The Space in Between
What I want to remember most about Dad’s funeral is the sound of the rabbi’s voice chanting the Mourner’s Kaddish. Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash sh’mei raba. How the staggered Amens crept out of the congregation’s pursed lips, blurred and layered. Like a monotonous song. How much I yanked on Mom’s black dress, smearing my nose on it when she wasn’t looking. How I turned my head into her chest when she finally picked me up and someone said my name. How many wet tissues she held in her hand after wiping my nose, holding my chin and pinching the nostrils too hard and then telling me I’m sorry. Surely I had to blink so the tears pooling inside my bottom eyelid would spill over so I could see the rabbi at the beamah, hear him wail those ancient words through the microphone. I want to remember how sad I was.
But I remember only movements my body made. Smells. Sounds. Fragments.
I remember fragments.
The Cleveland Clinic had rooms, like those in a hotel, for people with a close family member who was sick. Toward the end, Mom wanted to take each of us to spend a weekend alone with Dad, one last special visit for us to remember him by. I don’t remember my visit. Unless it was the time I almost learned how to snap my fingers in the bathtub at the Clinic. Then I remember.
I picture Mom kneeling on a towel reaching for the tub faucet, the part of her shirt just below her chest getting damp from leaning over the wet edge. Me wrapping my arms around my legs and making teeth-chattering sounds, pretending like I was colder than I really was. I straightened my legs and rested my palms on the surface of the water, watching it ripple around my fingers, filling in the webbing of my hand. I snapped my half-submerged fingers in the water. Or I tried to.
“No, like this,” Mom said. “Your middle finger, not your pinky.” She showed me what to do, pressing the pad of her thumb against the pad of her middle finger, the sound of skin on skin coming off her dry fingertips.
Water splashed from my fingers to the walls of the tub as I tried to snap and couldn’t.
“Remember,” she said, “like this.” And I tried harder. Since I couldn’t learn how to snap from Mom, I probably thought Dad could just teach me when he got better. She finished filling the tub and got up to brush her hair in front of the mirror, practically digging the bristles into her scalp, violently taming the waves straight. Steam from the tub rose and rolled over my tight fists, past my fingers desperately trying to snap the right way, and settled in the space somewhere between Mom and me. It drifted between the towels on the rack, between the bristles of her brush. And then it settled. Her blue eyes looked grayer now in her reflection, like water settling in a drinking glass. I even heard the squeak that the sink made as her hands gripped the porcelain bowl, her shoulder blades bulging as her arms stayed stiff and her chest collapsed.
I don’t remember anything about Dad’s funeral. Well, that was once true, until I remembered legs. I was twenty-three, trying to balance as I rocked back and forth in a wooden chair and remembered legs. Until this point, I had not thought about the funeral much. No one asked. No one shared. But I remembered sitting on someone’s legs in Temple Israel off of Market Street. My first thought was that it was Dad’s lap I sat on, his knees bouncing me up and down, moving my legs with his hands to the rhythm of some made-up tune. Clearly it wasn’t Dad’s lap (but somehow I’m still not completely convinced that it wasn’t). It must have been the legs of one of my brothers.
“Legs?” Mom asked.
“Yeah, Mom. Legs. I know I sat on someone’s lap. I think it was Max.” Two bony knobs for knees and stiff dress pants somehow still wrinkled came to mind.
“Oh, no. Max sat next to me sobbing and sobbing. That, I know I remember.”
“Then, Tynan,” I insisted, imagining him trying to peer over my shoulder for a look at the beamah, the rabbi, something. I knew I had sat on someone’s lap. I wished that I could go through some sort of directory of legs, flipping through pages of pictures sleeved in plastic sheets in an old album.
“Susan, Tynan was seven. He wouldn’t have been able to bounce you,” Mom insisted, as if her memory was as strong as a knot, and mine, loose strands of a broken string. Before this phone conversation with Mom I had never asked about Dad’s funeral.
“Uncle Jerry? It must have been Uncle Jerry. Maybe Zaydie?” I tried not to let her hear too much doubt in my voice.
Whenever I asked her about Dad’s side of the family I was lucky if I got something beyond an exasperated Oh I don’t know, Susan. Your writing is hard on me, you know that? Hard because she can’t remember, or hard because she won’t try?
“Your dad’s father didn’t even go to his funeral. I don’t think you sat on anyone’s lap. And even if you did, how am I supposed to remember that? I can’t even remember where I put my keys when I got home today.”
Do I remember legs? I don’t think I remember legs.
What I want to remember most about Dad is how much he played with me before he got sick. How he sat at the foot of my bed before work and squeezed each little toe of mine saying this little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed home. How many I love Susan notes I was too young to even read that he left on folded napkins for Mom to read me at lunch. How he picked me up when he came home and spun me around high above his head. How he read me books before tucking me in to sleep every night.
I’m sure he was a nice man, but I don’t remember him doing any of those things. After Dad died, I used to be jealous of my friends who complained about their dads. God! I only get to see him every other weekend. We never do anything fun. Then I’d try to match whatever look was on their face, jumping to agree with them. Yeah, that does suck, my mouth saying what it should. I would have loved to see my dad every other weekend. Even every other year.
A couple years ago when I was writing in my journal, I started to list every solid memory I have of him. I jotted down the first few that came to mind: eating candy hearts with him at the Cleveland Clinic, going out to eat at Tangier’s for my fourth birthday, and him making hamburgers. When I started to write about the memories in more detail I stopped myself, trying to think of specific dates, locations, who else may have been there. That’s the problem with memories. The harder you try to remember them, the more you create them.
Was I in the Cleveland Clinic, or was it just a doctor’s office somewhere in Akron? Do I really remember my fourth birthday, or has Mom just shown me the photos so many times that I think I remember as far back as 1994? How old was I when he went to the Cleveland Clinic? Did Dad make hamburgers all the time and that’s how I remember the sound of him slapping the raw ground beef in his hands, or did Mom just tell me about it when I was older? Didn’t I remember having candy lambs on my birthday cake in the dining room? I’m pretty sure there was chocolate frosting. But it looks like vanilla in the photo. If I didn’t know how to read before Dad died, how do I remember reading the messages on the candy hearts in his hospital room? I remember a powdery smell when I opened the candy hearts box. Was that the latex gloves I smelled, or crushed candy hearts at the bottom of the box? I know I remember the beat he created with his hands as he made the hamburger patties, but maybe I don’t really remember my fourth birthday. I’m sure I remember it, though.
I wanted to grab a memory—or whatever I thought was a memory—and tie it down, try and dissect every fragment, piece together movement and smell and sound into something I could say, something I could write. Sometimes I’m walking to work, or closing the fridge, or going down basement stairs, and for an instant I think I remember Dad. I don’t know if it’s one of those smells or if I just turned my head in the exact same way that I did at one point when he was alive, the most subtle movement. And sometimes I just keep walking, ignoring the trigger tugging hard at my sleeve like a child begging to be noticed.
Days and weeks go by where I hate writing. It has nothing to do with me constantly rummaging through drawers at my house to find bank pens that aren’t dead. And it’s not because I have to clear off my dining room table to write since I don’t have a desk. It has more to do with my fear that I’m running out of real memories and replacing them with the memories of my essays.
“But they’re still your memories,” Mom tells me when I try to explain to her over the phone why I haven’t written in two weeks.
“You don’t get it, Mom. Now when I try to remember something about Dad I have no idea if it actually happened or if it’s from an essay or photo or a story about the photo or if I made it up altogether.”
“Send me an essay, then. I want to read about all your fake memories,” she jokes.
“Send me an essay. Send me an essay! I’m not going to send you an essay, Mom. Maybe when one’s polished.”
“Polished? I’ll probably be dead by then.”
I wonder who picked out my dress for Dad’s funeral. I’m sure Mom didn’t let me pick out my own outfit—my costumes, as I called them (fringe Pocahontas dress, feather boa, plain jean jumper.) But what if she did let me pick out my own outfit? She would have just waved her hand at me from her chair, bringing her fingers back to rest over her mouth, chewing at that loose piece of skin on her lips that seemed to never disappear. I would have opened my closet and yanked at the hemlines of dresses, moving out of the way of falling hangers, then run downstairs to show her. Beth? she would have hollered to her sister, leaving me standing in my black dress to be approved by my aunt. Or maybe Mom did pick out my dress, the one with white bows all over it.
But here’s what I know for sure.
She let me pick out my clothes every day when I started kindergarten later that year. One day at the end of my first year of school, Ms. Derringer scattered markers and crayons across each table. They hit zigzag scissors before rolling onto the floor. The boy next to me grabbed a crayon and wrote To: Dad on the folded paper, drawing two stacked circles for the colon. The girl across from me reached for the Happy Father’s Day stickers, but I focused on finding the right paper, maybe taking more time than I needed.
“You can make a card for your grandpa or uncle, sweetie,” Ms. Derringer said as she knelt down beside my chair, reaching for a marker from the pile.
I nodded, still fingering my way through construction paper until I found a piece that didn’t have a heart or star cut out of the middle of it.
“What about your uncle?” she asked. “I’m sure he’d really like it.” She gave my shoulder a squeeze—the same kind of squeeze lots of adults kept giving me since July. Then she stood up to monitor the rest of the class.
I remembered the Father’s Day cards that were taped to the refrigerator that my siblings got to make at school the year before—colors and shapes and hearts and giant letter D’s for Dad. I uncapped a marker and mouthed Uncle John under my breath, drawing letters on the paper to match the sounds, putting the H before the O.
What I remember most about Dad is a blue sweatshirt. He sat up in bed under the covers—maybe under the pink blanket Mom has in her house now—and he was wearing that blue sweatshirt. There’s some white and yellow writing that sticks out to me, but I can’t remember what it said. Probably something about baseball. After a chemo treatment he leaned into the three sided pillow against the wall for most of the day, and on one particular day, I ran through the open door and jumped into bed with him. Now that he was home from work more during the day, I was happy that I could see him whenever I wanted.
“Don’t jostle the bed! Just don’t jostle it!” he yelled, wincing and digging his fingers into the pink blanket as if he could stop the movement of his world. (The only reason I knew that word jostle then was from him constantly yelling it when I so much as set down a stuffed animal on his bed.) I laughed a little every time he said that, thinking it was like a game where I could see how lightly I could lean against the bed before he’d yell Don’t jostle the bed! Sort of like the I’m not touching you game. Then he yelled it again and I ran to my room laughing, waiting out of sight in my doorway, poking my head out so I’d be able to hear him call me back in laughing. But instead, he lay in bed and a silence—a relief?—filled the space of the hallway of the Casterton Avenue house.
Years later, I picture Mom folding Dad’s yellowed undershirts in the hallway during one of these games taking in deep, hot breaths so no one would hear her crying. She stood alone in the hallway with no one to tell her to laugh with me, that the aches pulsating through the mattress, under his skin and into his bones, were all just a game.
In my dream last night Dad died, except, I was an adult. Mom and my siblings were decorating a gazebo with flowers, suspended strings of flowers, for the funeral service somewhere that I didn’t know out in the country. Had there been paths leading to the gazebo, I wouldn’t have been able to see them; we had all gotten there somehow, but the dryness of the earth had washed away any proof of how we arrived. I remember purple. Before the end of the service, a group of men got up to perform a dance, but my brothers sat out. I cried into Mom’s shoulder when I saw that others were getting up to dance. This isn’t a party! I shouted. This is my dad’s funeral! No one listened. No one stopped, until I turned off the light hanging in the gazebo and walked away.
Susan Krakoff is originally from Ohio, but after living in Europe for six months in 2014 she decided to move to County Cork, Ireland. In 2015 she graduated from the West Virginia Wesleyan College MFA program in Creative Writing, where she wrote mostly early childhood memoir and travel writing. Susan works in a funky coffee shop by the sea, practices and teaches yoga, and is working toward Birth Doula certification.