Melinda Renken

Approaching Shadows ©Christopher Woods Photography



Last Night I Found Your Headstone


Last night, I found your headstone. The picture peered at me through digital haze, blurry from 36 years of tears unshed. Perhaps I merely need new glasses.

I hadn’t been looking for it. Research for my novel brought me to the digital cemetery. Your name appeared as if lit by neon. I clicked without thinking. I made the picture bigger, searching the granite stone for the details of the childhood I lost far too soon. Maybe they were etched beneath the letters of your name: Harold. The name t still makes me squirm and fight the urge to hide, even as I type it.

I made the picture small again, wanting to click it away, close the screen and forget. My cursor froze over the red x in the corner. My heart wonders why it didn’t mean more that last night I found your headstone.


Do you remember that house, Daddy? It was the one with the tree house in the back yard. Do you remember that day? I do. It was spring. The sky was a vivid blue, so bright that it hurt my eyes to look at it. I wore the yellow dress that Mama had made for me, you told me I looked pretty. You were in a good mood that day. Your giant hand engulfed mine as we walked up the front path to the door. You smiled at me. And then you weren’t smiling anymore.

The ground reached up and wrapped itself around you. You crashed to the sidewalk and all I could do was stand there and cry. I wanted you to get up, but you couldn’t. The grown-ups came rushing to help you. All I heard was your angry voice saying, “Stop crying. You’re acting like a child.”

I was a child. But I did not remain that way for long. Do you remember? I do.


Last night I found your headstone. It was a relief in a way. I had wondered what had happened after they took your cold shell away. The funeral was surreal. Grandma came in and demanded to know who we were and why we were seated in front, as if we, your children, had no right to be there and our pain was less than hers. I heard someone tell her, “It’s the girls.” And for an hour or two we pretended to be family. I bent to kiss your cheek. It was an act of duty, not affection. My lips are still cold.

“Did your Dad know you have purple hair?” some guy asked.

It had been six years since I’d seen you. I silently shook my head.


“Tell me about your bad dreams,” you said one night to my sisters and me. We each recounted a dream of terror. You took great delight in naming them all and calling them one by one down the stairs. There was great theater in the way you kicked them out the front door and locked it behind them so these dreams could not trouble our sleep again. You kissed me goodnight that night. Do you remember? I do.


Last night I found your headstone. Out of curiosity I looked for Grandma’s, too. It was there next to yours, a cold gray stone, unadorned with epitaphs of love. I wanted it to read “The Creature in Idaho lies here.” Instead it bore only her name: Virginia. Innocuous. innocent, harmless sounding. No testament to the terror she reined. No mention of the ignorance and bigotry which oozed from her pores. There was no record of the brainwashing she’d attempted, the way she tried to make me hate the woman who gave me life and who loves me more than I deserve. Nothing was noted of the martyr she’d attempted to make of herself. At least karma had made her miserable. The Creature was dead four years and I never knew. I had thought the world would have become lighter somehow, happier when she was gone. But my universe didn’t shift. I didn’t know; until last night, when I found the headstones.


The heavy metallic scrape of your walker startled me. I winced as you lumbered into the entryway where I had set up watch.

“What’re you looking at?” You accused, as if I had been staring at you instead of the rain. I wished I had stayed upstairs and watched the storm from my bedroom window. You couldn’t climb the two and half flights of stairs in the house on Pioneer. I might have been safe from you if I’d just stayed upstairs. Do you remember? I do.

“I was watching the rain, Daddy. Tyler told me that it was gonna snow today!” I forgot that happiness and excitement were unacceptable in our house, that you became enraged if we laughed too much or too loudly. My feet started to dance around the tile of the entryway. I didn’t notice the way your eyes suddenly turned cold, replaced by blue ice. A warning signal.

“I was waiting for it to start, ‘cause you know why? When it starts snowing, I’m going to build a snowman and a snow fort and start a snowball fight. Do you think it will snow, Daddy? Will you build a snowman with me, Daddy?” Your cold, unloving stare landed on my face moments before your hand crashed into my cheek, your wedding ring cut into my flesh and drew blood.

Although you couldn’t walk well anymore, you could still send me crashing to the floor with one swipe. I didn’t move while you turned away without looking at me and made your way slowly back to the overstuffed brown chair, the throne from which you ruled the kingdom. I could hear your labored breath as you struggled to sit. I knew I should help you, but I was too scared. Instead, I stood on my shaky legs, grabbed my doll, and started toward the stairs that would lead me to the safety of my bedroom.

Do you remember? I do.


“I’m sorry, honey. It’s M.S.,” the doctor said, placing a warm hand on my shoulder. I had known, on some level. I’d been struggling for years, making myself walk through sheer willpower, even when every step hurt and my feet became blocks of concrete. I’d fallen more times than I could count, my legs and feet going numb and refusing to function in the way I’d taken for granted. I’d gotten so used to being dizzy that I noticed more when it stopped than when it began again, and the fatigue was paralyzing. After ten years of being patted on the hand and told to just lose weight, you’ll feel better. The doctor was handing me an answer, like a piece of rotten fruit.

I numbly scheduled appointments, thinking of the legacy you left me: disease.

I watched it eat you for 14 long years. In a time before there was medicine, I watched you decide not to live. You gave up because it was easier than facing your sins.

I saw you turn from towering giant to drooling vegetable.

Would it happen to me, now?

I decided it would not.

Your power is rotted, faded.


And last night, I found your headstone.




Melinda Renken is a writer cleverly disguised as a nameless office drone. In March 2013, she was awarded her B.A. in creative writing from The Evergreen State College . She earned her MFA at Sierra Nevada College in August 2016. Melinda currently is at work (in the painfully slow manner of a slug on tranquilizers) on her first novel. She expects to publish it sometime before civilization comes to an end–though she isn’t ruling out delays and false starts. Follow her on Twitter at @Melynn1104.