March-April 2008 | Features

Memories of Our Parents

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The shifting balance
By Toby Myles

I stood in the doorway of the chapel 10 steps behind my father, who was standing alongside the open casket. He studied the body before him, memorizing the wrinkled cheeks, the wilted eyes and the few wisps of gray hair that remained on the man’s head. I imagined he remembered the first time his father had taken him fishing and taught him how to bait a hook, preserving his fingers and the integrity of the worm. I imagined he remembered learning to drive, his father alert on the seat beside him, through the narrow streets in their Queens neighborhood. I imagined he said “thank you” for being a good father and “sorry” because there was never enough time. I imagined he said goodbye and I imagined that this was the most difficult moment of his life.

As a child, I had tried to imagine life without my own parents. As my dad gazed down at my lifeless grandfather, I was unprepared to watch him grieve for his own father. The emotional pain I felt was equally physical, leaving me no choice but to stop breathing for a moment.

I was frightened and uncertain. The proper balance of my world had tilted. My dad seemed small and vulnerable. I wanted him to comfort me, but he needed comforting. It had never occurred to me that he could be weaker than me, or that I could be stronger than him. For the first time, I saw him as a man, not as my father. And from that moment on, I ceased to be a child.

That day, now more than a dozen years ago, is stored safely in my heart, still vivid and exact. I can call it up as simply as dropping a coin into a jukebox, replaying the scene. I am no longer frightened. The memory still singes my stomach and brings tears to my eyes, yet I welcome it.

Toby Myles is a freelance artist and writer in Olney.