The last time I heard my father speak my name was when I had finished reading to him.
“My Caitie Bug.” he had said simply, after I closed the book. My throat tightened and my stomach ached. I wanted to cry, but I felt numb. I had cried so much the past month after his diagnosis that I wasn’t sure if I had any tears left.
It was a grey January day and I was sitting on his bed as he laid there, watching me. I had been reading from the book I had given to him that Christmas. It was a book about symbols in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ temples. I had been excited for him to read it, but he would never hold the book in his strong, seemingly immortal hands.
The spine of the book was stiff and the pages stark white. I hardly heard the words that I had read aloud to him. Every word, once spoken, seemed to float about me and disappear like wisps of smoke. My mind skittered from thought to thought. Will he ever get better? Will we have a year like the doctor guessed? Will we have until the snow melts?
He was watching me intently with his sharp blue eyes. It was one of the rare days that he seemed present. The cancerous tumor in his brain had not yet devoured his mind completely. Little did I know, he would be gasping for his last breaths only two weeks later.
I had given him the book along with a hat I had knitted for his now-bald head. They had shaved it two weeks ago to drill into his skull to see if the tumor was operable. It wasn't.
I had given him the book because his whole life was built from books. He rose from a lowly clothes salesman in a department store to the manager in a brokerage firm. It was all because of his lifelong passion for attaining knowledge. His family never had the money to send him off to college. Never a college attendee, but always a student: my father built a flourishing life through books.
Every first Saturday of the month the local library in our hometown in Washington would have a used book sale in the parking lot. Long, plastic picnic tables were covered with books of all kinds. We would wander and then meet up with armfulls of books and excited smiles. In the car we would show each other our newly found treasures and chatter excitedly about which were our favorites. My collection of Nancy Drew books grew and grew. My dad's books were added to the many book shelves that were scattered about our house.
Every birthday and Christmas I would paw through the piles of presents for the book shaped ones and sit them next to me. I'd save them for the end--best for last. When I ripped off the festive paper, there laid a book and a blossoming excitement in my belly. I would jump up and give my father the biggest hug, my face buried in his large chest. He hugged me back and I’d perch on his knee. “What you got there, Caitie bug?” He’d ask me.
Naturally, my father and I would find ourselves pulled into libraries, no matter where we traveled. We would walk the aisles in quiet reverence. My library cards have always taken the premium positions in my wallets. Libraries were the hub in my life and one of the biggest connections to my father.
After I had graduated Brigham Young University of Idaho, my parents moved to Rexburg. I was thrilled. I told my father about the Madison Library that I had frequented. We’d peruse the aisles together as we had done in many other libraries before. But he had become increasingly busy with new business ventures. And he was also becoming distant and strange. The tumor had begun to grow, unbeknownst to us.
After he died I would drive to the Madison library and sit in the parking lot and stare at the building that had once brought me so much joy. I could not bring myself to walk through those doors again. It seemed so empty without his gentle presence.
I sat, watching families go through the doors and leave with books in their arms. I would rub my swollen belly as my son kicked and bumped about as the heater rattled and blew dry, hot air into my face.
This was the library I had checked out, "Taking Charge of your Fertility" six years prior when my husband and I could not seem to conceive. This was the library that I had shuffled into, averting my gaze from the children's section and burrowed in the pages of my college assignments. This was the library I had participated in the summer reading program and relived my childhood excitement of summer reading after graduating from college--successfully forgetting my barren womb.
After eight years of my father comforting me in my infertility, he would not be there for the birth of my son. He would not be there to take him to the library as he had taken me.
I bore my son not two months after my father laid to rest. I stayed with my mother and trudged through the thick, choking fog of grief. My son, with sharp blue eyes like my father’s, was the light in my darkness.
But we could not stay in Rexburg any longer. I did not want to drive down the same road that I had followed the hearse that carried my father. We moved to California near my husband’s parents and I mended my broken heart as best I could.
When my son turned two I felt compelled to return to Rexburg. I fought the feeling. There were too many haunting memories of my father there. But my mother had a house we could rent, my husband had felt his own impression, and I wanted to be near my mother once again.
We had just moved a few days prior when I found myself sitting at a red light on Main Street. I was on my way to Broulims. My son had just turned three and he was happily playing in his carseat when I gazed down Center Street. Could I bring myself to go inside again? I asked myself.
When my son was just a baby, I had read him books that friends had gifted to us, but I had not read a book for myself. I had not stepped into a library since that fateful January day.
I missed the pages, the stories, the shelves of books, and friendly librarians.
I needed to get groceries--we had an empty fridge save a gallon of milk and some shriveled carrots in one of our clear refrigerator drawers. I turned right onto Center Street as if in a trance. I needed to see if I could walk back inside.
Slowly, I unbuckled my son and walked through the library doors.
I needed to get a new library card because my old one was packed away or lost--I didn't know. We successfully left the library with a bag filled with books for my son, but none for myself. Not yet.
Our next trip I had another bulging bag filled with books for my son. As we turned to leave, I passed a display of new young adult books on a shelf. Without thinking, I grabbed one and checked it out. When I returned home the book sat on the counter and waited. And waited. I would walk by and stare at it. With hands that trembled slightly, I would pick it up, sit on the couch and stare.
I renewed my loan three times before I returned the book, but never read a word. This happened six other times with six other books. Still, I had not read a single word.
My son, however, (an active boy that often ran up and down the stairs in our house to the rousing songs of Star Wars) would sit still for an hour if I was reading to him. "More stories!" He'd shout when I finished one.
He had not only inherited my father's eyes, but also his hunger for stories.
I, however, was haunted by books. Before coming back to Rexburg I had given away so many of my once-loved treasures. Now there were only two unopened moving boxes of books in our garage.
Then, one day, as we attended another story time, I passed a display on our way out of the library.
There was a sign that declared in cheerful letters "Library Bingo!" I paused. My son pulled my hand so he could push the handicapped button that magically opened the doors. “I want to push the button.” he said, pulling my hand harder. I grabbed the bingo page and stuffed it in the library bag, not knowing what it was, but eager to read it when I got home. We hurried home to make lunch.
As I sat eating my homemade bean and cheese burrito, I opened the paper. A book bingo? I thought to myself. How clever.
Maybe I could read four books in a month. I used to read that many books--easy.
But….my stomach clenched and I put my food down, no longer in the mood to eat.
Maybe if I started reading something easy.. I thought cautiously. Something that would ease me back in...Yeah, I could do that.
So, I downloaded Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban audiobook onto my phone, popped in my earbuds, and began cleaning the kitchen. Sure, it was my umpteenth time reading/listening to it, but it was comfortable and safe. I could read this book. And if it was the only one I read, it was one more than I had read in four years.
Two weeks later, I presented my bingo page (with a successful bingo line drawn in blue marker) to the librarian at the counter. She smiled and brought out a small plastic container filled with little candies, coupons, and bookmarks. I took a bookmark with a hamburger on it and a coupon for a free ice cream cone at Burger King.
She could not have known the feeling of triumph that grew in my chest when she handed me that flimsy bookmark. Blushing at my seemingly juvenile excitement over trifles, I placed them into my purse and returned home.
After my son was asleep and my husband was watching TV, I drove to Burger King alone and ate my free ice cream cone in the parking lot. I opened Little Women and propped it on my lap and read, a slight smile on my face.
I wasn’t sure if any of the librarians believed that their Book Bingo meant anything to anyone. But it had done something for me. And on my following birthday, I was standing in line at Barnes & Noble with a pile of books that I was buying for myself. I felt an old joy bubble in my chest as I clutched them tightly. It was as if my father had given them to me himself.
I could almost hear him say, “What you got there, Caitie-bug?”