday parties at the bowling alley, summer mornings spent wandering the zoo and everything else in between. I watched the grainy video of my younger self, all dimples and toothless grins, sitting atop my father's broad shoulders, while polar bears moved through the water. I heard my father's voice call my name, crisp and unwavering, a sound I haven't heard in years.
My eyes moved back to the man sitting across from me, a man so different from the one who stared back at us on the screen. I asked him how it felt to watch clips of himself before the injuries, before the late night hospital calls and the pain that warped and splintered his body. In heavy silence, he told me about the pain, about how if felt to live in a body that is slowly falling apart. He sighed and switched to the next clip, continued to watch those parts of him that will never return.
These are the moments I will remember my father by: the honest confessions of a man who has tried so hard to be unbreakable but has failed every time. On bad days, when phantom pains rack his body, he apologizes for the worry he put us through over the years. He jokes that the gray hair on his temples should be on ours instead.
I never know what to say back. How can a daughter tell her father that she wants to protect him from the world? That she wants to take all of his pain away. So instead I take a shaky breath and reach out for his battered hand. I search for the staples and iron rods that hold his body together. The screws and plates that allow his limbs to move. I can imagine the metal forcing the words from his throat, but the hand that touches mine is composed of bone and calloused flesh. It is human.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Taylor Woosley is a senior studying creative writing at Columbia College Chicago. She is currently working at Hypertext Magazine as a copy editing intern. She spends her free time reading, writing and binge-watching movies. She hopes to travel and pursue a career in writing after she graduation.