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Bowling with Oranges

By Charlotte Steiger

I remember my 17th. You don’t, though, because you weren’t there for it. The envelope you sent me was. The one I ripped open and shook for the cash to fall out. The one I threw away without seeing how you wrote your name under the pre-written birthday message. This is how we celebrated.

Grief comes in waves. It’s ecstatic at first. You’re gone, and everyone’s popping champagne. We’re throwing out all your old shit that you deemed meaningful. Molded pictures from water damage, tinted blue because of the sun. I can’t see who’s in it anymore. That meant something to you, to him.

Then it switches. I shouldn’t be laughing at your goodbye. I’m sorry, but if you understood then maybe things would’ve been different. You would’ve been different. I wish you were different. I wish you were always like the end. I wish you were always like this. I wish this wasn’t prompted.

It should’ve always been like this, I’ll tell myself, why couldn’t it have always been like this. I’ll go to the bathroom, shut the door. Beside my reflection there’s a stool. It helps him bathe. He falls without it. Is that what started this, or was it never up to him?

I’ll never know. I’d ask, but he doesn’t want to know. He’s convinced that he’s going to live this one out. That all the attention he’s been getting will last forever, that he’ll become a miracle case. One that replaced chemotherapy with cigarettes and hope. 

Everyone dies. Everyone you know will die. Everyone you love will die. He’ll never reappear, he’ll never come back for air, and he’ll never come back to say hello. To check up, to ask how the semester went. He’ll never know about this zine, this article, the ones I’ve done prior. He’ll never know how happy I am. The people I’ve met, the connections I’ve made. I can’t hear him say how he’s proud of me, or rather that he wishes I wouldn’t sell away his old guitars. The ones he could barely play anymore. Instead, I had to expect that every goodbye could be our last.

It’s one thing to hear him in my head, but it’s another to hear him out loud. In person, in the flesh, aside my own thoughts. In a video, a voicemail, aside from my imagination. To hear him and it’s not even from my mind. To hear him months after the last time. The last time I ever would. Solidifying it with a handshake. That yes, that would be the last memory I would ever have of you. The first without.

What do you ask a dying man, then? You ask him if he likes to doodle. If he likes to write, if he enjoys listening to the birds outside. What his newest hobbies are, what he’ll do to fix your guitar. What kind of flowers he likes. If he’ll ever stop smoking. If he gets bored, if he even gets visitors anymore.

So you give him something to do. You bring some colored pens, some paper. He’ll paint guitars, men on benches, abstract eyes with funny faces. The day starts with a thank you, and ends with a passion. One that he died with, one that kept him busy. A hobby that made him money that wasn’t from assistance, from friends, from ex wives. This gave him independence, something a man craves when he has nothing else to give himself.

He’d offer himself back in return. Experience. Stories. Life. What 56 years taught him. He’d show me how he used to bowl, how he won all his trophies. He’d point at the ball he used to use that he doesn’t have the strength to carry anymore. The one customized to fit his fingers. I’d ask for his techniques, handing him an orange to compromise. We’d make up our own rules. Rolling it towards my shoes across the room, asking me to give it back to him after every strike.

He told me he had fun that day.

Every visit became more pitiful than the last. He’d tell me how hard it was to stay strong. The conversations became more emotional, with each becoming more sentimental as time ran out. No matter how mundane. You chat, he smokes, sitting in the wheelchair hand painted “cancer sucks” on the back. Him telling me not to get into them, me promising not to in return.

I wish you were always like this. Friendly, humble, open. Your friends described you like that. They still do. I understand things got in the way of that side of you, I just wish it didn’t have to be like this. That death made you realize how much time you had left. Using that time to make amends. Making amends to feel at peace. Dying in peace, while the rest of us suffered for your solitude.

Your well-being meant a lot to me when I’d see you. I’m happy you apologized, but I still have a lot to work through. Especially with you being gone. I can’t ask you about your thought process, why you did the things you did. I couldn’t even hint about it. About your inevitable death, why I partied the night you passed.

I was told I’d regret not talking to you again. Not seeing you in your final moments. Really, it’s the opposite. I don’t know why I built a relationship with a dead man. You’ve caused my grief. You’ve given me pain. Confusion. And yet, closure. I hope your peace was worth it.

I remember my 20th. Less than a year ago. You texted me happy birthday. I thanked you for living long enough to see it. You would’ve been 57 today. I’m sorry I can’t wish you back.

Today, and for the rest of my life, this is how we celebrate. Reciprocated. Except he gets flowers with his. I hope he likes them.

Happy birthday dad.

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