An Alphabetically Arranged Essay on Grieving, Geology, and Other Things
A like Atlas, like Dad showing me the distance between his family back home in Texas and our home here in Massachusetts, to me just a space between an outstretched thumb and index finger. Like the first letter in the alphabet, like my report card when I come home from school and Dad’s joined the Army and it’s just Mom, little sister, and me. A, Army green when he comes back from Iraq and my name is tattooed up his arm and things are the same at first but then they’re different and he’s drinking more and starts going to AA but he doesn’t ever get better. Dad talks about moving back home, says he can’t take Massachusetts winters but says he’d never leave me. A like am I the anchor keeping him here?
Texas Grandfather shows me rocks he found from traveling as a welder, some emerged from Texas creeks. He says you have to look where water rushes, washes away silt. A like sharp-tipped arrowheads left behind by Native Americans. He teaches me what they were used for, what they’re made of. Black obsidian, I tell my teacher, when she asks us about igneous rocks. It happens when lava cools too quick. It’s brittle, amorphous, fractures easy, with sharp, black edges, perfect for piercing, cutting, severing.
A like autopsy report. Like waiting to hear what happened to Dad when he didn’t show up for breakfast one morning. Like alcoholic. A like accidental overdose. It was an accident.
A like amber my teacher shows us, I write it down so I don’t forget, fossilized tree resin, an ant trapped inside forever.
The scientific study of plants. When Dad dies we bury him back home in Texas and sister and I go back to visit in winter. The mound of red dirt above him has flattened but still no grass grows. Grandfather drives us deep through rolling hills to the cemetery. Along the trees and thicket grow red, sweet looking berries; they look like red currants Mom makes jelly with back in Massachusetts. But he says they’re holly berry, like Christmas time, like home.
In rehab, Dad takes up ceramics. Uses his shaking hands, molds my sister and I jewelry dishes, cups. He makes me a purple dinosaur because I loved them when I was a girl, when he knew things like this about me. Purple like amethyst, my sister’s birthstone, hung around her neck. It’s purple like February, purple like a bruise, like contusion, but the hurt I feel is invisible.
C like cattle egret—my family calls them cowbirds—strange birds in East Texas with long legs and beaks like needles that migrated there in search of food, in search of some place better they could feel calling to them from somewhere in their bones.
D like Dad digging holes in the backyard, building a fence so the dog can’t get out. Like me digging for information from him when I get older, when he’s half drunk at breakfast, his shaking hands evidence enough, but sometimes I keep asking Dad why why why?
At nature camp we go out on the lake and science teacher tells us about phytoplankton and what lives in the depths of the water. He takes something that looks like a fishing pole that scoops mud from the bottom of the lake, pulls it back up. He rubs the mud all over his face making us laugh, telling us it’s better than the stuff they use at day spas.
When we aren’t with Dad on the weekends sister and I go to the beach with Mom, dig for crabs and seashells. Mom makes me take one last swim to wash off the sand before we walk back to her car, so we don’t leave a trace behind.
Like digging, like bringing things to the surface. My teacher tells us about Lucy, the 3-million-year-old bones of a female hominin found in Africa. She’s named after The Beatles song that was playing in the expedition camp all night after the team’s first day working on the recovery. She tells us this find is a big deal because the way Lucy’s bones fit together proves that she walked upright like a human, yet her skull is small and resembles that of non-hominid apes, meaning that we know bipedalism came before increase in brain size in our evolution. Like she’s an answer to our questions, a puzzle that’s been solved. I ask, but no one knows how Lucy died.
E like Eden, like God’s promise of forever.
F like the Flood, like they teach me in Bible school, like how only the best are left behind, like the world is wiped clean. F like fentanyl, like father, like he was forty-five years old, like how Mom says he wouldn’t have lived much longer with how he was taking care of himself even if he didn’t overdose.
F like Dad putting up the fence so the dog can’t dig out and escape. Fence like cage, like stuck. F like how I write things down because I’m so afraid of forgetting.
Texas had a short-lived gold rush four years after people flocked to California in hopes of becoming rich. Grandfather tells me gold is heavier than silt and most other debris. It sinks to the bottom of the pan when you’re searching for it.
Gold, like searching for something. G, like gunshot wound to the face just a year before Dad died. Dad said it was an accident, he was cleaning out a gun after he’d taken sleeping pills and he says he woke to a blast, his ears ringing, and pain, sharp like an arrowhead.
G for God, like how Dad said God gave him a second chance. He was scared his smile would never be the same again, but they sewed it up and it looked almost the same as I remembered, only slightly smaller on one side when he smiled real big, and most of the scarring covered by the beginning of a beard.
Grandfather says sin can be washed away like dirt in water. He says God makes us clean, golden like the days in Eden. What I don’t know is why Dad left Texas in the first place.
Like how people say they saw it coming.
I like Igneous, from the Latin ignis, meaning “of fire”. Magma cooled and solidified into rock. Dad shows me a smoothed pebbled pulled out from his pocket. He turns it over between his thumb and pointer finger and tells me Roman soldiers used to carry them into battle to help soothe their nerves, to protect them. He doesn’t tell me who he’s fighting.
Crassula ovata, a type of succulent, the plant in Dad’s apartment that he’s so proud of keeping alive for so long. He keeps it in a corner under a grow light, in a large pot filled with dirt and stone. I don’t tell him they’re nearly impossible to kill.
K like kaleidoscope. Looking into a world of color and patterns repeated over and over again. In my playroom when I’m just a girl I lay on the floor with it pointed toward the ceiling, peering in and gazing at stars and circles in constant motion. Mirrors inside reflecting patterns again and again until Mom calls my name for dinner and the magic is gone.
At dinner one day with Dad and sister when I’m older, Dad shows me an app on his phone that identifies constellations. He points his phone up to the daytime sky and on his screen appear stars twinkling on a night sky with names like Orion and faint images of animals and Gods outlined by the stars. Dad says the stars up North don’t ever shine as bright as they do in the Piney Woods back home, but this lets you see them. Mom tells me God created the Heavens and the sky and the universe and everything we can see. Dad gives me his phone and tells me to try it, to look for myself.
Like is there something at the end of all this?
Like looking too deep into things. Mom tells me Dad’s fine and he will figure things out like he always has and I have to live my own life. M like Mother.
Like Migration, like maybe going back to Texas will fix him. M like Mac, Dad’s name. M like Dad I know it was a mistake.
Aurora borealis. Grandfather tells me he was driving his truck at night somewhere in one of the Dakotas when he was young and away on a welding job, and he’d maybe had one too many beers—now I know you wouldn’t be doing none of that girl you ain’t nothing like your daddy or me—and he says he saw the lights out on the horizon dancing in the sky. He tells me he thought it was the end, like in Revelations, like Jesus coming to take them home. He says he had his windows rolled down and the night was cool and beautiful and perfect and he aint never heard of no Northern lights in school. I ask him if he was scared. Grandfather says he just kept on driving.
Grandmother tells me buying opal for yourself is bad luck—it can only be gifted. I’ve always thought it the prettiest stone, how flecks of fire dance within it when it’s hit by light. I don’t tell her I’m so sick of loving things I can’t keep.
P like petrified wood, like ossified, stuck in place. Like scared, like me. Grandfather holds a piece of it in his hand, palm facing up to the sky. He gives it to me. Frozen in time.
P like the deep pit in my stomach when Dad wouldn’t answer the phone or not show up for plans all those times but not worrying so much that one morning that mattered. P like eating pancakes without him at the diner not knowing he was dead.
Like how the school year is split into 4. Like how we learn clocks and slices in a pie chart and fractions and money. Like the quarter for parking Dad gave me to put in the meter outside the restaurant the last time I saw him. Like the final quarter in the game, like how time is always running out.
R like Resurrection, like second chance, like how teacher tells me death isn’t permanent. Like rehab, like get better. R like riverbed, Grandfather searching for stones, arrowheads, pieces of the past, for anything to grab onto.
Teacher tells me these rocks are formed from sediment deposited by water or air, accumulating, building up.
Grandfather tells me he goes to the cemetery every morning to clear out leaves, trim trees, and cut the grass around Dad’s grave. He brings home coins and military mementos people leave behind, has Grandmother send me photos. When I go back to visit Dad’s grave, I help him load twigs and bags of leaves into the bed of his truck. The cemetery is just off a quiet road, next to a large pasture full of horses and across from the tiny Baptist church where we ate after we buried Dad. Grandmother gets out of the car to show me some of her ancestors—our ancestors—all names I’ve never heard of, and plot after empty plot labeled with our last name to the left of Dad, for the rest of us.
S like sedimentary, like what’s left over, all coming together.
T like tornado. Dad tells me when he was a kid, they would hide in the innermost room in the house because they didn’t have a basement. He says what he remembers most is the sound, loud and violent like a train. I listen to him tell me this story I’ve heard so many times, but it never gets old. I picture Dad, Aunt, Uncle, Grandparents all in their tiny bathroom. I always picture the kids crammed in the bathtub, the adults sitting on the floor, safe in this tiny space while the tornado tears through their neighborhood. I imagine the winds breaking their windows, pictures falling off the wall in their hallway, but the bathroom with them in it still and untouched, preserved.
The Latin prefix ultra means “beyond”, in this case the wavelength is shorter than the violet end of the spectrum of visible light. Ultraviolet rays are the danger in sunlight, they can cause sunburn, damage. When I’m just starting high school and Dad’s sold the house where we’d visit him and moved into a new apartment after rehab, he tells me the place was haunted. I’m upset that he didn’t tell me sooner, but he says he didn’t want me to be afraid. Ultraviolet, like invisible danger. I ask him if he’s afraid of anything; he says dying.
U like Unconscious, like how Dad was found. U like unfinished, ultra: beyond.
Like how teacher tells me a story must feel true.
Wild, growing without human intervention or aid. But I’ve seen the seeds at Walmart, you can plant them yourself. I buy a packet and plant them by my windowsill. W like waiting for them to grow but they never seem to, like how Grandmother says you need to wait, to give them time.
W like Wellbutrin, like doctor says maybe that will help. W like winter, like war movies playing over and over again on Dad’s TV and I ask him don’t you want to watch something different?
W like how I forget to water the plants one weekend when I’m away and I come home, and they’re withered beyond fixing.
X like xenolith, teacher tells us: a rock trapped within another type of rock, stuck inside. But how did it get in there in the first place? When magma moves or erupts it can engulf different sorts of rocks before the outer layer of igneous rock forms, teacher tells us. Depending on place, temperature, and pressure conditions, xenoliths can come in many shapes and forms.
X like x-ray of Dad’s face after the bullet went in, and doctor says he’s so lucky—the bullet missed the bone by not even a hair. Dad says this is his second chance, his new beginning.
X like xenolith, like trapped inside forever.
Y like Yesterday, like the song by the Beatles. Like all my trouble seemed so far away. Like singing in Dad’s car when I’m a little girl and I get to sit in the front because I’m the big sister, like the windows rolled down and Dad’s smiling his big old, untouched smile and it’s always summer. Like when I ask Dad if we can go to the mall and get ice cream and he always says yes.
Z like zygomorphic, when a flower has perfectly equal halves, when it can be split, divided neatly into two. Like Dad hates how his smile isn’t symmetrical.
Z like zodiac, like how I tell Mom I’m an Aries, a fire sign but she says none of that is real, it’s of the devil not God. They say that each zodiac sign learns the lessons absorbed by its preceding signs, but because Aries comes first, they inherit nothing.
Z like zodiac, like searching for something inside, like pretending. Z like last, like final, like nothing else left. Z like zygomorphic, like pulled apart, like split. Gone.
Hannah White recently graduated with an MA in English from Bridgewater State University, Massachusetts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity and Fourth Genre. She lives and writes in Southeastern Massachusetts.