Like an old suit hanging from a wiry, metal hanger, a man stands a few yards from me, looking as if, at any moment, he might crumple to the floor in a pile of flesh and cloth. His head is huge and bulky with heavy wrinkles and tough oak wood skin––dry and tanned and cracked from years of use and lack of care–– attached to a rail thin body, twisted like some dead gnarled tree.
He is much smaller than in the photograph I reference in my head; a fantastically huge man towering over my small–framed mother. His thick, wavy black hair is now gray and thin.
His eyes wander from person to person as he moves his head like a cow grazing in the grass––stiff and slowly. Our eyes meet for the first time. My heart is pumping furiously as the old man shuffles toward me.
The corners of his mouth have formed a white, flaky crust. I stare at it, though I try not to, and it reminds me of dried milk on a child’s mouth. I am afraid to speak and I can tell he is, too.
The stranger wears a pale yellow pullover that shrouds him like a blanket and I notice spots of wet blood on his chest. Wadded in his hand, he brings a dingy white handkerchief to his mouth and wipes it. I notice dried blood hiding in the cloth’s wrinkles and folds. I look into his eyes. Tiny tinges of blue barely remain in the pale storm cloud gray of his pupils. We don’t have to say a word.
Instead of the handshake I was expecting, he pulls me close to him, hugging me tightly. Wrapping my arms around him, I feel the sharp edges of his spine, the way time and abuse have forced it to bend in such a way that seems like punishment. His body shakes, permeating into my arms and chest and I keep my distance, not trusting enough yet to give all of myself to him. There is little warmth in his body. As I pull away, the tips of my father’s fingers linger on mine for a moment, clinging as if his life depends on me. He wipes his eyes as quickly as he can, hoping I won’t notice him crying.
My father abandoned my mom when my twin sister and I were born. I was never given any reason, though I suspect my mother’s alcoholism had a lot to do with it. I always thought of him as a coward.
I met him for the first time when I was 20 years old. He died two years later at 67.
I found out that over the years he had remarried and raised a daughter whose own father had abandoned her.
My father turned out to be the bravest I’ve known. I believe people can change.