“No!” I yell, and I feel bad right away. I can be such a bitch. “I don’t know,” I say in a kinder tone. I’m wondering just what he thinks it’s time for when an aide wheels my father in. The aide is a small dark man, Dominican or Haitian. He lifts my father easily from the wheelchair to the bed. As easily as my father used to lift me when I was young and not yet weighed down by his sins. Could anyone lift me like that now? Even as skinny as I am? I doubt it. The aide hovers around my father, elevating the bed so he can sit upright, covering his legs with a blanket, gently fastening an oxygen cannula under his nose and regulating the flow on the tank. Finally, he adjusts the pillow and turns to me. “He don’t talk,” the aide says. He points to his throat. “The cancer, it take his voice.” On cue, my father holds up a small whiteboard and a dry-erase pen. I nod my head. The cancer, that I knew about. The woman who called me from the prison told me as much. Told me it had spread. Everywhere. Explained about compassionate release in a tone that assumed I might care. I didn’t. It was all just information to me. About an old man dying of cancer in prison. Being released because the state felt sorry for him. But his voice. I didn’t know about that, and for some reason it jars me. Much more than the news of the cancer had. And then I remember how deep and plush his voice was. How it would wrap his words like a present. But what gift was I expecting from him today? An explanation? As if he would talk and then I’d say, Oh, that’s why you killed mom. It all makes sense now. I know better than that. I beam my most reassuring smile at the aide, but he gives me a look, his eyes skeptical, head tilted back. Putting someone at ease is not my strong suite. He leaves anyway, though. And not a peep from the blind man, whose complaints about timeliness apparently have nothing to do with what the aide can offer. My father writes on the whiteboard, in faltering red letters, I’m so glad you came. “I’m not sure why I did.” I stare at the frail man lying there. I have a memory of loving him, but I don’t feel it anymore. As if it was something I read about in a book once. I have knowledge of it, but the experience itself belongs to someone else. His eyes are the same luminous spheres around which I orbited as a young girl. Two bolts of blue that now anchor his decrepit body to the world of the living. His hands are the same, too. Big. Meant for cradling faces. Kneading dough. Holding a gun. You never came to see me. He erases this and writes, I can’t blame you. I look down at my lap. I squeeze my thighs above my knees as hard as I can. The pressure calms me. “I was too scared...dad.” The last word falls out of my mouth with the weight of something dead. “Then I was too angry. And after that I was just too messed up.” I think of all those years in therapy trying to gently coax that eleven-yearold girl inside me to move on. And just as many years of trying to push her out with the chemicals, prescribed and otherwise, I put into my body. Every day, I push. One way or another. I force myself to look up, to meet his gaze. “For a long time I just wanted you dead. But that just made me feel worse. So then I thought maybe I should die. At least that way I could be with mom.” My father nods. I wanted to die too. He erases this and writes, Still do, a sad smile on his face. It makes me feel better, closer to him. To know that he wants to die. You don’t still want to, he writes, do you?
Manhandled You broke my heart. Do you remember? You grasped it tightly in your meaty hands— too large to be kind, the fingers much too short for beauty—and snapped it right in two before pushing the pieces clumsily back together with a sealant of glue and hoping to make the same shape.
Nazifa Islam grew up in Novi, Michigan. Her poetry and paintings have appeared in Anomalous Press, splinterswerve, The Fat City Review, and Flashquake among many others, and her debut poetry collection Searching for a Pulse (2013) was released by Whitepoint Press. She sometimes updates her blog Thoughts Interjected and can be found on Twitter at @nafoopal. She is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in poetry at Oregon State University.