I hope this letter finds you holding memories as fond of me as I have of you, however few or faint. We last met after your accident many years ago, where I had arrived to find you in a deep sleep from which the doctors said you might never awaken. Those long nights at the hospital retired the graying grievances between your father and me for a short while, and their recovery was as painful as yours was miraculous. We had not spoken for decades prior, and have resumed our separate ways since our last night together with you. I left your bedside knowing you were alive and well once more, and I continue to feel a strange pride, as though you were my own son, and a warmth in my heart which runs counter to the feelings I’ve harbored for my brother, and him for me.
They say time heals all wounds, but I’m too old to believe a lone lifetime is long enough to heal certain injuries, least of all those between me and your father. I do not wish to cause any distress between the two of you by writing, but the rest of my family, our family, is gone. Your Aunt Sharon and I parted some time ago, leaving you and Robert as the sole remaining witnesses to my life. In addition to being well past my prime, I’m unsuitable for work, given a variety of reasons I’m sure your father has told you, though there is another he has not.
Today marks the anniversary of my darkest fear coming to fruition, and I’m writing this with a weight in my heart that I do not think will ever be lifted. The fade is complete. I awoke one year ago, in a hospital where I had, in ignorance, consigned myself, and I spent those first waking hours staring into a bathroom mirror, seeing nothing but the wall behind me.
My waning sight had first added insult to the injury of your Aunt Sharon’s departure when, signing the papers from her lawyer, I needed a magnifying glass for the first time. My clarity of vision would further loosen its grip the following weekend as I dressed for worship, a day which would be the first time I joined the services without her. I was instead accompanied by the whispers of speculation among the faithful as my companions before the Lord. That morning, the hallway mirror found my Sunday best wanting, the colors of my dress shirt and tie muted, my black suit dulled to a deep gray and its contours lost in the unnatural twilight.
I later received eleven stitches after colliding with the sliding glass door to my back yard, not having seen my reflection. After I changed every bulb in my house, I had my eyes examined. The doctor diagnosed me with perfect twenty-twenty vision, whereupon I changed the light bulbs once more to one-hundred watts each, temporarily blinding me when I switched them on. I was still unable to distinguish colors from shadows when looking at myself.
Everything was in plain sight, but for me. My hair seemed thinner and thinner with each passing day, though nothing turned up in my comb or in my drain, and I still felt the same coarse, black hair passed down from your grandmother when I ran my hands over my head. My fingernails grew more translucent, my shadow more tentative in contrast to the dark silhouettes of those around me. On a hot, cloudless afternoon following services, I walked with the faithful into the blazing heat, the sharp shadows of the flock gunmetal black on the rippling asphalt, while my own shone blood pink and blurry, the light from the noonday sun half ignoring my very flesh and bone. Bright threads of color twisted and shimmered on the ground as I moved, as though my body were little more than a chunk of stained glass from the church window.
My left hand started to tingle, I remember, and I fell, which I do not. At the hospital, they said my heart had failed me. I already knew that, because I was disappearing as a consequence. My assessment met with deaf ears and rolled eyes from the doctors and nurses, scarcely more than young boys and girls with privilege and title who patronized me with words borne on the illusory permanence of youth, the words of those who believe they’ve seen everything though have yet to lose anything.
‘We’ll need you back to run more tests,’ they said. ‘In the meantime,’ and here they spoke as though handling a newborn kitten, ‘do you need someone to talk to?’
Yes. My ex-wife, my brother and my nephew.
No, thank you. I’d like to leave now, I said.
I am fifty-eight years old, which means you’re approaching your nineteenth birthday, if my memory still serves me, though it very well might not. I was ten years your junior when my father disappeared, long before you were born. It’s clear to me now how I’ve misunderstood him for so long, my entire life spent curtailing the fisticuffs between my resentment and my resignation. Your grandfather did not abandon your father and me, Lyle. Your grandfather disappeared.
You’ve grown up in the same house we did, Robert having inherited the property as the first born, though I’m certain you know that, as the house will be yours, someday. I spent many nights as a boy, hidden beneath my bedclothes in fear of the nocturnal wheezes and creaks of that old house, so certain was I that each sound was the footfall of some horrific creature staggering up from the cellar. Age convinced me the footfalls were in my head, and age has since reversed my conviction, yet again. Thinking back, I now know those nighttime sounds were the last footsteps of my father wandering the halls before the fade swallowed him completely.
While it’s clear this affliction was passed down from him, I can only hope it has ceased with me. As I follow his footsteps in spite of my will, I pray with all that is still visible of my heart that God, for one moment, will emerge from His divine slumber of omnipresent indifference to spare you and my brother, the creeping grip of this void.
I returned to the hospital prematurely, after a delivery truck ran me down in a crosswalk. The driver claimed I had jumped in front of him, but I did no such thing. The sun was bright that day, and I doubt he could discern my faint outline from the street, through the grime of his windshield.
‘Are you depressed?’ they asked me. More than I’ve ever been, I said. They moved me to another hospital, the kind once referred to as a sanatorium, and there I remained until long after my hip and elbows had healed. That they managed to care for me at all is a wonder. What cannot be seen cannot be cured, and I’ve since reached the state where the best minds on earth could not treat my most minor ailment. I fear for my life with so much as an ear infection, and I continue to injure myself, having lost all intuitive notion of my own space. Each day unleashes a new assault of concrete steps, metal railings, table corners and door jambs upon my forehead, fingers, shins and toes. The most heinous of black and blue marks are neither, in my condition. I could have bled to death in that hospital with no one the wiser, until some unfortunate soul slipped in my dripping wake, and someone else realized the colorless puddle they had overlooked was not water from a leak in the ceiling, but the draining life of a patient they would be at an utter loss to identify.
I met others like me while still under care. The dimmer I grew, the more of them I saw. The hallways and rec room were crowded with patients whom I had not noticed the previous day. The staff remained oblivious to both the overpopulation and my private concerns, but for the odd remark to my disembodied voice as to how they might exploit my condition were it their own. Still, they locked the dorms at night and escorted us to meals. Everybody envied me, but nobody trusted me. Sharon’s lawyer took my house, the hospital’s funding dwindled and my insurance dried up.
The day they discharged me, I saw legions of the faded I hadn’t seen before, eating from garbage cans and sleeping in doorways. They learned to fight the fade the same way I eventually would, with noise and spectacle which, for the duration of its making, stops the light in its path. Scream, shout, throw trash, defecate in the park or ask for change, and the fade recedes for a moment, then always returns.
I should not have seen them or anything else. I should, by all reason, be blind, since light passes through my eyes without stopping. Logic and reason, however, took their leave the day my face in the mirror dimmed and I began to see the wallpaper patterns through my chest. Quite the contrary, I never stop seeing, as my eyelids are of no consequence either open or closed, and my elaborate labyrinth of memory, sanity, reason and recognition strains against the unceasing flood of new sights coming every waking and sleeping second, each of those seconds making less sense than the previous. The rotting walls in my head give way and the floors of the labyrinth buckle. 1972 caves in on 1960, 1949 collapses onto 1981, and yesterday’s torrent of sight backwashes through the wreckage and soon my whole lifetime is a broken and bloated heap, fifty-eight years of sequence randomly reordered. For all I know, I’ve transposed your names or confused them with someone else’s entirely, and your house number is among the scores of other numbers I find amidst the damage.
During the day, I solicit the kindness of strangers. If I could explain to each of them how much their cursory ‘yes’ or ‘no’ means I would, but to attempt as much frightens them away more quickly. In the few seconds it takes for a coin to touch my palm and for me to say ‘thank you,’ my flesh and blood halt the light in its path and my shadow hits the sidewalk. I close my eyes, savoring a moment of darkness until the world emerges again, like a fog lifting away. When I open my eyes, nothing changes. The odd pigeon strikes my chest as though flying into a window. I manage to eat, then find a dark place to wait out the daylight. Sleep is rare and when it comes, it brings with it dreams of the doorway or drainpipe closest to my face.
I have stretches of darkness when I can sort through the confusion and rubble, one number and letter at a time, like digging through the remnants of a fire for unscathed mementos. You and Robert are among those I find intact amidst the wreckage of my memory, and I spend all my remaining effort piecing together the address where the two of you are living, where your father and I grew up. Once I’ve assembled the numbers and names in my head, I’ll send this letter in advance of my arrival, since I don’t know what your father has told you of me, or how little.
I wronged my brother decades ago, and the only thing which can eclipse my regret for the impulsive spite of my youth is my love for him, and my determination to see his face again and let him hear these words for himself.
As with many an adolescent son, you are perhaps years away from seeing the good in your father, especially if you are anything like we were at your age. Someday you will, and until then, whatever differences might arise between you, say or do nothing you can’t live with forever.
Know that you are always in my thoughts, however dilapidated my thoughts might be. When you go to sleep, listen to the nighttime noises. Those creaking floors will soon be from my own footsteps, home again, and if you look carefully through the dark, you might see me. Until then, may God keep the both of you in the shelter of His arms until such time as I can do the same.
All my love,
*Transcribed from a discarded notebook, found at a San Francisco rescue mission.