Iím not allowed to answer the telephone.
None of us kids are allowed to answer the phone or get the mail; only Mom is allowed. When she first made the rule I thought it was ridiculous that I was included in the revoking of privileges. Iím sixteen, Iím almost a man . . . but I guess she needs to feel needed, needs me to depend on her. I know that if she gets the message sheís dreading, her mask of strength will dissolve into weakness, and Iíll have to be strong to catch her . . . but for now, I have to pretend to be content as her child, since thatís what she wants. She wants to protect us from the inevitable. She wants to be the first to hear that Dad is dead.
What Mom doesnít know is that when Dad first got drafted, my mind jumped months, even years, into the future. I realized in that moment that a draft was a possible death sentence. And I didnít shy away from the idea; in fact, I was fascinated by it. I was horrified by the idea of actually losing him, but still my mind played with the possibilities of life without him, just maturely facing the morbid reality that he might leave and not come back. Even in the days when he was still with us, I imagined that one day soon we would be hearing that he was dead, killed on the battlefield or dead at his camp with his throat slit in the night by enemy soldiers. I would be the man of the house while he was away fighting for our country, and I would have to take over after he was gone, if he died. It would be my job as the eldest son to support the family if Dad didnít make it back. With my mind in the future, I saw myself taking his place, comforting Mom as she wore black, quitting school to get a job, maybe a couple jobs, so I could support Mom and my three younger sisters. I wondered if it would be like having a wife and three kids.
Iíd already thought of all these things before he had even gone away to war. I was already prepared to become a man if my father couldnít be our familyís man anymore. I watched my father very closely while he did things around the house, trying to learn from him at the last minute how to do a manís duties in case this was my last chance. I wanted to ask him some things, but I felt it was inappropriate to ask him to pass on the knowledge Iíd need to live without himóhe could take it like I wanted him gone. But when his number had come up while we watched the draft on TV, in that instant something changed in my attitude toward him. In a way, right at that moment, he did die.
Once he was off to war, I couldnít bring myself to discuss the issues with my mother. I couldnít talk to anyone about my becoming a man and taking over from my father. I was afraid they would see me as a monster, as someone who wanted the power that came with being the head of the house even if it meant losing my father. I didnít want to support my family, but I was prepared to. There was definitely a difference.
But at the same time, I grew up so much in that one instant, and more still in the next few months. I feel so adult, and yet I have to go to school every day and mingle with the other sixteen-year-olds, being constantly reminded of my age. My peers just worry about getting a date, keeping their cars shiny, and whether they have enough money to date and keep their cars shiny. I feel so much older than they are. I feel like a man. I feel like childhood is behind me, I remember the very second it left my body, leaving behind this strange shell to be filled with the responsibility of adulthood. I doubt I could drain out the responsibility my imagination has supplied and reclaim my childhood, should I end up being ďdemotedĒ to the lowly status of ďeldest sonĒ at my fatherís return. Itís part of the reason I feel so offended at the restriction put on me by my mother; itís a rule for a child, not a man, and I shouldnít be in a category with my little sisters anyway.
I think I could handle a call or a letter from the War Department saying my father is dead. I donít think my mother would be able to handle it. She would break down sobbing and shake her head and become completely hysterical. She would call my fatherís name over and over and refuse to believe it was true. She wouldnít let me comfort her. We would know by the way she was acting what had been in that letter or what words had been said on the other end of the phone . . . and my sisters would cry and hug each other . . . and would I just watch helplessly? Would I try to console them? Or would I cry too?
I donít think Iíll ever cry again. It doesnít seem possible now to do something as useless as crying. I think that of all the people in my family, I would handle my fatherís death the best. I would be a shoulder to lean on and I would make sure everyone was cared for while they collected themselves. I would say only what needed to be said; wear black to show my respect for the dead; be supportive and stoic and a model of maturity. My family would be able to count on me.
What if I never see my father again? What if I really have spoken my last words ever to him? He and my mother conceived me out of love and raised me for sixteen years. I am his own flesh and blood. What if that part of me is killed in a battle I donít even understand? Will I ever be whole again? Itís like a nightmare, living from day to day wondering if my father is alive. No news, nothing. I canít imagine how I used to feel before, when I knew my father was safe, when there was no war and no draft, when I did not live in constant fear that now he could have been killed and I wouldnít know it. I canít connect with that innocent part of me anymore, I donít remember how it felt. My reality is this. And it repeats itself over and over. He could be dead. I might actually never ever see him againóhe might never see me grow up and get married and have children, graduate high school, get good grades this marking period . . . he might never be a piece of me again and I will have to let go of him or else part of me will rot away with him.
I remember when Mom was out picking Courtney up from daycare and the phone rang. My oldest sister Lillian and I froze in the middle of making dinner and looked at each other, then at the phone. I wanted so badly to answer it. I think she did too. We stared at it as it rang seven times, then breathed a mutual sigh of relief when it stopped. A couple of minutes later the phone rang again. It rang eight times, ringing again and again in my head, someone somewhere trying to reach me, reach us, and only my mother was ďallowedĒ to remove the barrier blocking the connection. It could have just been a telemarketer, or Lilís boyfriend, or any of my motherís friends. Or it could have been the call that brought the ending of my father. When Mom got home, neither of us mentioned it, and they didnít call back, whoever they were. I still wonder who it was. The ringing is still in my head.
I felt so vulnerable that time, so weak. I felt like if my father was dead I would just go into shock and someone would have to put me away in an institution. I didnít want to feel that way; I wanted to be strong. I wanted to comfort everyone else if it actually did happen. And to do that I had to detach from my emotions. I thought that I had let them go with my childhood, but theyíre still there, just hiding. They are balloons in my body but Iíve done my best to cut the strings so that if they pop the vibrations donít fry my insides. I wonder if that makes me some kind of inhuman monster. I know that I need to be there for my family if my father dies, and that I wonít be able to do that if Iím a wreck. So I just have to make sure that I wonít be a wreck. I donít think I can tie my connections to him back on, though. I think theyíre cut for good. I will never feel the same about him as I did before the war. Too much has happened to me, and regardless of the outcome I am changed forever.
I wonder about my father. He is so strong, fighting for us. And I am still too young to fight, too young to put my life on the lineóthe government says so. But I will not be ďtoo youngĒ to save my family, to be the man who takes care of everything. I am mature beyond my years. The government canít take that away from me. I wonder if my father has had to detach himself from us at all . . . if he lies awake thinking of us. Does he intend to do his duty, defend his country, and rest assured that I will take care of Mom and the kids if his life is sacrificed? Or are we so important to him that he will avoid battle and attempt to escape so that he might live to return? He didnít tell us anything about what he felt. He probably never will. The same way I will never tell him what I feel . . . either because he survives and I wonít need to, or because he is dead and will never know.
I wonder if Lillian feels at all like I do. She wonít have to take over my fatherís place, thatís for sure, but Iím sure this affects her . . . sheís supposed to be worrying about trends and boyfriends and schoolwork, not her dad dying. And Valerie, my middle sisteróshe should be playing hopscotch, having sleepovers, and chewing bubble gum, not having nightmares about going to the funeral. My youngest sister Courtney should be playing with her toys, learning her ABCís, and watching cartoons, not continually asking, ďWhenís Daddy coming home?Ē And I should be dating girls, shining my car, and making money to do both . . . not this.
And I wonder, if the war ends before he goes into battle or he survives fighting and comes home . . . how will I ever look at him again, having planned existence without him? I am ready to be known as Thomas instead of T.J.óIíve outgrown being someoneís ďjunior.Ē His departure caused me to become an adult, and how will he parent an adult if he gets the chance? How can I go under his wing again when I was ready to fly? And what will he mean to me alive when heís already died in my heart?
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