We were a military family; my father was a man that I only knew through myth. A collection of fables fabricated neatly between legend and facts. A masked hero with no real face behind his ego. Only had pictures and names to play with, everything else was just a fantasy. The Bible says that you can identify God by observing your father. My father was never there for me.
Smoke plumes through windows in a solid column. It spews out like an exhaust valve from the center of the earth. The smoke drifts into the blue sky as a black curtain, strangling yellow rays that travelled hundreds of thousands of miles, only to be devoured by a dark cloud. There was fire too, and it licked and clambered alongside the building’s frame, madly whipping itself into the sky, a constant flickering flare.
I never fully understood who God was. My mother described him as a source of love, the creator of all things, an ethereal heavenly father that supersedes physical existence. He is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. He is jealous, and wrathful, but he is also love. He works in mysterious ways. Whenever a question pried too deep or too far into the Bible’s outline of God, the answer would always be a reciprocating loop. God is vague. God is hollow. God is mysterious.
People gathered around the center of the burning buildings. Screams, shouts, and cries sounded out in cacophonic unison. Fire trucks blared onto the scene with their sirens adding to the chaos. They jumped off trucks in black suits, darkened even further by the swirling ash and debris about the place. The oxygen masks hung over their faces, and I wondered if they prayed to anything before they began making their way to Ground Zero. I wondered if they were sent to save lives or retrieve remains.
At first, I was fine with mysteries. Mysteries are hollow stories, begging to be filled by any means. I grew up in black Baptist neighborhood; none of us had fathers, only the shadows of something that was supposed to be our protectors. A generation shrouded in mystery. Our pastor told us that God was our father. God was watching us. We were his beloved children. A fatherless generation loved by an eternal father.
I sat on the floor of the living room; face glued to the television as every beating second of 9/11 unfolded. Crumpled tissue after crumpled tissue began collecting on the floor as my mom wept her tears in between prayers; my mother and I were in different worlds, yet in the same room. My father was deployed in South Korea when the towers fell. I told myself that he was still watching me, he was still watching us, we were safe.
Mathew was a bastard at birth, a kid that never saw the face of his father, never even knew his name. No face, and no name…it didn’t matter. Mathew gave him one. An empty void waiting to be filled in. Matt claimed that his dad was a super-secret agent with a lifelong mission to carry out. He could never come back home and hug his son because it would give away his identity, bad things could happen to him and his mother. He loved them both, and hid himself away to protect the both of them. Mathew told this story to me every day, reminding me constantly that there was a reason behind his absent dad. There was a purpose to it.
People began to walk out of the wall of gray smoke. Smeared blood mixed with dirty ashes on their face, caking them in a dark black stain. Mouths were wide open in moans of pain, but it could not be heard over the anchorman’s voice and police sirens. My mother’s voice was rattling off in the background too. A mixture of prayers and telephone calls blended into one another, forming an intelligible language. A voice that I heard, yet could not fully hear. She wanted him home as much as I did. She wanted someone to watch over her, she kept saying to her friend on the phone. She wanted something to watch over her. Her hands clasped again in a shaky and stuttering prayer. She longed for two fathers that I never fully came to understand.
Mathew asked me what my dad was like, if my dad was as astounding a hero as his. I knew what my dad looked like, we had pictures of him, and I knew his name too. Names mean nothing if they are associated with an empty void. It was okay though; my father didn’t need a name in the first place. I watched Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns when I was a kid. “The Man With No Name” would ride through towns, gun down the bad guys, and ride into the sunset with a cigar clenched between grinning teeth. That was my father, the mystery was his name. The mystery was his persona. The less there was to know about him, the more room to fill with my own fantasies.
People began crowding the smoke exhausted windows. There were more people than smoke, and they all reached their hands out, as if desperately and arbitrarily trying to find something to hold on to. I wondered if God was watching.
My father came home before Mathew’s. Walking off the plane that brought him in from South Korea, I gave him a hug immediately, coming only up to his waist. I remember him kneeling down and hugging me back. Clint Eastwood’s character always had an air of stoicism about him, somewhere buried beneath his silence; there was a man, a human. From the first day my father was home, there was silence. A hug was the only communication that we had between each other, the only connecting factor between father and son. I told myself that it was okay, Clint never talked that much either. But there was something different about my father’s silence. It was a silence that had an echo. A silence that something hollow produces.
One man climbed out onto the ledge. The camera had to zoom in to get him into the frame. Smoke gushed out violently from the window he escaped from, snippets of fire belched between the plumes. He looked back at the window, and stared down. The silent voices that plagued the scene were unheard, until that man jumped.
I tried getting him to talk. War stories fascinated me as a kid. I wanted to hear about all of his adventures, all of his heroic victories. Breakfast was cooked that morning. My father gripped his warm steaming cup of black coffee, and stared at his shadowed reflection from the dark liquid. His knuckles teetered from being white, to a lucid and distant grip on the handle. It was okay though, Clint never talked much either. My cereal was stirred into a water logged mush, as I mindlessly stared at my father’s face. Clint’s eyes didn’t sink so far into his head. His bags beneath his eyes weren’t that puffy. His eyes weren’t that cracked and red. Clint fights with a revolver; he has steady shooter hands, ones that don’t shake. My dad let go of his coffee cup, and picked up the paper. Clint’s hands don’t shake…
I wondered if God watched him too. I wondered if God caught him. I wondered if God loved him. A game that my friends and I use to play was dropping action figures from heights and watching them tumble down, seeing if setting up obstacles for them to get jumbled against on the way down would make their fall more interesting to watch. They would spin head over heels, a log senselessly tumbling through a gravitational adventure. I never played that game again.
The dog’s fur would ruffle on her back, and her teeth would snarl at the man who came home in camouflage and combat boots. My hand would try to stroke her stiff fur back into place, and I would whisper to her that it was okay, that Dad was home. This was Dad. That phrase was repeated over and over again, and with every stroke, I tried pushing her fur back. Mathew told me every day that his father loved him. It became his mantra, a chant, a senseless sentence that was directed to no one. I stroked my dog’s fur, and told her that this man was Dad.
I turned away when he fell. The crowd screamed at him. My mother was crying, watching person after person tumble like hail out of the tower’s windows. I closed my eyes until the lids were sore, my fingers plugged into my ears until the world was nothing but a silent shell around me, a black veil of emptiness and safety.
The door to my dad’s room was locked, but my hand still toggled with it. My knuckles rapped against the door, a hollow echo from the wooded surface replied. I wanted to talk; I wanted to hear his voice. I wanted to hear his stories. Having my father lock himself away from the world wasn’t new to me. There would be days were I would hear the hinges on the front door creak open, announcing that my dad was back from running military drills, but almost as soon as the front door shut, so would the door to his bedroom. A specter who is only be caught in blurry photographs, my father faded away from reality. I banged my fist on the bedroom door. I told myself that Dad was home. He was home, and I was safe. He was finally home with me, but no voice rose up from the other side of that door. No hollow words of comfort, only a dark and empty silence.
I guess there are times when even God has to hide away.