By Melissa Ballard
I might not be original, but I am loud.
It is 1969, the spring before my senior year of high school. I stand in the living room, staring at my parents, hands clenched at my sides. “I won’t go. You can’t make me. You’re ruining my life,” I shout. I run up the stairs, slam my bedroom door, and throw myself on my bed, sobbing.
I feel awkward and out of place. The transition to high school in our western suburb of Cleveland has been especially difficult; there are eight hundred or so students in my class, and we come from three different junior highs. Now, though, I have a group of friends, I work in the attendance office during my study halls, and, best of all, I have a boyfriend. I have decided I’m not going to college, so I am not scheduling any math, science or foreign language classes for senior year. Instead, I am looking forward to English Lit and Art Appreciation. All of this has made me cautiously excited.
Until, that is, Dad informs me he is being offered a big promotion. He will be transferred to his company’s home office, halfway across the country, in New England. Where we will live. Where I will have to start over.
I cry in my bedroom, half-expecting one of my parents to appear at the door with that warning from childhood: “stop crying before I give you something to cry about.” But nothing happens.
A few weeks later, at the dinner table, Dad announces that he has turned down the job in New England. He will instead be promoted to Regional Manager. He had already worked his way up from inspecting boilers to supervising those who do. Now, he will supervise the supervisors. He will still work out of the Cleveland office, and we will stay in our small rental home, but, in his new position, Dad will also travel to supervise inspections of nuclear power plants and equipment in Ohio and Japan.
All I can think about is my relief that we are not moving.
On each visit to a nuclear site, Dad wears a badge. After the visit, he turns the badge over to a technician. The film in the badge, when developed, measures his exposure to radiation. When his cumulative numbers reach a certain level, he has to stay out of the plants for a time.
“Wow, Dad, do you glow in the dark?” I say, teasing.
“No, dear. It’s safe,” he says.
In elementary school, I am part of the “wait-until-your-father-gets-home” generation. When my usually gentle, soft-spoken dad gets home from work, he changes into baggy jeans, which he calls “dungarees,” held up with a thick leather belt. The buckle is made from a silver dollar. On days when Mom reports bad behavior, he reluctantly takes off the belt and says, “This will hurt me more than it hurts you.” I wail and carry on, but there is no real physical pain, and he never leaves marks.
As I lurch into adolescence, constantly hiding in my room to read, I learn I can use words as a weapon. Sometimes, I go too far.
I am fourteen. My parents and I are crammed into a tiny camper we’ve rented for the week: our summer vacation. The only saving grace at this campground in rural Pennsylvania is the teen lounge, a back room in the barn that houses the check-in area.
I go there each day with a mixture of terror and excitement. There is always music, but no dancing, just lots of standing around and talking; guys play pool. Nothing ever happens, but it might. I am still shy and awkward, but my contact lenses, the ones that replaced my thick glasses, give me some confidence. There is a boy my age who lives and works on the grounds, and he sometimes stops by the lounge during his breaks. He is blonde, tan, and knows everyone. I am trying my best to make an impression.
One day, Dad shows up at the door of the lounge. He tells me Mom has lunch ready. Adults never come to this space, not even to the doorway. Nobody seems to notice, but his appearance enrages me. I storm up the hill to our camper, taking the long way, stomping on the packed dirt path. By the time I open the door of the camper, Dad is sitting at the tiny foldout table, and Mom is putting food on it. I begin to shout.
“I am so embarrassed! I’ll never be able to face those people again. You look ridiculous in those baggy shorts, with your droopy beige socks and white legs.” I’m on a roll, so I move on to grammar. “And learn to use the past tense. It’s ‘I saw it,’ not ‘I seen it.”
I haven’t heard him say that today, but it’s a grievance I carry. Dad was born and raised in Tuscarawas County, tucked neatly in the middle of Ohio’s Appalachian counties. He calls green peppers “mangos,” and reminds me to “warsh” my hands before meals.
I’m not finished, but I stop, because I realize my dad has his head in his hands, and he is quietly crying. Mom shakes her head and says, “Now look what you’ve done.”
I am both fascinated and horrified by my power.
Many of our verbal battles take place at the dinner table, where I like to expound on the hypocrisy of the Vietnam War and my support for the Civil Rights Movement. These topics are mostly ignored in our quiet, homogenous suburb, and certainly in our home. Mom says, “Let’s talk about something more pleasant.” I am relentless, though, and Dad ends up red-faced and shouting: “Go to your room if you can’t stop mouthing off!”
I push my chair back, nearly hitting the wall of the small room. I stomp up the stairs and try my best to slam the door of the carpeted room.
After I graduate from high school and move two hours away, Dad and I start to get along better. He tells me he worries less about me when he’s too far away to do anything, and I find I appreciate him more now that I don’t see him every day.
Dad has smoked a pipe for as long as I can remember, but he is always telling Mom he’s quit. When he is working near Toledo, where I live, he sometime picks me up for a weekend at home. Often his car smells like cherry tobacco.
“Dad, are you smoking again?” I ask.
He winks at me. “Only once in a while, punkin. No need to tell your mother.”
It’s the spring of 2012, and we are packing up the contents of the home my parents lived in for nearly forty years, the only house they ever owned, Mom hands me a document frame that holds Dad’s boiler inspector’s license. It is strangely heavy. I turn it over and find a hand-made extension on the back, secured with two hinges at the bottom and a sturdy latch at the top. The wire has been replaced with a thick chain. This is vintage Dad; he loved to tinker and piece things together, Depression-style. I wonder what else is in it, and I set it aside.
Later, when I open the frame, I find a stack of papers, including Dad’s transcript from International Correspondence Schools (ICS), which details the twenty-five courses he took to qualify for his first license in 1954. Some have mysterious names: “Elements of Fluid Mechanics,” “Properties of Materials,” “Riveted Joints.” He completed this series of courses when I was two years old, while working full time at Reeves Steel Mill. I remember the thin blue paperback textbooks on the shelf in the basement. He earned mostly As, a few Bs, and only one C, in Algebra III.
There are other certificates, including one from 1974—after Dad had started to inspect nuclear sites—for successful completion of an advanced course in “Welding, Nondestructive Examination and Radiation Health Physics.”
The thick frame hung in his office until he retired. Then he placed it on the pegboard over his tool bench, behind the furnace. After he died, Mom put it in a box with some of his other belongings and stored it in the attic. Now it is mine, the closest thing I have to Dad’s permanent record.
After I am married, when my parents come to visit, Dad often roams the house. Invariably, I find him in my home office, hands behind his back, staring at the framed college diplomas I finally earned.
“Don’t worry, Dad,” I joke one time. They aren’t mail-ins; they’re legit.” I am referring to a 60 Minutes episode about phony college degrees. I have forgotten about those thin blue books.
Dad retires at the usual time, with the usual party and pen set. A year later, he is diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Dad’s oncologist is not fond of answering my questions, so I spend an afternoon in the science library at the college where I work. I read articles in medical journals, mostly the abstracts, which do not live up to their name. I am riveted by one fact in particular: survivors of Hiroshima—who, like my father, were exposed to radiation—have a higher than usual incidence of this form of cancer. I think about telling my mom but decide not to. She has enough to deal with, and my questions already seem to be putting everyone on edge.
For two years, Dad responds well to oral medication. One day he breaks his hip, but not from a fall; it shatters when he is getting out of his car. He gets a hip replacement and recovers quickly.
Soon, though, the back pain Dad has experienced for a long time gets worse. He can’t sleep with a comforter on the bed because it hurts; he needs two light blankets instead. His doctor orders more x-rays, and the results show multiple spontaneous fractures in his spine. Dad’s bones are starting to crumble.
Dad is admitted to the hospital again. For weeks, he sees and hears things nobody else can see or hear. He is nearly always agitated, especially at night. He is getting an aggressive form of chemotherapy, as well as heavy doses of pain medication. I question out loud the benefit of the chemo in light of its many side effects and the prognosis for this type of cancer. Dad’s doctor asks me to remind him where I attended medical school.
Six days before Dad dies, he has a dream about a warm, golden light and large, open rooms. Everyone wears flowing white robes, and everything glows. After that, he smiles, knowingly, much of the time. He is finally calm.
Mom calls me after he has that dream and says, “Bring your Bible when you come to the hospital.”
I declared atheism in my teens, and although I have softened that position considerably over the years, I am still not known for my scriptural expertise. But I dig out my grandmother’s King James Bible and put it in my tote bag, along with my copy of Letters to a Young Poet. When we are alone, I ask Dad to tell me his favorite Bible verse. It is Ecclesiastes 12, the whole chapter. I roll my eyes at the thought of the Old Testament. It is too dark and punitive for my tastes, what with its talk of fearing God and keeping his commandments, but I also see that this chapter deals with the cycle of life and death. I assume my dad takes comfort in the thought that his spirit will return to God when he dies.
“What’s your favorite?” he asks.
I laugh. “Most of my favorite quotes are from poets,” I say. By the time I finish reading, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves,” from my Rilke book, Dad’s eyes are closed.
As I start to gather my things, Dad says, “‘Try to love the questions.’ I like that.” He opens his eyes, looks up and to his right, and smiles.
As I am leaving, he squeezes my hand. His voice is husky, because he has an infection, oral thrush. “I wish we had more time to talk,” he says. The only future I can see is endless visits to this dark hospital room with its beeping and sputtering machinery. “Don’t worry, Dad,” I say, “We’ll talk more.”
The next day I work, and the following day, Mom and I make the two-hour drive to help my paternal grandma move into an assisted living apartment. As soon as we leave, and with no warning, Dad’s vital signs plummet. The hospital calls Mom, but before we can get back, he dies. My husband is with him, and he tells me Dad passed peacefully and quickly.
Eighteen years later, sorting through yet another of Mom’s boxes, I find a letter addressed to my dad, written by the Vice-President of the company he worked for. I’ve never seen it before. It is dated May 9, 1969, soon after Dad told me about his first promotion offer.
Phrases jump out at me: “your offer to maintain extra living quarters in Connecticut at your own expense is laudable, but”…“while I respect your right to make a decision based on a personal situation”…and, “your decision in no way eliminates you from further consideration for advancement.” But the penultimate paragraph is the one I read over and over: “Perhaps I should be blunt and merely say that teenagers’ desires and interests change by the day if not the hour.”
My stomach churns as I put the letter back in a file folder. Did Dad take the second promotion offer because he sensed it would be the last? Did he know that the work might not be safe? Or, did he believe his film badge would be a talisman against radiation exposure? I don’t know.
What I do know is that Dad always tried to protect me. Always.
I‘m the same age Dad was when he died. As I write about him, I often catch a faint scent of his cherry tobacco. I think of the times he puffed on his pipe and blew smoke in my ears to relieve the pain of childhood infections. The wisps connect us even as they vanish.
The memory of that sweet, warm smoke still has the power to comfort me. ■
Author’s Note: Thank you, Arjun Makhijani, for educating me on matters relating to radiation exposure. Any mistakes are mine.
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