I tried to sing for him but the melody stuck in my throat like an annoying popcorn kernel that knows to lodge itself in your esophagus at the precise climax of a movie. I slightly choked on the uncomfortableness of it all. Unafraid of singing before large crowds the adrenaline surging through my veins like a double espresso. I fed on their energy, on their life. But sitting here before an 80 year old man, my stomach churned with fear. He requested the old hymn a second time, and I simply coughed and fidgeted like a 4 year old trapped in a church pew.
“I don’t think I know that one pops,” I lied, swallowing back the swelling of tears starting to burn my throat. Hell, I didn’t owe him anything. Especially not this. He wasn’t a paying fan; in fact, I couldn’t recall him ever making it to one childhood voice recital or the high school musical where I probably set the record for chunkiest Sandra Dee in Grease - one of my proudest moments, actually. I was always the school nerd, you see, but at curtain call, every person in that auditorium rose to their feet, including the kids who taunted me. It was then, I knew this was my little piece of heaven and I was going to spend the rest of my life holding onto that. I looked for his face in the crowd that night. I waited until everyone passed by with their hugs and congratulations. I waited for two hours after the performance, sitting in the dark, spandex coated barrel legs dangling over the edge of the stage. I waited until the principal locked up, forcing me out. I waited. I waited, because he promised.
I heard a slight groan escape his lips. By impulse I moved closer to him reverting to that mothering role I had been forced to assume as a child. At this distance, I could see the pain in his face. I hadn’t noticed across the room how yellow his skin actually was. I just stood there for a couple of awkward minutes, not quite sure what to do. There was no vomit to clean, no rubbing alcohol or mouthwash to hide. What was my place here?
Another groan. “Hey, pops, there is a button for morphine here. Do you want me to hit it?” No response. But the pain etched into his face and running through his body was palpable, and I did what any humane person would do. I hit the button.
They say a person has to hit rock bottom before they realize they need to change. Well, if sitting in a puddle of your father’s piss and vomit isn’t rock bottom, I don’t know how much further I would have to go to hit it. New York was my ticket out. So, I lost the weight, asked for extra lessons from my voice teacher, and took two jobs so I could move as soon as graduation rolled around. I had been living my dream ever since. Until I got the phone call.
The truth is, I’ve been waiting 30 years for him to die. 30 years expecting it. Every time he passed out, as a child, I was there checking his pulse, putting my hand in front of his face to make sure he was still breathing. When everyone else had left, I chose to stay...until I couldn’t. I never expected him to live this long and honestly always thought he would suffocate in his own vomit before his liver would take him. But he proved me wrong.
He made a garbled sound. “What did you say, pops?”
“I said, ‘sing’. You always had such a pretty voice.”
How the hell would he know?
“Remember when you played Sandy in Grease Lighting?”
Fighting to keep my tone even tempered. “Yeah, but you weren’t there, pops.”
“Yeah, I was.”
“No you weren’t.” Contending with his feeble mind would likely be a never ending battle, but I wasn’t willing to back down. Not with this much at stake.
“I was too!” he insisted.
“No, you weren’t. I think I would know dad, I waited all night for you to show up. But you couldn’t give up the fucking booze for one night, could you?” Even temper, fail.
It seemed like forever, standing in that malodorous hybrid of feces and aerosol disinfectant. The silence was too much for me bare and I started out the door. That’s when I heard his voice clearer than I ever had before.
“No, I couldn’t give it up. That’s why I sat in the back of the theatre the entire time. Where you wouldn’t have to worry about me. You sang like an angel.” He chuckled slightly as he sang the words “ ‘Look at me I’m Sandy’. As soon as you bowed, I was the first one on my feet, clapping and whistling. But, I figured I was probably getting too loud. So I left.”
My stomach hit the floor, as I tried to make sense of a man who, most days, couldn't make it out of the house because he was so roaring drunk, somehow traveling two miles to my high school to see a musical.
I began to ask why he had never said anything, but I knew better than to spoil this sacred moment. All the anger and bitterness, I had worn like a glove began to quiet for a moment, as I made my way toward my father’s hospital bed.
Not knowing what else to say in that moment, I simply sat beside him and whispered, “ If you left early that means you missed the encore. I think I owe you a song”.
- My life flows on in endless song;
- Above earth's lamentation,
- I hear the sweet, though far-off hymn
- That hails a new creation;
- Through all the tumult and the strife
- I hear the music ringing;
- It finds an echo in my soul--
- How can I keep from singing?
I always thought Sandra Dee would live on to be my most prized performance, the performance that inspired an award winning Broadway career. But it was sitting in that hospital bed singing to my father that the role of Sandra Dee seemed laughable. As sobs of forgiveness garbled my voice, I sang a stuffed up, tear-stained solo just for my dad that was not anywhere close to perfection. But it was easily the most prized performance I would ever give and the best audience I could ever hope for.