This is not a Eulogy
by Matt Hall
The earliest memory I have of my father is him looking down at me through a swell of frothing water. It is late afternoon, I am three years old, and I have just fallen into a swimming pool. I remember the color of the water; how every ripple of sapphire liquid distorted the images of the people above. The way a meringue of dime-sized bubbles formed around me. The summer smell of chlorine tablets. The adult’s sharp shouts entering the water before deadening into Charlie-Brown gibberish and sinking to the bottom.
At the center of these people is my dad. Through the water, his face folds like one of Dali’s clocks, but I can make out the dark scruff of his beard. I’ve described this memory to him before. He says that he doesn’t remember it, but it had to have happened. Otherwise, how else would I be able to tell the story? I’m told he was drinking a lot back then. Try not to hold that against him.
Here’s how I remember it: It’s one of those summer afternoons that welds vinyl car seats into bare toddler thighs. My mother snaps a mismatched pair of bathroom towels into the air, and tucks them into the rear bench seats of her brown ‘77 Dodge Dart. My brother whines, but Mom gets stern. Amidst tears, my brother agrees to “not talk back,” and he and I sit like Apaches on top of the towels. Otis Redding spills from the radio, and both of us slide helter-skelter as the Dart wobbles up the highway.
I don’t remember my father being in the front seat of that car. Before she died, I asked my mother about that day figuring she might remember the time one of her sons almost drowned. I tell her about the towels, and the car, and the songs on the radio.
“I don’t think that happened,” she would always say, “we didn’t know many people with pools.” Then she would change the subject.
I also don’t remember falling into the pool. I remember looking up from the water, but there is no before. It’s like birth, or a dream. I must have opened my eyes underwater though, because I can see my dad on the deck with something in his hand. For once, the chlorine doesn’t sting my eyes.
The sound of my father entering the pool is like someone smashing a broken cymbal. There’s a dull, churning pressure in my ears, and the grip of fingers on my shirt. He pulls at me, and the water recedes from my view. That’s the end of the memory. I recite this to him but he denies that it happened. Someone told me once, that the reason my father doesn’t remember the pool incident is because he was drunk. I don’t know if I believe them.
They say, “I remember your father jumping into that pool, and he fished you out of there with one hand, while he held his beer in the air with the other. He didn’t spill a drop.” I don’t remember who said that. Maybe Uncle Jackie. Whoever it was, they seemed proud of my father.
When I first heard he didn’t spill his beer, I was proud too. That’s why I found it so hard to believe he didn’t remember it. Because it seemed like something to be proud of. Something manly. Something you’d brag about to your buddies. I told as many of my friends as would listen. They knew my father as a man so agile that he could jump into a pool and save his kids without spilling his beer. Who wouldn’t want that guy as their dad? But my father kept trying to convince me that my memory of the pool incident was wrong.
I stopped asking. I figured he was right, and I’d made the whole thing up. Besides, the details were getting more opaque as the years passed. In fact, I hadn’t thought about that incident at all until I was on my way here yesterday. Until I had to put on this suit this morning. But on the car ride to the funeral home, I got a little—anyway, my eyes got kind of blurry, and the memory flooded over me.
When I got to the funeral home, I saw Auntie Nancy, and figured since the memory was fresh, I’d ask her if she had ever heard of that sort of thing happening. She and Mom used to talk a lot, so I figured she would be the one to ask. But when I mentioned it to her she got quiet, and grabbed my elbow like it was my ear, before guiding me out of the funeral home.
“I wouldn’t be telling you this,” she said, “but with both your mom, and now your dad gone, you deserve to know the truth.”
“What truth?” I asked.
“Your dad had been drinking,” she said, “they did that a lot back then, but your father,” she pulled her chin down to her chest and whispered, “he had a problem. It was the Fourth of July, ‘83, ‘84, or something, and they had gone to a friend’s house. Your dad was drunk. Both him and your mother were smoking dope—that’s what we called weed back then—dope.” Auntie Nancy pinched her fingers together and lifted them to her lips, “you know?” I nodded.
“Seems so tame now,” she said, “but back then it was a big deal. You and your brother were playing by the pool—I don’t know how they thought that was a good idea—but your mother turned around for just a second. Nobody thought you were gonna fall in.” Auntie Nancy took a step back and looked around like she was expecting my dead mother to make a surprise appearance.
“You were still a baby, maybe three or four—you were under the water for a minute or two, before your dad jumped in after you. Long enough for you to lose consciousness. You’re lucky. A women at the party had just finished nursing school. She gave you mouth-to-mouth,” Auntie Nancy huffed. “Your parents were so scared. That nurse said they should take you to a hospital. But they knew that if they did that—“ Auntie Nancy raised her eyebrows. Her eyes widened. My face must have shown my confusion because she threw her hands into the air.
“C’mon, stoned parents, a baby almost drowning—what do you think would have happened? Especially back then.”
“So they lied about it?”
“You were fine. Babies are resilient. Anyway, that day, your mother gave your father an ultimatum. No more booze. No more drugs. For either of them. I remember her calling me that night. She made him promise not to discuss that day with you or your brother ever. He was so ashamed. They both were.”
And then I understood.
I wondered how many times he must have laid awake in the quiet dark thinking about that day. I imagined regret showing him the possibilities; the what-ifs. I imagined my mother’s fear. I wondered how much that promise must have weighed. I never saw my father drink after the pool incident—not even on holidays. He was sober the day he died.
On my way to the airport the next morning, I thought about love, and how it sometimes exists in those empty silent spaces that occupy promises and funerals. I thought about shame, and I thought about sacrifice. I boarded the flight, and slid into my assigned seat. The other seats in the row were empty, and for once I was thankful that I wouldn’t have to make small talk with a stranger. The plane danced off of the runway into the sky.
“Would you like a cocktail?” A solemn flight attended asked, once we were comfortably airborne. Tiny bottles of liquor peered up at me from inside a translucent plastic drawer.
“I’m okay,” I said, and I watched as the attendant and his cart clinked down the remainder of the narrow isle.
About the Author
Matt L. Hall is a 41-year-old fiction writer of Mexican/American descent. He is currently studying English and creative writing at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He hopes to begin his MFA candidacy in 2021. Social Media: Instagram - @TheWritingMyth Thank you for your time, Matt L. Hall