It's a hot and humid day in August of 2005. I walk upstairs for something, and the heat hits me so hard it knocks me back 40 years to 1965. My mother just sent all seven years of me upstairs to ask my father to turn on the attic fan. My parents own a two-family home in east Watertown, Massachusetts and my Dad is upstairs in his office. He's one year past two heart attacks, and a dozen years past an industrial accident that cost him his right foot. He lived another dozen years, and I never heard him complain about his health problems, not once.
I tell Dad what Mom wants, and he walks past me into the hall. He had a distinctive smell, probably a combination of his aftershave and the Kent cigarettes he smoked. It wasn't bad, not like the stale smell cigarettes have now. Whatever it was, it was part of him.
He reaches up to flick the switch that controls the fan. The switch is high on the wall, about a foot from the trapdoor for the attic. I'm a little scared of the attic. I was up there with one of my older brothers once when we startled a bat. The bat flew in crazy circles all around our ducking heads and forty years later bats still scare me a little.
Back in 2005, I stop in front of my bureau. I open the top drawer and reach in. It's so full the clothes inside expand over the top of the drawer when I open it. I move my hand automatically through the mess and grab a man's handkerchief, sight unseen, from the deep recesses of the drawer. It's not mine. It's my Dad's. I got it years ago, when my Mom was finally overwhelmed by the big house and I helped clean out his bureau. The handkerchief feels soft on my face, but it's not the feel I need. It's the smell. It smells like him. It used to, anyway, I am not really sure it does anymore, but it makes me remember. I have a few of his handkerchiefs and they are prized possessions. They bring him back in a way that no other physical thing in this world can do.
After turning on the fan, we walk downstairs. My father goes slowly. His artificial leg slows him down, but the Doctor also told him to take it easy on stairs. I walk behind him. Why didn't I put my hand on his shoulder? I wish I did. I didn't know.
It's so humid it has to rain, and by the time we get downstairs, we see lightning. A few seconds later, thunder shakes the house. I am not scared of that. Like Dad, I love storms, and so we go to the screened-in porch and we wait for it. The breeze turns cool. It cools the house more than the attic fan ever could. The storm arrives for real and we count the seconds between the lightning and the thunder so we can tell how far away it was. He taught me that, and how to use tools, and how engines work, and the rules of football, and a lot more. He taught me not to mind rainy days, not even if your leg gets crushed and your heart gives notice that you're on borrowed time.
A few months ago, I taught my seven-year-old son about counting the seconds between the lightning and the thunder. He didn't seem to pay much attention, but later I heard him telling one of his friends. I'm glad the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
Copyright © 2005 by John Cardinal. All rights reserved.