FLIGHT OF THE SHADOW
“Do you need me?”
The paper whites on the kitchen windowsill of the apartment where I was living in Evansville, Indiana seemed to lean forward, as if to say, “Here’s your chance to tell the truth.” I lowered my head, and their scent drifted around me like a gossamer scarf. For a moment I felt safe.
When I opened the letter from my father that contained those compassionate words, I had just walked across a bridge that spans the Ohio River. The river at that point was maybe a quarter of a mile wide. Its banks were littered with driftwood. After months, most likely years, of drifting downstream the wood had been polished slick by the current, turning it a beautiful mouse-back grey. From the bridge, the piles of wood looked like nude dancers lying about in groups on a stage of sand: graceful arms of sycamore trees, sturdy trunks of oak, and wispy hair like branches of creek willow and Russian olive, all intertwined and resting.
Every morning I walked across the bridge from Indiana to Kentucky to catch a bus that took me to the framing shop, four miles south of Louisville, where I was working as a mat cutter. Walking the bridge daily, I became very aware of the river and its banks of sand and wood.
On weekends, you might find me climbing over and digging through the piles, looking for the perfect piece to carry home. Perhaps, now that I look back, I was hoping that the wisdom of the journey the trees had taken would reveal itself to me. My journey had gotten a little turbulent and I had washed ashore with a lot of unanswered questions.
A slew of letters had arrived before my father’s landed. Not so much comforting messages through the front door mail slot, more like hurtful weights on my heart.
Those letters, from relatives, had been pages of condemnation. Scripture quotes written in red with strong language telling me that if I didn’t change my ways, I would spend eternity in hellfire and brimstone. I suppose someone who truly believes in the concept of heaven in the clouds, and hell underground, would have been alarmed. What actually alarmed me was the fact that I had survived an emotionally tortured and misunderstood childhood. The Ku Klux Klan and other angry forces had driven me from my choice profession as a high school art teacher and now, it seemed, my family had turned from me.
Clutching my father’s letter in disbelief, I looked out the kitchen window. Snow had covered everything outside. Below me a cardinal forged for food, dipping its beak under the crisp white blanket, looking up, getting its bearings, and then darting to another spot. I understood the plight of that bird. I too had been darting around for sustenance, for an eternity it seemed. But I couldn’t just up and fly away. Not this time.
It was January, my Father’s birth month. He would be eighty in a week. I didn’t know it then, but there would also be snow on the ground the day he died, almost ten years later. During those ten years, I would try to put this day, and a lot of the days that came before it, behind me.
This was the only letter I ever received from my father. He never wrote letters.
And yes, I did need him. But I couldn’t face the truth, so I ran.