It took me until I was sixty to appreciate you. It’s a shame that you had to die before I could acknowledge your impact on my life. Too bad you’re in a wooden box now in the living room, all ashes, just a spirit of burnt remains.
Now that you’re dead, I can barely hear your cries. There’s no anger. No unmet needs or disappointments. No crazy garbled words or high heels whizzing past my forehead through a bay window falling onto the street. No telling me to sit up straight in a chair or to read the Home and Garden section of the Sunday paper or chastising me for wearing the color blue in the house. Just your pure memory lingers, the good overriding the bad. The essence of your perfect version.
Every time I look at the wooden box that sits on the drawing table, I hear a quiet voice, no longer screaming or tears streaming down your face. No longer talking in riddles, playing the victim, complaining about things that no one cared about or even understood.
There is only silence without breath. Your quiet spirit hovers in and around the wooden box and watches me prepare your favorite dinner: pasta in red sauce, a baguette, a bottle of Chianti. Your spirit keeps me company, my ally, and my honored guest. When I interact with the insurance adjuster, you help me calculate the numbers. When I inhale my Albuterol through a nebulizer, you encourage me to take a deeper breath. I can finally tolerate being close to you. No longer do I have to create distance or drink myself to sleep to get you out of my head.
The wooden box has a Yahrzeit candle burning above it with a trail of black smoke rising to the ceiling. Whenever I see that candle flame flicker, I think of you praying for my deceased father over the kitchen sink. I watched your trembling hands clutch a prayer book, your parched lips muttering a chant in Hebrew, your eyes closed while rocking back and forth like you were at the Western Wall of Jerusalem.
Next to the burning candle is the image of you as a teenager, posing on a stoop with long brown hair, wearing a high school letter on your sweater, and resembling a young Elizabeth Taylor with a closed-lip smile. You were surprisingly beautiful then, seemingly had the world at your fingertips with a clear plan about your future. You wanted to write brilliant poetry and short stories that would make people see the world from a more compassionate place. Then you met a man, convinced yourself that you loved him, had a baby and then lost your mind. The photo makes me think of what might have been if you hadn’t gotten married and settled for a muted life, taking care of a man who never encouraged you to follow your dreams.
“You don’t have to feel sorry for me or worry anymore,” your spirit whispers.
“I can’t help it,” I say. “You seemed so vulnerable, barely five-foot tall, and I feared that people would take advantage of you.” But then I realized that you were far from incapable of taking care of yourself. You launched Coke bottles at a bully across the street that teased you for the way you dressed. You threatened to break a car window with my Louisville Slugger when a neighbor walked on your flowerbed. Despite your diminutive size, you were as fearless as a pit bull.
You spirit whispers to me not to betray myself or to deny who I am.
“Don’t question your intuition,” you say. “Live the kind of life that you dream about. I weighed myself down with fear, but you can rise above it.”
I stand motionless, lightheaded with nostalgia. I see you clipping my mittens to my coat sleeves and opening up a can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup to go with the grilled cheese sandwich browning on the skillet. I see you push me down a snowy hill in a red Flexible Flyer, watching me until I make it safely to the bottom. You take pictures of me in the swimming pool while riding a walrus float, sliding into third base under a tag at a little league baseball game, and in my glen plaid bar mitzvah suit, standing awkwardly right after I became a man. With your Kodak camera, you captured all my sacred events and then neatly pasted those developed photographs into an album, chronicling my life’s story with your stamp of approval.
I stand in front of the wooden box, now, acknowledging all the things that you did for me, feeling guilty that I never returned the favor. I always focused on your insanity, never on the person behind the crazy talk.
“I wish I could do my childhood over,” I tell the spirit of the wooden box.
“It’s not about me. It’s about you,” the spirit answers.
I nod my head. I tap lightly on the wooden box. The Yahrzeit candle flickers with a beautiful orange flame that reminds me that you are still here.
Mark Tulin is a former Philadelphia Family Therapist who now resides in Santa Barbara, California. He writes poetry and fiction and is currently looking for a publisher for his novella. His chapbook, Magical Yogis, was published by Prolific Press (2017). His stories are in smokebox.net, Page and Spine, Friday Flash Fiction, and others. His previous Cabinet story, “Weekend in the Suburbs” can be heard in podcast form at Other People’s Flowers, His website is the Crow On The Wire.