I had feared that my early thirty’s would be as dark and bleak and hungry as my early twenty’s; fortunately my early twenty’s were pretty fucked up. Shortly before my twenty-second birthday my father died as the result of the injuries he sustained in a grisly fire. He stayed alive for about a month after the fire, head swollen and grotesque, body covered in white bandages speckled red with blood. “Are you sure it’s him?” We’d ask the grim nurses when we saw him. His ruined monster face was unrecognizable. “We’re sure it’s him.” replied the burn unit nurses again and again, their faces bore the heavy lines of endless sorrow.
He’d sustained 2nd, 3rd and 4th degree burns on 52% of his body and the soft pale skin of his wide clear feet had been the only way I had been able to identify him. If it hadn’t been for his feet with their delicate blue veins, the only part of him unspoiled by weeping burns , I might not have ever have believed it was really him.
I went back to his apartment (condemned after the fire men saturated the embers) and dragged out every soggy journal, unmailed letter and piece of unmarred clothing. I scavenged freakish fire singed artifacts like a morbid bouquet of plastic flowers conjoined by heat with a melted metal spoon. I was sure he would need his clothes when he got better and busied myself washing them over and over again trying diligentlyto rid them of their sickening campfire small. I spent hours and hours laying out hundreds of pieces of wet paper all over my grandmothers farm, weighing each leaf down with handfuls of gravel from the unpaved road in front of my grandmother’s house in Springport County. If the Amish folks in their buggy’s or the rednecks peeling down Rural Route 15 in their flat beds noticed the papers drying out by the barn they would have known we were going crazy. The madness was written all over the lawn in the those coffee ring stained sheets of calculus and love letters flapping all over the farm in desperate little rows. I was trying so hard to hold on.
For months after his death I painted awful images of his burned and bleeding face. I had all this greif and trauma boiling up inside of me and no where to put it. The gory images flashed over and over again in my mind like a neon sign. I painted the ghoulish pieces of dry wall I’d scavenged from the attic above the room in the drafty old victorian I was renting. I’d throw them in the back of my first car, and old gold Volkswagon and show them to anyone I could dupe into looking. They weren’t particularly good paintings but they were shocking; my fathers disfigurement was incredibly disturbing. I wish I could apologize to all those people I exposed to those first horrific images.
“Why don’t you paint your dad the way he looked when he was alive?” pleaded my mother clearly disturbed, more than anyone else I had wanted to shock her. After the accident I had asked my mother to come out to Forty Wayne, Indiana where he lay sedated in the burn unit the last month of his life. I only asked her twice. I can’t remember begging or really even being insistant that she come help me through it, she sited her fear of flying as the factor preventing her from joining me and I just accepted it. The fire was before her stroke and and she had been working as a nurse and making good money.
She’s since flown in a plane but she has not yet accepted my father’s death. Right after his death and even as recently as last week her voice will get wistful and she’ll say “It seems like your dad is still alive. Like he’s just out there in Indiana and I just haven’t talked to him in a long time.” This palpable denial use to make me furious, fortunatly I only get a little angry now, so I make up a polite reason why I have to get off the phone and vent to a friend. There is no reason to make her feel badly. When this happened most recently I called my sister who replied “Dude. Mom couldn’t have handled it.”
“What? What do you mean?” I demanded.
“She probably couldn’t have handled it mentally. She woulda went nuts, had a break down.” said my sister flatly.
It was the most obvious reason although it had never occurred to me: my mother wouldn’t have been able to make it through the darkness — I almost didn’t make it out myself.
She laid in bed crying for a day and a half when I admitted to smoking a cigarette at age thirteen and even then my sister scolded me. “Mom can’t handle things like that! Look what you did! She’s going to be crying like that for days!” Even at that age I had known that my mom wasn’t well equipped to manage even small upsets but had been experimenting with being honest. I’m so thankful for that conversation with my sister because until last week I had believed that my mother’s refusal to come to Indiana during that long horrible month was because she had chosen denial over choosing to support me during the single most traumatic event of my life. It never occurred to me that she just couldn’t do it.
My paternal grandmother, my dad’s two sisters and I all had PTSD that has lasted for years from seeing my father like that, I had a crack up and tried to kill myself not long after the accident. I don’t think I would have tried to end my own life if I wasn’t dealing with my own untreated mental illness then but today, right now, in this moment, I am glad my mom didn’t come to Fort Wayne.
I’d talk to the awful paintings in the back of my car, sing to them and point out hot girls I saw in other cars as though my dad were really in the car with me, much like I had communicated with my father’s body when he lay in the hospital twisted between life and death like a child’s baby tooth hanging on by just a fleshy root. I talked to the paintings and sometimes the paintings talked back.
I just got my 1983 Mercedes Benz bio-diesel repaired after it sat for ten months in a friend’s driveway way out in San Bernardino The car crapped out on me three days after my husband moved out of the apartment we shared and I didn’t have the money or the emotional capacity to get the car repaired until last week. But that isn’t right. I did have the money, frequently, but I couldn’t handle it until last week.
It’s been a long hard ten months being separated from the person I thought I was going to spend my life with and I’ve been ashamed to go out to queer community events since then. I got married in front of my community, it was the biggest queer community party I’ve ever thrown and that’s saying a lot. When we were married I lost most of my intimate family relationships with my mother’s side, the Catholic Mexican folks who raised me.
And as I drove my car home from Riverside I noticed new ghosts in the back seat. An 8′ x 9′ (that’s feet folks, not inches) oil portrait of my soon to be ex-husband and I in our underwear. A friend of ours painted us as part of her series of larger than life oil portraits and gave it to us as a gift when it didn’t sell at her exhibition. We’d had another portrait of us together, styled after a portrait of my aubela and her brother my gay Uncle Joe hanging over the fireplace since we got married. To my knowledge the larger than full body portrait currently riding around in my back seat has only ever been hung in a gallery. I can’t think of anyone who would want a an eight foot tall painting of a couple who are soon to be divorced. “Maybe it will end up in the One (National Gay and Lesbian) Archives if one of us ever does anything more spectacular than we have already.” I mused.
It’s a different kind of ghost but the situation is eerily similar. Here I am again, speeding around LA with a broken heart in an old gold car with make up, Diet Coke cans, cigarette butts and discarded thigh high stockings rattling around the floorboards like old dried bones. Only broken heart isn’t quite accurate. There were severe wounds there but they’ve scabbed over. Now the scabs are falling off to reveal the satiny rosy flesh of scars, still tender and aching from time to time but this is the new heart: pink, shiny, beautiful but quick to defend itself and overly cautious.
I just got the car running this week and so the ghosts have had ten months to scream and cry and haunt that car without me. Each time I look in the backseat and see the rolled up canvas I worry that it must be getting cracked or damaged from the heat. Undamaged the painting is certainly worth more than the car itself. If the ghosts in the paintings are talking to me, surely they’re saying something much different than they were ten years ago. We’ve only been driving around together for two days now and I haven’t had much time to listen but if I really had to guess what the ghosts were telling me I’d bet that they were telling me that it’s time to let go.