She hadn’t been doing well. I could tell this, even though I got a terse, “I’m fine…” The couple of times I asked.
Once, she asked to leave the sales floor for an unscheduled break, clutching her stomach. She’d just worked with an eccentric customer, an aging hippy wearing John Lennon glasses and a tie-dye shirt.
I knew, without her telling me, what was going on. But I didn’t want to push, for all that I wanted to be there, knowing that to get it out of her system would help the most.
I asked again, after the store was closed, no threat of customers or phone calls interrupting a conversation.
Clink, clank, the rattle of money being counted into a till. The smell of one dollar bills and fresh printed paper from the nightly numbers.
I turned to my other register, closed it out, and handed her the till to verify the funds. Tears rolled down her face. And like a rainstorm, the words poured out.
I asked if she needed a hug, and held her there for a moment, while she loosed the demons inside.
That customer reminded her of her dad.
I was her, once. I lost my father young… 20, like her. And I remember being 24 and missing him terribly. A customer would remind me of him, or I’d smell Brut aftershave in the grocery store. And I’d feel like I was punched, hard, in the gut. My breath would leave me and I’d lose him all over again. I remember an older coworker who had lost her father young, telling me it would get better, hurt less, fade with time. And I remember thinking I didn’t want it to fade. That I didn’t want him to be a memory, because he is a person.
And now, years later, I come up against September 10th and I can’t remember why it should feel significant. Then, something will remind me of flying from San Diego. My layover in San Francisco and reading my bible and desperately praying that he would live long enough for me to see him one more time. Of my brand new in-laws driving me from the airport in Portland to my childhood home. Of the hospital bed that held the shell of the fiery, fierce man who raised me.
And now, I have more years of memories without him than I have with him. And he feels, a little, like a character in a book that I read a long time ago. I have to work hard to conjure up his face, although, oddly, I can remember his scent in an instant. Cheap beer and Brut, and a metallic overlay from all the coins and keys he carried in his pockets.
That’s what she was afraid of. That her dad would become just a memory, no longer a real person. And I assured her that as long as she had his memories, she carried him with her always. But I couldn’t tell her the awful truth… That someday, all she would have is his essence, the feeling of someone she used to know well, like a well-loved character in a book.
I couldn’t break her heart again, not as her tears dried and she gripped my hand and looked, achingly, like a lost little girl.
So I brought out that time-worn cliche and simply told her it would all be ok. That it would get easier, eventually.
Because it’s a cliche for a reason. It’s true, sort of.
And it was what she needed to hear.