Stephanie’s Portrait



There was no wheezing. He usually struggled for syllables , taking  drags from his cigarette with gaunt fingers. Not this time. The only sounds I heard were my Stepmother saying that , David Lee Joyner Sr, is on his deathbed. She spoke to him with the phone against his ear, saying “David, sweetheart, David Lee is on the phone. Booger is on the phone.” No matter how old I got, the few times I spoke to my Dad, he called me Booger. I stayed on the line for 15 minutes. Crying was interrupted by me saying ” I love you, Daddy.” My Father was silent.

Memories of my Father are fragments. Like  specks of dust floating through the stagnant air of a sunlit window. They are visible for a moment, then disappear.  I recall that he always mixed his eggs and grits together until he couldn’t distinguish one from the other. I remember if we came to a police checkpoint, I was in charge of putting his Budweiser underneath my seat.  Most of my memories can be summed up into one event, however.

When I learned that my Daddy had cancer, I tried to see him whenever I could.  I would visit him at the same house I spent 4 weeks at for about 6 summers. It was a double wide trailer and a single wide  he had welded together. It had a huge porch on the front. He had wood siding around the outside so it looked like a house from the road. It sat on a hill with a forest behind the yard.  He turned two regular trailers into something beautiful. Everything was the same as I remembered as a boy. Except this time, he needed a scooter to get around. I had to help him into the VFW, holding the door as he used a cane. Then we sat at the bar with nothing to say. To act like I knew the man was impossible. 2 long distance phone calls per year and seeing him every July wasn’t enough to piece together an awkward conversation. Fortunately my wife and Stepmother were there to say things. I simply nodded.

I meandered through the house. I didn’t say what I was searching for. I had drawn a portrait of Stephanie in 1996. My sister had drowned in 1983. She was 16, I was 11 years old. Her portrait was my way of memorializing my sister for my Father. As I walked around the house, Stephanie’s picture couldn’t be found. Confused I asked, “Where is Stephanie’s portrait?” They acted like they weren’t sure what I was talking about. Then came the words, “I think it is in the shed”. I expected to see it framed, sitting in the corner. Instead it was rolled as if it were a scroll underneath a bandsaw. My sister’s portrait was covered in sawdust, surrounded by empty beer cans and cigarette butts. I uncovered my discarded artwork from the forgotten debris. Unfurling the paper that was faded from being outside in the elements. The pencil lines were worn from the years of neglect, but still visible.

I was carrying the picture in my trembling hands as I walked back into the house. I wouldn’t allow the turmoil to surface on my face as I grasped that drawing, still shaking. The distress which I felt inside was undetectable. No apologies were given for Stephanie’s portrait not being  in a place of honor on the wall of the living room. Everyone acted as though it was where it was supposed to be. It had been placed in the workshop precisely in that position . It wasn’t a mistake.  The reason why you ask? Because they were going to hire a better artist to add color to it. Mine was in black and white. They just never got around to hiring a worthy artist to correct my drawing. So my sister’s portrait, whom I loved, should be kept out of sight. There it remained unseen until I discovered it.

The emotions I felt that day I had known before. I was 4, 6,8,10, etc. You pick an age from my childhood. I would wait for Daddy to come see me. I waited for a long time. Just like Stephanie’s portrait, he discarded me with some old tools in Florida. Occasionally he would take me out to look at me, only to be put back moments later. The heartache that I felt the day I found  my sister’s portrait in that shed, was exactly the same I had felt 30 years earlier. I was staring at the driveway all over again, waiting.

I am not sure if people who have passed from this life into Heaven can see those of us who are still left on Earth. If they can see us as we go about our daily  lives, what do they say. If Daddy ever happens to peer into my studio, I hope he is watching me paint. Nudging Jesus, saying “That is my boy”! The one thing I wished that he had said on Earth is finally uttered on the Streets of  Glory. One day I hope he will say it to my face.

As a  father, husband, and an artist I have forgiven my Daddy for not respecting something I had put my heart into. The art is secondary to the honor my sister deserved, however. As a son to him and a brother to Stephanie, I have never forgiven him. The pain that I felt the day I found that portrait, lives on. Sometimes it is hidden from view, but it still lingers.

I was thinking about writing this while I was working on my bread truck. I would service a customer, drive, cry. Dry my eyes, service another customer. Repeat. This is something I have needed to write about for a long time. I have had so much rage from these memories. Out of a love for my sister, I write.  I never saw the path you took that made you into the Father that you were. As a boy, I looked up to Optimus Prime and my preacher as father figures. Optimus Prime taught me to always defend those who were weaker and to fight evil, whether robot or human. My preacher taught me to love God. These were only surrogates for whom I really needed, though. You.  There are many chains which link one generation to the next. A chain that teaches work ethic. One that demonstrates sacrifice. There is also a chain on how to show love. The links on this chain are rusted and falling apart. I am attempting to mend them back together.

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