This is how I imagine it happened.
He was handsome. I thought that when I saw him. He was the first one I saw. My dad. Better than the last one, I thought. This one was smiling. The last one never smiled.
You choose your mother, you know. That's why she loves you so much. That's why you can get tired of your father, but you can never get tired of your mother, no matter what. You may hate her, but you're always a part of her. You'll always feel, somewhere, deeply, that you need her. She was your choice; you were her gift.
Your father is a side effect. He's a stranger.
But this dad — the one I have now, the one who raised me, who has been dead for 23 years — was not like the other ones. That I could tell right away. I could see it in the crinkled corners of his eyes and the slight tremble of his lips. He held me like a precious thing. He was the first man I saw. The doctor was a woman, and I was not pleased with the way she swung me. Doctors who deliver so many babies each day seem to forget they can be dropped. It's a natural thing to forget, but it was better in the old days, when the doctors were careful and tender (though, of course, it was often enough that you'd die or watch your mother die back then). And this woman whipped me up into the cold air like a cheap trophy and delivered me to my father. And he understood. He pulled me close against his chest. I was his first, and he was unsure and cautious. He was overwhelmed, no doubt. As much as he was a stranger, so was I. There's a panic: Am I suppose to love this infant person? I don't even know who this is. But that moment passes. It always does. I was crying and he asked me why. I didn't know, and I couldn't tell him. So I stopped and listened instead.
I heard the sounds of calm voices, the rustle of professional efficiency as the medical staff worked, the suctions and beeps and boops and the screeching woosh of metal curtain rings being flung across a rail.
He was dying. I'd driven out to see him. From Boston to Laramie takes four days if you're taking it easy, three days if you're driving normally, and two days if you're rushing to see your father for the last time before he's gone. I took three days. And I still hadn't worked out what I was going to say to him. I loved him — I love him — but I wondered if I could say it like a man. I wondered if I could say it and mean it in the way I felt it, which bears little resemblance to the words themselves, which can be both beautiful, said in a certain way, and trite, said in another. I didn't know in what way to say it to him because I'd never practiced it. In 40-some years I don't know that I'd ever really said it. Not really. Somewhere in the ward a nurse threw another curtain aside. It's like this at the end. There's no time for anything, but time has never moved slower. Or is it faster? What is faster? Nothing is relative to anything else in the presence of death. You don't know what to do with yourself. Whenever it happens, when death is close, I usually just try to stay out of the way and I cry off somewhere alone.
Long ago, when my friend's father died, I didn't go to see her. I didn't know what I should do or whether she would receive me. I thought it would be best to give her space. But I was thinking only of myself. I didn't want to do something embarrassing. In the end, I did nothing. Not a card, not a message. Of course, it looked a lot like indifference. My dad told me, "Usually the hardest thing to do is the right thing to do." And my mom told me, "There's no wrong way."
It sounds like a paradox: There is "a right thing to do," implying there are a multitude of wrongs, and yet "there is no wrong" and everything is right. If I had said something that was inappropriate, wouldn't that be the wrong thing? But perhaps, given the circumstances and the consequences of saying nothing, even saying the wrong thing would be better than saying nothing at all. You could consolidate their advice into a single maxim: Say something. Do something. Anything.
"I love you, dad," I said. It came out of my mouth sideways kind of. My tongue wasn't expecting it, and I slurred the word love. So I repeated the words "love you" as a clarification. I was embarrassed and tried to be unemotional because I didn't want him to be scared. I probably seemed indifferent after all. Anyway, it didn't matter. He'd already been dead for several seconds.
He's back now. Somewhere in the world he's alive. He's 23 years old. He may not be a he. And he may not be a human, though I have a feeling he is. I've spent the last two decades searching for him, hoping he remembers me, hoping I'll recognize him.
I need him to hear me say I love him.
It's selfish. He's moved on. But I made a mistake, and I regret it every day. It's a terrible feeling.
My name is Colum Hunter. My father was Erskine Patrick Hunter. This is the story of my search.