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Blackbird On My Shoulder

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“Oh, tesoro. I think— you need to come home, Elio,” she quivered.

There was an immediate tightness in my stomach after hearing those words come from my strong, intelligent, brave mother. She didn't cry often, so I knew that her pained words carried the weight of the world. She tried to muffle her sobs to no avail, and I was at a loss for words. We knew this time would come eventually, as it does for all of us, but I just wish this time for my father wouldn’t come for another couple decades. But then again, in the end, it’s because of time that we suffer; and my father had suffered for long enough.

“I’m sorry, Mamma,” I choked out, “we’ll be there soon. Ti amo, Mamma.” I felt so stupid for not saying anything more, but I simply could not articulate the millions of thoughts that were running through my head. Why do bad things happen to good people? What am I going to do without him? He’s not going to see my kids grow up. I’m going to be a fatherless father. What is my mom going to do without him? Will she move to New York to be closer to us? How am I going to tell the children? How is Oliver going to take this news? Oh god, how am I even going to break the news to Oliver?

My trembling hands hung up the receiver. I brushed my tears away with the back of my sweatshirt and busied myself by cleaning up the kitchen and putting away laundry. Oliver wouldn’t be home from work for a couple hours and would pick up the kids from school on his way home. I changed our flights so that we planned to leave for Italy in two days, instead of leaving in two weeks for Hanukkah, like we originally planned. I vacuumed the carpet, dusted the mantle, and tidied up the kids’ room; anything to keep my mind occupied with things I could control, and not the devastating, uncontrollable reality that stared me dead in the face.

I was seated at the piano, my fingers hovering over the keys but unable to move, when the back door slammed shut. Ben ran toward me with the unequivocal joy of youthful innocence plastered all over his face.

“Daddy Elly!!” Ben screamed and charged headfirst into my lap.

“Hi, Benny. How was school?”

“Fun!! We made these!” He shoved a paper in my face with over enthusiasm. It was a tracing of his hand transformed into a turkey, thanks to his decorative flair.

“Everyone only made one turkey, but I made two so I can give one to Nonno when we see him! Do you think he’ll like it, Daddy Elly?”

My breath caught in my throat; I trapped the lump and shoved it down. “I think he will, very much, piccino.” I kissed his sweet curls and frowned once I glanced at his shirt. “What is this on your shirt?” I asked.

“Chocolate ice cream! Daddy took us to get ice cream after school!” Ben squealed.

“Oh, yummy. Here, let me have your shirt so I can wash it.” After Ben handed me his shirt, Sam grabbed him to run off and play.

I scoffed off to the laundry room, brushing against Oliver’s shoulder as I walked by. “Honey, ice cream before dinner, really? We have boundaries for a reason, you know. And besides, I just finished all the laundry, and now I’m going to have to do a stain treatment on this and—” I glared at Oliver over my shoulder.

“I’m sorry, Elio. The ice cream was my idea, they didn’t beg for it. I’ve been so busy at work lately, and I just wanted to do something special with my sons. Here, let take care of that shirt.” He tried to pull the shirt out of my grasp, but I yanked it harder in retaliation.

“No, I’ve got it. Go do whatever it is you need to do.” I actively avoided Oliver’s gaze.

“Hey, baby, can you look at me, please?” He caressed my jaw with his palm, but I pushed him away. I couldn't bear to look into those beautiful blue eyes.

“Elio, I’m sorry, okay? Please talk to me. What’s going on?”

“Nothing’s going on, Oliver! I just wish you’d discuss it with me before overstepping the boundaries, so I wouldn’t be here scrubbing this stain out of Ben’s shirt!” My words pierced through the air with an inexplicable force.

“Elio— I’m— I’m sorry.” Oliver attempted to brush my curls off my face, but I swatted his hand away at the first contact. He heaved a huge sigh and exited the room.

The tears came flooding down my face, and I muffled my sobs against Ben’s shirt. Oh god, Oliver. I’m so sorry. What’s going on is that my father is dying, and I’m scared, but I don’t know how to tell you. I don’t want to say those words because the moment they hit the open air they’ll be true. I don’t know what to do.

I drudged through dinner, barely picking at my food. Sam and Ben dominated the conversation talking about some new toy they wanted. Oliver’s foot creeped on top of mine, but I slid my foot away after a few seconds.

After dinner, I gave the kids a bath and got them ready for bed while Oliver graded papers downstairs. Sam went down easily, but Ben was fussy. I knew he must have been feeding off my energy, but I couldn’t help it.

“Shhh, baby. Close your eyes, Benny.” I rubbed his back and fluffed his curls. I sat beside the bed and continuously stroked his back for what seemed like hours. My motions became automatic as I slipped deep into thought. He would rub my back like this for hours when I was little or when I was sick. He always knew when to speak and when not to speak to bring me the most comfort. Am I good father? Can I be a good father if I’m fatherless myself?

I didn’t even realize that my eyes were leaking the contents of all the clouds in the universe at that point. My tears streamed silently so as not to wake the children. Snot pooled above my upper lip, and my head pounded with the ferocity of an entire drum line. I buried my face in my right hand as my left hand continued to stroke Ben’s back.

“Elio?” Oliver’s whisper was barely audible from the doorway. My back was facing him, but I heard him shuffle closer to me. “Elio, it’s been two hours since you put them to bed. What are you still doing in here?”

I rotated my hips to meet Oliver’s gaze. The moment I looked into his eyes, I blurted out a sob and tried to muffle it with the sleeve of my sweater.

“Oh, baby. What’s wrong? Are you sick? Are you hurt?” Oliver rushed down to gather me in his arms. I didn’t fight his embrace. I melted into him and allowed my body to slack against his chest. Unable to speak, I simply shook my head as the gushes of Niagara Falls cascaded from my eyes.

“Shhhh, it’s okay. It’s okay, Elio. Come on to our room. We don’t want to wake the kids,” he whispered as he brushed the curls off my sticky forehead. Oliver grabbed my hands to help me up, but my legs wobbled and melted into the floor.

“Can you walk for me, baby?”

I shook my head as a fresh wave of tears washed over me.

“Okay. Shhhh, it’s okay. Come here. I’m here. I’m here.”

Oliver scooped me up and carried me out of the room. I cried into the crook of his neck as my arms clung around his upper back.

“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry, Oliver.” My cries were pained as he consoled me on the way to the bedroom.

Oliver sat down on the bed and slouched back against the headboard, still cradling me tightly against him. He rubbed long strokes along my back, just as I had done minutes ago with Ben. I calmed down enough to let out a whisper into the folds of Oliver’s shirt.

“It’s my dad,” each word trembled on its way out, “he’s relapsed again and I think— I— Oliver.” I clenched his shirt, and my sobs refreshed on a continuous loop.

“Oh, baby…” Oliver squeezed me harder, “I’m so sorry. I’ll call work and let them know I’ll be gone longer than expected.”

“We leave in two days,” I mumbled.

Oliver hugged me even tighter to him. The tears rolled down our cheeks as we cried ourselves to sleep.

 

The next morning, Oliver contacted the university, and luckily, his department was very understanding; they granted his request for personal leave for the rest of the semester. I contacted Sam and Ben’s teachers, and they were also very understanding. We puttered around the house packing suitcases before picking the boys up from school.

“Daddy! And Daddy Elly! You both pick us up from school?” Sam asked.

“Yeah, Sammy. We thought we’d pick you boys up then go get some ice cream. What do you think about that?” Oliver replied.

“Oh…” Sam paused in hesitation, “but Daddy Elly doesn’t like it when we have ice cream before dinner…” He sighed and stared at his feet as if he’d done something wrong.

Damn. Sam heard that conversation? Children sure do observe more than we realize.

I glanced at Oliver pitifully as I knelt down to speak with Sam. “Well today is an exception. Don’t worry, Sammy. You’re not in trouble for yesterday. I’m sorry I overreacted. Do you accept my apology?”

Sam glanced up through his eyelashes. “Yes, Daddy Elly.”

“Thank you, baby. Come here.” I wrapped my son up in my arms as if I could keep him from the cruelness of the world by my embrace alone. Oliver wiped a tear from my cheek and picked up Ben as we left to go get ice cream.

That night as we tucked the boys into bed, we told them that we’d leave for Italy the next day. Ben was giggly with excitement, but Sam was a bit apprehensive.

“I thought we not going until Hanukkah?” Sam asked.

“Well Daddy got time off work so we can leave sooner. This way we can spend more time with Nonno and Gramma. How does that sound?” I replied, trying to maintain a steady pitch so as not to alert Sam’s perceptiveness.

Ben interjected, “Yay!! I can’t wait for Nonno to see my turkey!”

“Okay. Well I love Nonno and Gramma, so I guess this will be fun.” Sam sighed.

“Good boys,” Oliver added and kissed Ben's forehead.

I stroked Sam’s back until he fell asleep, and Oliver did the same for Ben. Once both boys were settled, Oliver grasped my hand and lead me out of the room. He tucked us into bed, and spooned up behind me. I tried to sleep, but was unable to slow my racing thoughts.

“Hey, do you want me to get you a sleeping pill?” Oliver whispered in my ear.

“No. I think I’ll be fine. I just need to stop thinking. Thanks though.”

“Okay. If you change your mind let me know. Would you mind if I sang to you?”

I smiled into the pillow and squeezed Oliver's hip. “I wouldn’t mind that at all.”

I closed my eyes and took in the sweet serenade of one of my favorite Beatles tunes. That'll be you soon, Papà. Take your broken wings and learn to fly.