You’re five years old and riding shotgun in Old Blue, the burnished Texas sunset thick in the evening sky. A hard day in the log woods hasn’t tired you out completely, and there’s something to be said about a child’s energy that you’ve come to miss in your late twenties. You sing nonsense songs and make knots in a plastic bag with Dad’s chalk box string, snap the twine against your thumb with the same twang that marks perfectly straight lines onto plywood floors. Satisfied with your tying technique, you let loose your improvised kite into the dry summer breeze and teach yourself to fly.
Your childhood home in Buffalo, TX smells of children, dogs, pet squirrels, and cedar shavings. Dad keeps bags of the stuff hanging on door handles all around the house, including your parents’ bedroom with the velvety blue behemoth of a canopy bed. In that room, you learn headstands by hoisting yourself up against the wall, and you make friends with a wayward Daddy Longlegs. You’re driven into that same room by the shouting, kept there by your older sister and brother who nestle you against the headboard to muffle the shouts that become screams. Your mother nearly kills your father that time with a cast iron skillet that fractures his ribcage and threatens his heart fresh from surgery. As much as you hate her, you know he deserved it. He hit her first.
The carnival has come to town. The cloud-spun cotton candy stickies your mouth, your fingers, your little tomboy jeans, and shirts your dad dresses you in. There’s a bouncy house with a man repeating something in a language you don’t understand. He keeps pointing at your shoes, over and over, until the woman who isn’t your mother instructs you to take them off. You clamber inside the inflated womblike structure and you, too, become buoyant, rising into the air with other children. Later, your dad and the woman you wish was your mother buy you a fish in a bag and a unicorn balloon you sit astride like the mighty elephants that carry the carnival riders in endless circles. The fish is somehow killed in transit and you are rendered inconsolable by its passing. Back home, the fish is flushed with little ceremony, and you promise to make a bigger deal of funerals when you’re the one doing the burying as you ride the unicorn in circles, endlessly.
Being put away is the best thing to happen to your dad. Each visit to a mental institution is a rebirth of his spirit, a renewal of the mind. Sometimes he goes willingly. Other times he gets bailed out by your uncle and takes a taxi home. Funnily enough, he’s usually a model resident who helps the nurses make coffee and watch over the other patients. This both disturbs and reassures you as an adult because you can’t help but wonder how much of his mental illness was his to control, and how much of yours is, too. Of the times he’s institutionalized, the echoing memory is his stay at the facility with the koi fishpond. You’re in awe of the vibrant carp, the way their lithe bodies shadow the water. This is the start of your great love for the koi fish and a moment of bonding between yourself and Dad when he’s let outside for a smoke break. The words between you two have since been forgotten, but you remember the burbling of the pond filter and the rippling koi while Dad takes a deep drag on a Marlboro Red. That moment brands itself in your psyche, a symbol you’ve ascribed to the dysfunctional narrative of your life as a means of understanding it. Koi fish are associated with ideas like love, perseverance, transformation, courage. According to Chinese tradition, a carp that swims upstream and leaps into the falls of the Yellow River at the mythical Dragon Gate will transform into a dragon. The day you brave the currents of emotional trauma and personal failure, you hope to be unafraid of what lies beneath the surface of your mind and be transformed too.
You move houses growing up so often it’s lost its thrill. Your sense of wonder has been replaced by a helpless hunger for abstract things like stability, safety, security. Worse is the coming back part, the walk into others’ memories of you. Despite the number of times you’ve had to pack up and leave, you never really get good at moving. There’s the time you leave your brother’s house in Arkansas and roll your pink-flowered suitcase into another that won’t be yours for long. Once when your sister throws you and Dad out because I can’t take him anymore! but she does the courtesy of gathering up your things to send you on your way. When your aunt tosses you out of the home your dad helped build, you’ll both have to act fast. With little time or money to pack, you and Dad heap everything of importance into trash bags and drive to your new house, a tiny deer shack in Centerville, TX, with no indoor plumbing but a nice rustic feel. From these repeated separations you learn to not get attached to people or possessions. Now, when you love someone, you refuse to think of ever being without them because you don’t think you can.
The brown bag that holds your dad’s bottled whiskey also holds his shame. When he hides the bottle in the top drawer in the dresser you two share in the now two-bedroom shack in Centerville, you know it’s really himself he’s hiding from. Grandpa drank, too, and drove, and ended up killing a child and injuring others in a drunk driving accident. The doctors killed him before the courts had a chance. Sometimes you picture yourself as that dead child with your dad as the driver. Maybe if he maimed you, inflicted physical trauma instead of mental, he’d find the willpower to stop wrecking your lives. Though he hadn’t drank in years, you recall the exact moment he picked the bottle back up. As you’re crossing the convenience store aisle with an ice cream sandwich, he glances over from the checkout with a 12-pack of Natural Light on the counter and says, I can drink if I want. You like to think you put the ice cream back as a figurative show of strength or restraint, but you only nod and slide your own vice onto the counter without comment.
You’re graduating the sixth grade and your class of forty or so kids have been rehearsing the ceremony for a week. The song is “Breakaway” by Kelly Clarkson, and you’ve been practicing on your own time because you would rather not sound like a yowling cat in heat. It’s nerve-wracking knowing you’ll be headed to the junior-senior campus next year, but you keep this anxiety to yourself because Dad says there’s no sense in worrying about things you can’t change. For weeks, Dad has been acting in a way that gives you déjà vu. He doesn’t do much of anything, and he keeps saying he doesn’t know how to take care of himself. Bipolar depression has infantilized him. Because you don’t know what else to do, you pray and read the Bible the church people gave your dad, minus the envelope of money that came with it because he refused their charity. You’re glad he did. The shame of both your lives is already too much to bear.
One of the last times he goes to the nut house, as your dad calls it, you stay with one of your aunts. It’s refreshingly normal—the homecooked meals, the clothes you don’t have to go to the Washeteria to clean, the bedroom you don’t have to share. He’s gone for several weeks, and unlike the times before, you don’t get to visit. Maybe he asked that you don’t. Or maybe, in your newfound comfort, you asked not to. On the day he’s scheduled to come home, you run up the dirt driveway and burst into the house to find he’s not there. The tears are welling up before he steps out of the bathroom with an almost shy smile. See, we got you! your aunt says while you fling your arms around him and promise to never let him leave again.
In your twenties, you wake up earlyish every day and shuffle to the kitchen to make Dad’s breakfast. The pillbox is a lifesaver because it keeps track of his meds while numbering the days spent in this voluntary confinement. Caregiving is a hard job, one you’ve done for ten years. Why? A daughter’s love, personal finances, and because—as your aunt tells you when you finally break down and ask Dad to be taken to live with your sister—no one else wants him. He’s a perceived burden his much older children have been putting off shouldering because, as crazy as he was in your childhood, your dad was an absolute terror with them. Before the meds and before sickness mellowed him out in his fifties, Dad was hell on wheels—fighting, drinking, making and blowing money, and terrorizing the police when they intervened in his alcohol and bipolar fueled antics. Your half-siblings can’t differentiate past Cobie from present Cobie. You can’t blame them for their past resentment while presently having your own, but as his chronic illnesses have progressed, you’ve become less his daughter and more a live-in nurse. As a preemptive strike against tragedy, you obsess over death, develop hypochondria (probably), and occasionally watch his chest rise and fall as he sleeps to make sure you both will make it another day.
There’s a fallout with your aunt that leaves you homeless and your dad is sent to live with his eldest daughter. When you tell him you both have to leave, he says in a voice that breaks what’s left of your heart, Where am I supposed to go? Several days later he’s rushed by ambulance to the hospital for cardiac and respiratory distress. For two weeks you hear rattling breaths that augur death, and you pray fiercely to a god you resent and somehow still believe in. When the treatments aren’t successful as the doctors had hoped, a visiting nurse with palliative care comes in to discuss “options,” which you immediately refuse. You know what hospice is and what it did to your grandma. Pumped with morphine and denied medications, water, or food, her body began to break itself down. In her last fevered moments, she woke from her morphine stupor, turned her face toward the ceiling with a wide smile, and reached upward with a look of reverence before her spirit fled the body. This is a dark blessing you won’t bestow on your dad because he’s not yet ready to depart and because, in that sense, you’re not ready to let him.
Your dad is drowning. His chest, stomach, and arms are distended from edema, a result of his weakening heart. The doctors have privately done a cost-benefit analysis and have decided he’s not worth the investment of further care. He’s old and he’s dying, and you are suffering from exhaustion and a consumptive depression that blackens your worldview even now. Yet, you pull the nurse aside and point out the obvious, that your dad should stay another day or so. She’ll tell the doctor, she assures you, says, It’s a little fluid. Dad strains in his blue cowboy shirt he arrived in two weeks ago, wheezing quietly from the effort of getting dressed. You feel queasy and sad and so fucking angry that you are incapable of standing up for yourself, that even in the face of a loved one’s suffering you remain a spineless amoeba. You come from a family of hellraisers. Your ancestors, the seafaring Normans who invaded and colonized England in the 11th century, were themselves descended from the great and terrible Vikings who raided and pillaged their way across Northern Europe. You did not inherit this cowardice. And yet when they strap him into a yellow gurney and wheel him past with his collected belongings heaped up on a cart behind him, you let him go without further comment.
If prayers are personal requests, yours is for Dad to die in his sleep and not as your great-grandmother mysteriously foretold—that he would not die a natural death because he was born on the wrong side of the moon. Natural or not, Dad doesn’t go gently into that good night. Years of hard labor and hard living tempered the old man into pure steel. In his lifetime, your father was lit on fire, stung by hundreds of hornets after chainsawing through their nest, injured by falling trees and swinging fists. His hands, his ribs, his ankles, his skull, all broken in one fashion or another. He survived two heart surgeries, died for a minute or so before they electrocuted him back into being. He even survived your mother’s attempts to poison him with boric acid. He was your shelter until he was the one putting you in unimaginable danger. Wild as he was, dying was probably the easiest thing he ever did and the hardest thing for you to accept. When you get the call from the hospital, you ask your brother-in-law again to verify, as if Death is a mailman needing a signature on a package. He tells you Dad was taking a breathing treatment when he fell out. The doctors injected epinephrine, performed chest compressions, shocked him with a defibrillator, put him on life support. They say he went peacefully at the end, after the suffering, after likely having his ribs fractured post thirty-three minutes of chest compressions, after the lie you’re glad your sister told to give him peace when she swore to take care of you for the rest of her life. You’re told he nodded and feebly squeezed her hand. And then he was gone.
Grief is omnipresent, smothering; a fever blister on your tongue, a woodsmoke breeze, a distant mote of light. In the days leading up to the funeral, you deal with the flurry of emotional blows from well-meaning people who keep intruding on your grief. The funeral isn’t the disaster you expect, but it’s not what you, or your dad, would want. People who haven’t spoken to either of you in years show up—old work buddies, estranged relatives, his bitter ex-wife who he disliked until the day he died. You sit in the front pew and stare at the husk of your father blurred by tears and a distance death has made unbreachable. One uncle, you learn, passes around a whiskey bottle in the parking lot. The other preaches the sermon and repeatedly calls Dad Cody, mangling his nickname the way the facemask did his nose during the resuscitation attempts. Later, from the back of the funeral parlor, you watch your half-sisters practically throw themselves onto the casket, wailing their deep sorrow and love to a corpse in a box that they paid for. Your anger, having stored itself up for years in anticipation of this very moment, is present but subdued by a strange pity called compassion. After all, he was their dad, too. This, you believe, is your father’s final lesson to those who care enough to listen—that remorse is stronger than gratitude but so much weaker than love.
You were taught to be responsible, to say ma’am and sir to everyone regardless of age, to show up early everywhere, to never bring food or drink if you don’t have enough for everyone, to do more than is expected of you. These qualities give you self-respect, make you want to nurture them within yourself so to always be in bloom. Thank the gardener who put them there. Be grateful he made you better than he was, better than his own failure of a father made him. Try to be kind. Know he loved you best of all. Tell no one this selfish thing. You already know.
“Koi.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 9 Apr. 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koi.
 Koi. Wikimedia Foundation.
Stephanie Savell is a Texas native. Her work appears in Harpur Palate and Aquifer: The Florida Review Online.