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My Father, My Ghost
By Janelle Barnette

My father is a ghost haunting my every move. He has been many things: an alcoholic, an addict, a thief, a would-be kidnapper. But at his deepest, darkest core, he is a ghost. Every ghost has a history; every ghost has a life story full of struggles and strife. My father's life was certainly not an easy one. His family was the epitome of dysfunction, and he never learned proper coping methods. None of that really matters now. A ghost's story runs backwards. The end becomes the beginning.

My father met his end on a cold, wet sidewalk in Manhattan. Strangers stood over his body while police marked the area with yellow tape. His body was identified and released. The crematorium smoke billowed and his body was burned to ash. His life ended at thirty-nine, but the ghost of a man I barely knew while he was alive, remains. As long as I live, I am forced to carry my father's ghost. This is the only way I can ever know him.

I know very little about my father's actual life. I know he was born in Amsterdam, moved to America, joined the Navy, and met my mother. Those are the small things, the facts that do not truly matter. The parts of my father's story that cannot be contained in words or recorded in biographies, I know intimately. How could I not? My father's ghost haunts my veins and every borrowed fiber I possess. His blood is my blood. His demons are my potential demons. He is part of me. He lurks in the darkest corners of my subconscious. He is my bad habits and all of my flaws. Every horrible decision I make I feel him there watching me, taunting me with the life he chose to lead, a life that could be mine. I fight him in my dreams; the nightmares that struggle to break into prophecies. I refuse to become my father. His ghost is a constant reminder of who I can never let myself become.

When I was young, my father was the man who knocked on the door at 3:00 A.M. He was someone to fear. He was the man I refused to see. He was the shadow creeping down the street after standing on our porch for hours calling out to a closed and curtained window. My father was a fleeting presence in my life. I barely ever thought of him, and when I did, even my thoughts were fleeting. In a way, my father became a ghost long before his death.

My father was never very far from me, at least in distance. In the neighborhood bar less than two blocks from our house, he told strangers the things he was never sober enough to tell me. Or maybe he only thought of me when drunk. Uncles and well-meaning friends would tell me and my mother about my father's bar room exploits and confessions -- how he cried over his whiskey that he loved me more than he loved himself, or how he wanted to be a father and wanted to see me, but my mother kept me from him. With drunken attempts at poetry, they would explain how his tears spilled into his glass as he wept over my surely wretched childhood without him. All he wanted, he said, was to make sure he left his mark on my life. Instead, he left marks on doors; deep holes in the wood made by angry fists and feet. He left purple bruises on my arms while he ran down the street clutching me in his -- a kidnapping attempt foiled by a punch to the nose courtesy of my uncle. He left muddy footprints on the concrete steps outside our house. He left his fingerprints on the doorbell. On my life, he left nothing. While alive, he made more of an impact on the bartenders and liquor store clerks than on his own daughter. His death was what left the mark -- a mark that glows and shines and can never be hidden.

I do not blame or hate my father anymore. Blame cannot stick to a ghost, and extending hatred to something incorporeal is a burden I cannot bear. I accept my father for what he was and what he is now. I do not make excuses for his behavior, but I can understand why he chose to escape. My father's escape was the bottle, or the syringe, or anything else temporary. A family was permanent, so he walked away. Death should have been my father's last escape attempt, but even in death, he could not fully disappear.

I may not have been the stranger that found his body on the sidewalk. I may not have been the paramedic who carried his body to a waiting ambulance. But I am the one who will carry him on. I am the new beginning my father desperately tried to find. I will tell his story. I will tell the parts I know, the only parts that matter. I will tell the story of my father, my ghost. I will tell the story of myself that begins where my father's ends.

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