I was a little girl when my father left and a woman by the time he reappeared.
If I could use the clocks in my workshop to turn back time, I would have stayed with you always. Your mother loved you more than life, and I think I’ve always hoped that would be enough. I didn’t know how to love you any better than I did and I don’t know what to say except, I’m sorry. Please know that I have thought about you and loved you every day since I left. For many years, the lethargy of shame has kept me from trying to reach you, but this morning, I was in my workshop and the hands of a clock that hasn’t worked for years suddenly began to move. It was your favorite one when you were a girl. I took that as a sign.
I’m including both my address and my telephone number. I hope that you will write, or call. I hope I have found the right person, the right you.
If someone other than my daughter reads this, and isn’t able to forward it to her, would you please get in touch with me so an old man doesn’t sit waiting for a call that never comes?
I folded the letter and tried to put it back into the envelope as I fell into the sofa. It wasn’t until I heard my exhale that I realized I had been holding my breath as I read it. It wasn’t until I realized I had been holding my breath as I read the letter that I realized I had been holding my breath for years. My clumsy, trembling hand, sweaty-palm-letter-folding wasn’t quite right, and it didn’t seem to fit back into the envelope. So I pulled it out again and started from the beginning.
I read the lines over and over. Tried to imagine an old man writing this letter. Tried to imagine my father as an old man.
I had never tried to find him. When my mother told me he had the sort of soul that had to wander, I didn’t believe her at first. I thought she was wrong, that he could never leave me. That he would come home because he would realize he couldn’t live without me. That he loved me too much to go away. Then he kept not coming home.
Every day I wished he would come home. Every day he didn’t. I gave up. I stopped wishing. Just for that, though. I kept wishing for other things.
Some of my wishes came true and others didn’t, but my first wish was that my father would come home.
Then one day I was standing in my living room reading a letter from him. He hadn’t come home, but this was close. I didn’t know what to do. I sat in silence for a long time. I watched the light change on the trees outside. Sometimes, it seems like the trees stretch their branches to block the sun for a moment, or to let it in. It is in that moment, the one when the light changes, that everything is different. You have to be paying attention or you’ll miss it. If you miss it, everything might stay the same. I looked down at the envelope, at the letter, and watched the light change again.
There are moments in life that serve as markers. There is “life before” and “life after.” A single moment can span days and somehow, when we look at today, it seems we never would have arrived had we not looked up at that split second. That is how I feel about watching the light from my living room. That is how I feel about the train.
I was taking the train from Los Angeles to Seattle. The ride is 34 hours long. It is fast and it is slow. The train stops. People get on. People get off. Nothing moves and everything moves. It was winter.
It was winter and so I saw sunshine and snow. People dressed for the beach and people dressed for sledding. I saw the ocean and the cliffs that met it.
Have you ever seen the ocean from the cliffs of California? They are the most beautiful I have ever seen. They jut out as if to protect the last wash of high tide from falling stars or blazing sun. The cliffs over the ocean allow you to go farther than you ever thought you could. Make it to the edge and you can see the world curve off in the Pacific. The cliffs of California are hugged by the forest. She wraps her arms around them. She keeps them safe.
The forest reminds me of New England. New England reminds me of who I used to be. There are parts of that person that I love and parts that I don’t, but I wouldn’t change anything. This is “life after.” In life after, even the things you never thought you would be able to make sense of somehow fit.
No regrets. Not even one.
In life after, we live in a home where there is a forest, and there is an ocean. There aren’t cliffs here, but every time I see the forest and the ocean together, I think of the cliffs. I think of all of the things I never thought I would do again.
He is a cliff and a forest. He is strong and hugs his arms around me; he keeps me from colliding with the stars. We met on the train. We were both afraid of flying. We aren’t afraid anymore.
I was leaving Los Angeles to take care of the woman who was my only remaining family, even though she wasn’t family at all. Her name was Norma Gean. Like Marilyn Monroe’s real name, except with a G. We kept vaguely in touch over the years, except for the years I was disappearing in Los Angeles. The day I finished reading the Book of Dreams, I was tired from writing the letter and so I sent her a postcard that I made from the cover of the book. It was bright and colorful, shades of red, blue, and orange blending together like an abstraction of the sea. It was like I was noticing the cover for the first time. The section I cut to make a postcard held the title, 29-31. My heart trembled as I realized I had been invisible for three years. I thought again about mailing the letter I wrote to the author but didn’t know where to send it so I finished writing the postcard to my Norma instead. It said simply:
“I’m sorry I had to go away. I have given up on forgetting everything. I miss you.”
It came back about two weeks later. My heart sank when I saw it in the mailbox, as I imagined it had been returned to sender out of hurt or she was gone and I had missed my chance to say I’m sorry. I was about to toss it carelessly with the junk mail when I saw her schoolteacher flawless cursive beneath mine. She had written:
“There is nothing to be sorry for. The heart heals in its own time. I miss you more.”
My heart swelled with the perfect feeling that comes from being understood. From being forgiven. Forgiveness is a tricky thing. Sometimes, we are forgiven for action we take. Sometimes, we are forgiven for simply being human. The hardest person to forgive has always been myself. At least, I thought so until the day the letter arrived from my father.
Corrie Greathouse (@cgreathouse) is the author of the novella Another Name For Autumn, Saturday editor of The Rumpus, founding member of the Hollywood Institute of Poetics, and an Oxford comma devotee. Her work has been published in The Toronto Quarterly, Falling Star Magazine, ISM’s Still Developing: A Story of Instant Gratification, and others. Her next Black Hill Press novella will be released in November 2014.