Christie Fogarty (Griffith University, Australia)
Dedicated to D.J.F.
‘How is your dad?’
He is remembering more stories than ever before, or perhaps the disease snaking through him is loosening locks rusted shut from long-forgotten promises and misplaced embarrassment.
As a child, Dad and his best friend—my brother’s namesake—played pranks on the railway workers using dead snakes. The pranks continued when Dad grew up, became a cargo train driver, his hands among the last in Australia to shovel coal into their inferno engines. Sometimes I imagine the blue of his irises must have been darker when he was young, as though sun-faded now from years of fire and Australian sun. Surveying New South Wales along its metal arteries, watching for unnatural patches of ground ahead; people would wrap themselves in tarp before lying over the tracks.
‘Has he made arrangements?’
I sat with Dad during the moment of silence on November 11th, 2022, but we weren’t silent during The Last Post. Grandfather must have been a storyteller like his son; Dad can tell his own father’s stories as though he lived them. Grandfather and his fellow troops would lure sharks into rivers using rotted meat and offcuts, eventually hollowing out a loaf of bread and filling it with one active grenade. Have you ever seen it rain fish? When he tells the story, you can hear the water-muffled explosion. Smell the brine.
My great-uncle was allegedly a war criminal. Their prisoner of war ‘camp’ was just a pen encircled by a single piece of barbed wire on tenuous poles. Grandfather told Dad there was no need for anything more; the camp had food and water. No one ran. There were fewer prisoners than there should have been, that was Great-Uncle’s alleged crime.
‘Where did it start, before it spread?’
When I was younger—before the divorce—we would go to the beach as a family. Mum stayed ashore while Dad walked out into the surf with us. Mum believed it was too rough. She was probably right, but by his side we were invulnerable. Dad would break the biggest waves for us. My brother tried to teach me how to sluice through the swells with an outstretched hand and a shoulder roll. When I went under, the world tore away. There was only the grainy film of salt and nothingness, the first void I ever saw that wasn’t darkness. The next wave was massive, stealing my breath before I could righten beneath the surface. Roaring suction ripped water away from my legs, thin limbs akimbo in its vortex. In the next moment I crested above the waves, greedy little lungs shaking with the force of my first breath free, Dad’s grip on my arm tight but not painful. We pushed back to shore after that, Mum’s shouting edged in fear. It turns to anger so fast.
‘You haven’t mentioned how he’s doing?’
After the divorce he moved to a trailer park. Say what you want, but they are fun. There was a pool, a playground, and a beautiful chihuahua you could play with until your parent realised whose yard it lived in. Then you were told what a paedophile is, and you couldn’t play with the dog anymore. The man would always watch from a lawn chair; I’d thought he was worried someone would take his Snowdrop.
There were Boatmen bugs in the park’s pool, abdomen-trapped air painting them opalescent. We called them silver swimmers. My brother and I would try to catch them with our hands. Only once did I succeed: it bit me. Hurt like hell. Dad let me use superglue to fix my dollhouse pieces, a distraction from the pain. Submerged my fingertips in kerosene when I inevitably glued them together. While he soaked my prayer-locked hands, I counted the fishhooks stuck over the doorway. They weren’t buried so deep that we couldn’t remove them, it never occurred to us that we should. Better up there than in us.
‘Does he have any side effects?’
Stoic is not the right word to describe Dad. Hermit, wag, realist, distant, these all fit him at different times and there is no shame in this. He is an island. The one static trait you feel in his presence is—regardless of what happens—he will endure. If it can’t kill you, you will survive.
An intoxicating idea to a child: singularity. Of strength deep enough to weather anything, alone. Choosing to be an island is preferable to being formed into one. Does coral know the difference between strata and shipwreck? I think they do; metal carries the scent of one’s severed heritage. Unable to stomach our suspended existence between families, my brother left to live with Dad while I stayed behind. Then there was only half-sisters and their children. It helps to quantify the blood: rejection becomes half-rejection. Brother went where I could not follow. Someone had to remain, man the lighthouse, to warn of submerged danger. Make sure Mum didn’t drown.
I am an island, like my father. Feet planted firmly in the beach shore, I allow the suckling waves to swallow me inch by inch, sinking deeper into sediment and microscopic shells until I am the mangrove. Being eaten alive can feel like stability.
‘Do you visit him often?’
I love my step-mum, more so since they never signed the paperwork. By now they’ve been together for seventeen years—seven years longer than he was with Mum. It hasn’t always been smooth. For a long time, they circled a building resentment. Wine and alcohol fuelled tracks that lead everywhere but to the heart of the issue. I begged him to leave to just be alone and finally be happy as his own republic. His answer would change with the month, the tide; he would, would not, must, could not, shouldn’t, didn’t have the energy, where would he go, his vision was failing, this was just how it was.
Until it shifted. He had seen a therapist. For the first time in memory, he seemed happy, not simply content with survival. The problem with living with one foot out the door is one foot cannot support your weight forever. A turning of the current; what would happen if he rose to meet her instead?
A hero changing their arc is betrayal, foundations washed away. It took a long time to realise this too was a gift, a future reimagined. He and my step-mum were finally happy after I thought they’d reached irreparable. Step-Mum was there when he allowed himself to be happy, for all the joy vulnerability can bring, loving him through their fractured moments. He remained an island, but one big enough for two. At least for the final years, they were his best.
‘Are you having a service?’
When we release his ashes into the ocean the sand will drag me inward, porcelain grit trying to consume me. Delicate oyster-eaters will dart between swells, hunting air bubbles, and we will laugh, joke about them mistaking the ashes for sustenance. Or their delicate silhouettes will be absent, frightened off by our small procession. Onlookers or no, I will say no words. When the time is right, I will free my feet from the seabed. The way he taught me. I will leave the water, return to a land forever surrounded by his memory.
‘Why won’t you talk about him?’
You have not asked if he is happy. You have not asked if I am okay.
My counsellor suggests the reason I cannot cry is that it is not time. Grief follows loss, and for now he is not lost. He is alive, he is alive, he is alive. The ocean is just an ocean.
Christie Fogarty is a current PhD candidate at Griffith University with published works in the Bengaluru Review, TEXT, Meniscus, and FULGOR.