My father was a player, a party boy, a beautiful dirt brown slickster. In 1983 he had hair as think and long as a gorgeous young woman’s and a walk that plucked second looks from passersby. The rhythm of his voice gave the impression of confident nonchalance and those eyes, my eyes, are what people remember most certainly about him and about me. My memory refuses to call up whether he was big or small before he went away but I do know that when I saw him in the hospital some weeks after the accident, propped up and barely conscious, he looked tiny and abandoned but like he intended despite that, to be fully brave.
Five or six months later in a Tehachapi State prison visiting room, he looked huge and imposing; broad shoulders, thick neck, prison chest. But something quieter yet more profound had also changed. His gaze was curious and distant, as if he had slipped off of the plane of everyday living and onto something more perilous and difficult to manage. He announced with no particular emotion that the doctors said he had high blood pressure “Cause it’s real crazy in here.” He was twenty eight.
During that same visit he asked me questions about school and teachers, neighborhood friends and church, my mama, my step-daddy and if I was keeping contact with his people. He smiled occasionally but it was painted over with sadness. He even laughed once but I could tell it hurt.
We did this daughter-visit-daddy dance again in 1987 over a long weekend in a prison trailer. A lean, severe corrections officer escorted him to my grandmother and me and all weekend he walked around asking me thousands of run-of-the-mill questions, cooking, watching television, but never feeling free. At thirty two years old his health was no better and so we were careful with the salt at dinner. Before bed he took pills in front of the sink in a tiny bathroom with no mirror.
I remember interrogation type lights that illuminated the entire grounds so that it seemed daylight never quite went away. For good measure an officer came to the door three times a day. They made sure that no one with the name Jackson made the mistake of thinking our lives had in any way changed. I don’t recall how we got food or if we ever left the trailer but I remember feeling that we were all exhausted from the effort and just wanted to get back to lives in which we could breathe easy.
I tried one more time to see him at age sixteen but got turned away for a wrong bra or a faulty form. Something. But I didn’t fret and they didn’t have to worry because that was it for me. I said my sayonara in the parking lot that late morning and for the next five hours flirted and fell for a boy whose status as convicted felon at age seventeen, kept him from visiting his mother’s boyfriend too.
Now, in 2006 with many years behind us and nothing between us, I see so much more change; more than I imagined and in truth, slightly less than I had feared. At forty nine he is not big, but not frail, grey but not terribly aged, wounded but not broken. He was a bit guarded but not distant and overall perfect considering the circumstances. Sitting beside him, knee to knee, he was a strange kind of bud, blooming in slow motion before me over coffee, watermelon, talk, and too much time gone by.