“My magic formula,” I said. “Well, my magic formula is something I need to tell you, about Dad. How he helped me.”
He sat up and gave me a look, eyes narrowed and calculating. “Something I don’t already know?”
“Something you don’t know, yes, because it only happened a few months ago.”
“Dad died thirteen years ago. What are you talking about?”
Now I had captured his interest.
“It was a vision,” I said. “That’s all I know to call it. He…appeared.”
“Dad? Appeared?” He snorted.
“Well, he did. Not in person, not really, I didn’t actually see him, just felt him being there. He…well, he spoke to me.”
“What’d he say?” Tim said. He cocked his head and pursed his lips in that This had better be good look.
“Tim, I’m serious. If you’re just going to make fun of me, I’m not going to tell you.”
“Okay, I’m sorry,” he said. “I know you’re serious. I’ll listen.”
Ha! His curiosity got the better of him.
“I know you see and hear and do things other people don’t,” he said, “so why should I be surprised Dad showed up to you?”
Always easier to talk this way, side by side on the booth bench, or walking, or driving. Eating messy chicken wings, piling up the bones, using up all the napkins.
“And how did you know it was him?” Tim said.
“I…I smelled him. And I felt him. And he called me a pet name I barely remember.” I said. “I was sewing. Not thinking about anything in particular. I felt someone come in, thought it was Jack. In fact, I glanced over my shoulder and thought Jack was standing right behind me. I said ‘Hi, honey, what’s up?’ and kept on sewing. He didn’t answer me. I turned clear around, and there was…there wasn’t anyone there. But I still felt someone standing there. I could smell cigarette smoke, and I knew it wasn’t Jack. He never smokes in the house. Besides, he was off on a job, doing some remodeling for a neighbor. He wasn’t even home.”
Tim pushed the empty dishes to the side and the waitress came, cleared them away.
“So you figured it had to be Dad?” he said. “From the smell?”
This was hard to talk about in ordinary words. “No, not just the smell, it was a…a feeling, I guess. I just felt him. In the room, near me, all around me. As if I could reach out and touch him, and it would be…Dad. And he used pet names for us that I’d forgotten about.”
“What’d you do?”
“I said, ‘Is that you, Dad?’ and I heard him, clear as anything, inside my head, not an actual voice booming out in the room. ‘Sure is,’ he said.”
Tim stretched his legs out and crossed his ankles.
“What else did he say? Inside your head.”
“He said he had a message for me. And a message for you.”
“Why didn’t he just give it to me, then, instead of you?” Tim’s eyebrows were peaked in skepticism, one eye narrowed.
“I asked him that. He said you wouldn’t have listened, because you’d have thought you imagined it.”
“He was right about that.” Tim lifted a palm toward me. “So, go ahead. What’d he say?”
Tim was treating this like a game. I wasn’t. I had written down the message, almost memorized the words, I’d read them so many times. I recited Dad’s message from memory.
“He started out, ‘Listen, Twinkle Toes…”
“Dad called you ‘Twinkle Toes’?” Tim chortled.
“That’s what he used to call me when I was very little. Mom says I never walked, always ran everywhere, on my tippy toes. That’s how I knew for sure it was him. Do you want to hear this, or not?”
“Yeah, yeah, go on.” He settled back, still chuckling to himself. “Twinkle Toes,” he muttered, shaking his head. I knew I’d hear that name again. But I’d had to tell him, it was one of the ways I knew it was Dad.
“Dad said, ‘You’ve got to quit feeling bad because you weren’t there when I died. You’d have just begged me not to die, tried to keep me alive. That’s not what I wanted. I was headed home to the Father.”
Tim was leaning forward now, listening. “He was right about that! That’s exactly what you’d have done!”
“Well, yes, I would have. He’d been talking about ‘his time’ since his 70th birthday—kept talking about how the Bible said a man’s life span is ‘three score and ten.’ I did try to reason with him about that, told him it was just an average, for Pete’s sake, people didn’t just up and die when they hit seventy. But he wouldn’t listen. When he turned 71 he said he couldn’t understand why he was still here. Said he must have gotten an extra year for good behavior.”
“But none of us knew what he knew, he’d only told his brother Bern,” Tim said. “He’d had a heart problem, and blackouts, for a year or more. I noticed when we worked together on his garden, sometimes he’d sort of collapse down to the ground and nod off for a few minutes. I thought he was just resting.”
“He kept talking about being ready to go,” I said. “In fact, he seemed beyond ready. Eager.”
“Who wouldn’t be, married to that…woman. She drove him nuts.” He drained off the last of his coffee drink. “So, is that what helped you with your…regrets?”
“Dad was pretty emphatic. Yes, it did help. A lot.”
“So, what did he have to say about me?”
“I don’t understand it, but maybe you do. He said, ‘You tell that little blister he has to stop feeling guilty, he was just doing what I’d taught him to do. You tell him I’m proud of him, of the man he is. And tell him this: I was scared for him, not for myself. It was a whole lot easier for me once I knew he got out safe. Then I could just let go and head on Home to the Father. Tell him it’s time he got over it, quit thinking about it, it wasn’t his fault.’”
I went on. “That was when the Presence I felt started to fade. His voice was harder to hear. But he added one last thought, said it again: ‘And you be sure to tell Tim I’m proud of him.’”
Tim was very still.
“That ‘little blister’ thing,” I said. “I’d forgotten that, too. He used to call you that, when you were just learning to walk.”
Tim stared across the room where a piano player had started up, playing and singing golden oldies. Tim’s fingers tapped out trumpet solos on the table. A few minutes passed. I waited.
Finally, Tim sighed, leaned his forearms on the table, and clasped his hands. He shifted his gaze to his empty coffee glass. Said nothing.
“Tim,” I said.
“What did he mean,” I said, “about doing what he’d taught you to do? And that it wasn’t your fault? How could it have possibly been your fault?”
His pale face turned toward me.
It was the same face as his hospital face in the days after the accident, gone all waxy white, his head wrapped in white bandages, hurt little-boy Timmy, wanting someone to tell him everything was okay, make it all right.
He didn’t speak, just kept his eyes on me, his mouth trembling.
“Tim…” I wanted to give him head kisses, the way I had when he was small and came running to me with a boo-boo. Head kisses always helped. Tim’s mouth worked until he got some words out.
“What he said about having to know I was safe. No one but him and me knew about that. Irene hadn’t gotten there yet, and I’ve never told anyone.”
His voice grew quieter. “In the Emergency Room…they had us in separate cubicles with a curtain between. Every few minutes he’d yell out, ‘Where’s my son? Is he all right? Tim! You okay?’ I kept trying to get up and go to him, but they wouldn’t let me. All I could do was holler through the curtain, ‘I’m all right Dad, I’m doing good.’ He’d be quiet for awhile, then yell for me again.”
I felt a fist punch into the center of my chest, and hold there, picturing my Dad, so grievously injured, and his son, so near, unable to get to him. Calling to each other, separated by a curtain. Tears pooled in my eyes.
Tim sucked in a deep breath, and went on.
“Then he quit talking. I’d call, but he wouldn’t answer. Something must have happened, I don’t know what, but next thing I knew they’d rushed him out into an ambulance and taken him to Portland for heart surgery.”
I forced myself to speak over the fist in my chest, let the tears drip onto the tablecloth.
“What I heard Dad telling me, to know you were safe gave him comfort. He said you need to stop feeling guilty. It’s over. Way over. Give it up. He was headed Home. And glad of it. He’d been looking forward to it for years.”
Tim folded his arms across his chest with his hands tight under his arms.
“That E.R. thing, that wasn’t the worst of it.”
He settled back against the booth. His shoulders dropped and he breathed in, long, held it, breathed out.
So there was more. Was he going to tell me? In his own time. I waited.
“What he said, called me a little blister, said I should stop feeling guilty. Said it wasn’t my fault.”
“Yes.” He was reviewing the message, authenticating it against what he knew.
“I believe it was him you heard,” he said. “Not at first, it was pretty woo-woo for me. I’ve never been too sure about the afterlife. Most of the time I think there is one, and other times…not. And if there is an afterlife…people can come back to give us messages?”
He shook his head. “But it does sound like him. Sounds exactly like him.”
“It was him, I’ve never been more sure of anything,” I said.
His thumb rubbed his empty finger stub, and he stared at the piano player.
“All right then.” He stood up, put his shoulders back and turned to me. “Let’s take a walk. You don’t know everything about that accident. It was my fault. I’m ready to talk about it.”
His aura had gone to bright orange, shading lighter at the outer edge. The color of confidence.
We left money for our meal and drinks, bundled up in our warm jackets, gloves, knit hats and scarves and headed off to the park with the cherry trees.
Tim talked in a low monotone, so that I had to keep up with him and strain to hear all that he said.
“The night before the accident, I’d gone down to spend the night so we could get up early and go clam digging on Father’s Day. That was going to be my present to him. It was a really low tide, too.”
He paused and rewrapped the scarf around his neck, tossing the ends over his shoulders.
“But the first thing he said to me was, ‘I paid your water bill for you.’ You know, that lot he gave me on his farm, so I could build there someday? He got the water bills for both the farm and my lot, always gave me my bill.”
Uh oh, I thought. Tim has so much pride…
“And I just lost it, the way I do sometimes.”
Yes, I knew. Tim and I both had that characteristic, at least with each other. We got over it fast, talked it out, moved on with no leftover grievances. Tim and Dad did the same thing.
“I yelled at him, told him I was a grown man, wasn’t living in my car any more, I could pay my own bills, he didn’t need to take care of me.”
“Oh no. What did he say?”
“Didn’t say a word. But he was upset. Upset enough to take a sleeping pill and go straight to bed.”
He twisted his gloved hands together. “I figured we’d work it out on the beach, digging clams, the way we always did.”
“But then you got up at four o’clock…” I said.
“He was still half-drugged, I could tell. But he insisted on driving himself.”
“So he blacked out and hit the telephone pole.”
“Yeah. And except for yelling back and forth in the E.R., we never got to work it out.”
There was nothing I could say. We walked to the end of the park, and started back.
Finally, Tim said, “I shouldn’t have upset him the night before, shouldn’t have let him drive, I could see how he was still groggy. It was my fault. We wouldn’t have had an accident if I’d been driving.”
I had to laugh. “Yeah, like that ever would have happened. Dad letting someone else drive? Did you ever see that happen, ever? Even once, in your whole life?”
We walked on.
“If I hadn’t yelled at him the night before, he wouldn’t have taken that pill.”
“Opal told me once he took a sleeping pill most every night. He probably would have taken that pill anyway.”
Tim was quiet. He touched the trunk of a cherry tree with his gloved hand and paused for a moment, then walked on.
Finally, I said, “He specifically mentioned that you were just doing what he’d taught you to do. Said he was proud of you. I’ve wondered about that, what he meant. He was saying he’d taught you to be responsible, to pay your own bills.”
“That’s what I figured, when you told me that part.”
“I have the whole message written down, at home somewhere. I’ll give you a copy.”
He shrugged. “If you want to, fine. But I think I’ve got the whole message now. Stop feeling guilt, I was doing what he taught me to do, being responsible. He’s proud of me.” His voice choked up, and he cleared his throat.
“And he was glad I got out safe, glad to be going Home.”
“And,” I interrupted, “you need to get over it, quit thinking about it.” I grabbed his arm, slowed him down. “That’s not me saying it, Tim, it’s Dad. So, can you do it? Quit thinking about it? Quit feeling guilty?”
He stopped walking. His eyes moved from the ground to my shoes, then slowly up until he was looking at me.
“He said he was proud of me.”
His eyes glistened in the glow from the street light.
“But stop feeling guilty?” he said. “I’ll work on it, I will, probably with Peggy. Who knows if I’ll ever get over it.”
I remembered a line from a poem I learned in college, some 17th century poet. “Guilt is the source of sorrows,‘tis the fiend, Th’ avenging fiend, that follows us behind, With whips and stings.” Tim’s sorrows seemed endless, unfixable. Whipped and stung by a fiend.
“But I do feel lighter, somehow,” he said. “Cleaner, maybe.” He linked his arm through mine. “I’m glad you told me.”
“Let’s get back, get some sleep,” I said. “We have an early flight in the morning.”
When we were almost to the hotel, he stopped again. “Thank you. You may have saved my life. And it’s not the first time.”
I was too overcome to respond.
Before leaving for our flight home the next morning, we met for breakfast. The blue bruises were gone from under Tim’s eyes.
“Sleep okay last night?” I asked.
He stretched and grinned. “Never better.”
The little blister vision had given Tim an injection of new life. He slept all the way home on the plane, and Irene told me he was sleeping most nights at home, better than he had in years.
Somewhere in there, a miracle happened, Mom’s definition. Altered perception. Things looked different now, to both of us.