Father of My Soul
by Michael Bracken
"How can that be?" I pushed myself from the couch and paced over to the mantle where my mother had lined a dozen family photos like soldiers fighting against time. I pointed to the picture of my father standing before the Sears Tower on the very first day of his very first full-time job. He wore an ill-fitting blue suit purchased off-the-rack at some discount haberdashery, the smile on his face as wide as the Grand Canyon. "I don't share anything with this man."
My mother pushed herself from the chair she'd settled into. "I'll make tea."
"Making tea doesn't solve anything," I called to her back as she disappeared into the kitchen. "Every time there's a problem, you make tea."
She didn't respond. Instead, I listened as she filled the kettle and set it on the stove, as cupboards opened and closed and tea cups rattled against saucers. While we waited for the kettle to whistle, I stared at the photos on the mantle--my father holding my second-hand bicycle as I learned to pedal; my father in paper gown and cap, perched on the side of my mother's hospital bed as she held me in her lap only hours after my birth; my father holding my mother on their wedding day, the swell of her abdomen tight against the material of her white wedding gown as I grew inside her womb. I pushed my shoulder-length blond hair away from my face and wondered why I'd never had second thoughts about my father's short, square body, and his thick tangle of black hair. I'd spent so many years studying dominant and recessive genes, but never applying the lessons to my own life.
The kettle whistled and moments later my mother returned carrying a tray, and on it the china tea pot I'd given her for Christmas the year I turned twelve, two mismatched cups and saucers, sugar, and cream. She placed the tray on the coffee table, poured us each a cup of tea, and handed one to me.
She added cream and sugar to her cup, then settled into her chair and took a delicate sip.
"Abortion was still legal in some states, but only with both parent's permission," she explained without any further prompting from me, as if she'd made up her mind while she'd been in the kitchen. "I couldn't tell my parents about that night. I never did."
"I always knew you married because you were pregnant."
"We married because we were in love," she insisted.
She took another sip of her tea and studied my face. I'm not sure what she saw.
"You were almost two before your father and I...before we...consumated the marriage," she said softly. "He was a gentle man, and very patient."
I'd never heard my father raise his voice in anger. He'd never struck me in punishment for any of my childhood wrongdoings. Instead, he'd talked to me. Quietly. Patiently. Telling me why he thought what I did was wrong. Telling me what he thought I should do to resolve the problem. When I kicked the football through old Mrs. Winston's front window, then ran and hid in my room, I received no spanking, no grounding, no punishment of any kind. But when my father was done talking, I walked over to Mrs. Winston's home, explained what I had done, and cleaned up the mess. I phoned a glass company, then arranged a payment plan with the company's owner, working in his shop for an hour a day until my salary equaled the cost of the window.
"He worked hard," my mother said. She stared past me, toward the mantle. "He never had enough time."
He was gone before I woke in the morning, and sometimes didn't return home until after I'd fallen asleep. Over the years his hard work and dedication was rewarded by small advances and tiny raises, but he never complained. When I needed a uniform for Little League the same month some street punk slashed all four tires on our car, my father bought the uniform, then walked to work each day until he'd saved enough money for new tires. When government grants and scholarships weren't enough to pay my way through Biomedical school, he took a second job, working weekends in a convenience store.
She spoke of him then, spoke of all the years he had loved her, and cared for her, and all the years he had done the same for me. He had been a small man, stronger in spirit than he ever was physically, seeming to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Finally my mother finished her tea and set her cup and saucer on the table before her. "There were six of them," she said. "They took turns."
My mother and father had been on their way to their high school's senior prom, walking the nine blocks from my mother's home because my father's family did not own a car. Six teenaged gang members had accosted them, beating my father senseless and tearing my mother's virginity from her.
A neighbor, walking home from the bus stop, had found them in the alley, my mother cradling my father's head in her lap, weeping silently. The police, as ineffectual then as they are now, were never notified, and my parents moved from the neighborhood a few months after their wedding.
I was filled with questions but couldn't bring myself to ask them.
I knew I had a legal right to know my biological father. My employer had been one of three defendants in a civil suit that climbed all the way to the Supreme Court. The court's decision had all but eliminated sperm banks and their anonymous donors, and the few remaining private adoption agencies now required strict medical records from the birth parents. GeneTech and its competitors no longer combined DNA from more than one parent of each sex.
My mother's eyes clouded over as we sat in silence, and I wondered if she understood the questions tumbling through my thoughts. She turned to face the photo on the mantle, the one of my father carrying me on his shoulders when my Little League team won its first game on the last day of the season. He had attended each game, sitting in the stands and cheering no matter how many times I swung and missed, no matter how many times I threw the ball to first base and watched it sail into the stands, no matter often I failed to demonstrate even the most rudimentary athletic skills.
"I married the father of your soul," she finally said, her voice barely a whisper, and I wondered if I would ever be as much a father to my children as my father had been to me.
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Copyright © 1999 by Michael Bracken
All rights reserved.
Michael Bracken is the author of several novels, numerous short stories and a short story collection.