God always offers us a second chance in life. – Paulo Cuelho
My father’s death in 2007 is the real deal, with a casket and flowers and everything. There is a wake and a mass, there is a burial. People come from all over to pay their last respects, to say goodbye. For all of it, I wear black. For all of it, I go through the motions. Except that I don’t cry.
I still haven’t, I tell my shaman twelve years later. Why not? Why haven’t I cried for my father? It’s not right; it haunts my sleep.
In one version of the dream, he appears in the doorway, walks into the room, passes through it, exits through the door on the other side. All in silence. In another version, he doesn’t exit the room, but stops to sit in a high-backed chair against the far wall. From these dreams, I wake feeling empty. Empty, and lost. Confused, too. My father is there, in the room, and yet he is not there at all. Why won’t he talk to me? Why won’t he look at me? And what about me? Why don’t I go to him? Why don’t I call out to him?
What color does Antoine want his clothes to be this time?
“Noir,” he says.
Of course. It’s practically all he ever wears, this beautiful architect of mine. His voice is a series of bass notes, deep and low. The words are French, they speak to a place in my heart I’d thought was dead. The smell of tobacco in his beard, the sound his hands make picking the guitar, the way he stands over me to watch as I draw and paint: these things, too, speak to that place in my heart. He is gentle, he is kind; he is attentive and affectionate. His generosity is so big; he gives everything, asks for nothing in return. I love him so much; he makes me so happy.
Ask a question out loud, and it no longer belongs to you. It belongs to the universe. To God. And God knows everything. Listen. He will show you the answer.
“Come with me into this cute little ephemera shop,” He says to me several weeks after my session with the shaman. “I have something to show you on the bookcase in the back corner near the cash register. You’ll know it when you see it.”
I do know. I plunge my hand into it: a wooden bowl full of animal figurines. Gorillas, monkeys, turtles, tigers, zebras.
It’s my sisters who come to mind first. We collected these as kids. They came in the boxes of Lipton Tea my mother used to buy. For a few dollars, one of the zebras is mine.
It’s not until I’ve returned to my apartment on Adelphi Street, the zebra in my pocket, that it comes back to me: the aroma of Lipton Tea. With milk. And a ton of sugar. He would sneak me sips. It tasted so good.
And suddenly, a word like a jolt through my heart. The word: a name. The name: Vlegie. A childhood deformation of the word vieilli. The old one. My old one, my beloved Vlegie. I was his Toothpick.
More than that, I was him. In my tiny body, the child he was once. The runt. The little boy who needed love and attention, comfort, and protection.
Vlegie read to me, drew with me, listened to my stories. Played with me, too. Rough, sometimes. Like the time that ended with a kick so hard to the balls that he saw stars. His wife said, “Ça bon!” but it was his father or his mother or his siblings he heard, like a smack across the back of the head: “You stupid useless runt! Look what you get for fooling around like a child when you have work to do! Ça bon! Serves you right, now take your medicine!”
He takes the medicine. He retreats. And then it’s like in the dreams. Vlegie is there, but not there. Gone, but not gone. Toothpick doesn’t understand. Why isn’t he Vlegie anymore, and why can’t she be Toothpick?
Finally, the tears. Toothpick’s for Vlegie. Vlegie’s for Toothpick. Mine for both. Mine, also, for my father.
I’m not hiding it: Antoine makes me think of my father, by whom I mean Vlegie, and by which I mean a man who is not afraid to be fully present in both body and spirit, adoring and protective of me, attentive to my needs and desires, affectionate, expressive, and playful.
“Tu es mon cadeau du ciel,” Antoine tells me, but really he is mine.
It is not without a certain amount of awe that I look upon this gift that is Antoine. The magnitude of it does not leave me indifferent; the preciosity of it breaks my heart. I know what I stand to lose; Pray God this time around, he lets me keep it.