Eight month old Alex perched in his high chair yanks at his bib, pulling the Velcro tabs apart. I reach behind him and reattach. He does it again, does this repeatedly, teasing me with each pull, defying my resolve to keep him protected from flying morsels and a free falling sippy cup. Again and again I reattach. More than once, we’ve endured ten rounds of this in one feeding. I have said it so many times now I wonder why I don’t give up and find a safety pin: “You can’t do that, sweetie. We need the bib ON YOU to protect your clothes.”
“You can’t do that, Alex,” my deceased father hears me say, and now he’s that guy who leans in to correct the pronunciation of something I’ve said in the lobby of a concert hall or at the counter of some cafe. “Na-BO-kov. Not NAB-o-kov.” Excuse me? It’s weird these moments. I politely offer thanks. He nods in recognition of the point he just scored, looks the other way. I look down as if in deep thought. A decent enough guy, but I can’t deny my urge to punch him in the face.
I’m having a conversation with my son when the ghost of my father leans in. “You mean he mustn’t,” he corrects, his voice a masterfully controlled contrabassoon that soothes as it stings. “Mustn’t. It’s not permissible. We see that he can.” We’ve been through this before, dad and I, many times. Can, can’t, may, may not, must, mustn’t. “Everyone I know uses ‘can’t’, dad. It’s perfectly acceptable.” “Well,” he says, focusing on the wall behind me, “it’s not the best choice.”
I’m not the indignant teenager I once was. I know his years of instruction have added up to a better me even if I struggle with the lessons. No matter. The intrusion is pop rocks in my head. Alex drops his rattle, stares at me as if to say, “What now mommy?” In the uncomfortable quiet I plumb the depths for an answer. Peas. You must eat your peas. I make the “ah” sound and insert another spoonful into his mouth. He swallows, bounces gleefully, locks me into his gaze. Milliseconds later, he’s ripping off his bib and slinging it to the floor, painting the universe in puke green slime. I surrender to a new outfit and grab the sponge. What I would like to say to a flesh and bones version of this specter is “pull up a chair, swellhead.” Finish your handy work. Fix my speech.
Sometimes the memories cascade. I say can’t. He says mustn’t. He says mustn’t, and instead of exploding, I lie back and take in the sites. The soft serve swirl of his white hair, the dry creek beds of his forehead, loose jowls like chicken skin. I’ll visit his difficult eyes, the bridge of his once-broken nose, his square matter-of-fact chin. He’s at the head of the table, trunk large and strong, spine bent but confident. I sit across, shoulders hunched, eyes watering by the flicker of the candle’s flame. And listening. He’s a force, this man. A survivor. He has things to say.
Alex is ready to roll. I pick him up from his high chair and steady him as he walks toward his pile of toys. He’s distracted by the rocking chair, leans over to sink his teeth into its dark wood. “No, dear. We don’t eat furniture,” I say while directing him toward his favorite bear. I think of all the boundaries a parent sets, the pointers, the corrections, the challenge of getting the balance right. I think of how lasting are these words: no, can’t, don’t, mustn’t. And though it’s true that I still sometimes bristle when that contrabassoon windstorm blasts me home, I’m saddened Alex will never know its song.
So this is how it is in death. Hallucinatory and lifelike. The candle burns. Dad’s there sitting on the other side of our old kitchen table, the whole man, gazing out at his fig tree, secretly pining with me in the silent space.