Story from Leslie Lisbona

Black and white photo of an older middle aged light-skinned couple seated on a patterned sofa in a living room.

The Countdown

Day one. My father came home from prison. It was December. I was 30. The waiting was over:  My own life, independent of my parents, could begin.

My father was a poor judge of character.  He vouched for the wrong people and was sentenced to ten years in federal prison.  He served four and a half.

I was 25 when I watched my father being sentenced in a Brooklyn courtroom.  I was there with my mom and my sister, Debi. Afterwards, he was given a chance to speak to the judge.  He adjusted his designer glasses, whispered a few words, barely audible, and then fell backwards into his seat, as if he were shoved. 

For four and a half years, I had visited him in several federal prisons.  Each time, I got my period as soon as I got through security.  Each time, it surprised me.  It was never on my 28th day.  My mother said, “You should know by now,” but I was never prepared.  The prison made me bleed. 

Life continued while my father was away.  Not my life though.  My brother, Dorian, moved to California.  Debi, remarried and had twins.  Our dog, Cujo, died. 

I was still living at home with my mother.  I was unmarried.  My life was unchanged. I watched a lot of TV.  Jackie Kennedy, who was the same age as my mom and who shared a hairdresser and a unique sense of style, died. Shawshank Redemption premiered, and I thought of my father.  Like Andy Dufresne in the movie, my dad had been head librarian, helping other inmates study for their GEDs. 

Nearly five years later, during one of our last prison visits, I told my father that I had found a rental apartment in Tudor City.  That I had put down a deposit. That I would wait until he was back home to move in.  He said nothing.  His plastic glasses slid down his aquiline nose. My mother looked away, and her lip trembled.  I said, “Never mind.”  We all sighed, almost in unison.  I didn’t take the apartment, the studio with the magnificent views of the East River and the Murphy bed hidden in the wall. 

At his release, my father was dressed in loose-fitting jeans, white sneakers, a jacket, and clear plastic glasses, prison issued, that were too big for his face.

Finally he was home.  The countdown to my freedom had begun. I wondered if that apartment was still available. The little park on one side, the river on the other.  The thought of it alone made want to hug myself.

The first night was Thanksgiving.  My parents’ closest friends were invited.  The ones who stood by us when everyone else hadn’t.  My parents looked happy, their friends surrounding them.  I let out a big sigh and felt a bit lighter.  The tentacles attaching me to my seat and this house were loosening. A one bedroom would also work if I got a roommate.  The idea made me lightheaded.

Those first days, my parents were like newlyweds.  I could fully imagine them young. They looked at each other with tenderness.  They seemed to lean towards each other.  They were in love.  I wasn’t in love.  I had a long-distance boyfriend, but I couldn’t see myself married to him.  I wanted at least a little of what I thought my parents had.

On the second day, my mom, dad, and I went to breakfast in Manhattan, and then dropped my dad off at the store.  It used to be his store.  Now he was an employee. 

On the third day, I realized that my father was afraid to touch money.  We went to a gas station and he had forgotten how to pump gas.  He watched me and then sat in the car.  He didn’t want to drive.  I showed him the checking account and the bills and how I had been taking care of them until his return.  He asked if I could continue for a while longer. 

On the fourth day, we ate lunch on the back porch.  That’s when my friend Terence came over to see my dad.  We took one picture.  All of us smiling, mid chew.  That afternoon, my Dad asked my mom to get him an appointment at the eye doctor.  The plastic glasses were bothering him. 

On the fifth and sixth days I looked around my bedroom and thought that a studio would work.  I didn’t have much of anything of my own, just clothes, souvenirs, a few posters. 

On the seventh evening since my father had returned to us, my mom and I went to the theatre.  A mom and daughter night we had planned a long time before.  My mom was acting oddly.  After the show, she couldn’t find her car keys and then she couldn’t remember where she’d parked the car.  Later that night, I asked her if she was okay.  She said that a few days before, she was sweating so much that she went into a coffee shop on Madison Avenue to get napkins to wipe the moisture from her stockinged legs, even though it was freezing outside. I said we should go to a doctor, our neighbor even.  “Leave me alone,” she said.  “I’m not going to die,” and then she made a funny face with her eyes bulging and stuck out her tongue and walked out of the room with a wink.

The next morning, my father and I said goodbye to my mother.  We were heading to the subway to go to work. The sky was a slate grey. It was threatening to snow. She stopped us at the door in her white wooly robe.  She had an infection in her dental implant.  She said she didn’t want to go to the dentist, that she was scared.  My father hugged her, kissed the side of her forehead, and said she would be okay.  I said, “Bye, Ma.” She knew I would take my father to his subway stop at 57th Street.

That was the last time we saw her alive.  That was the last time I spoke to her.  I usually called her from work, but that day, for some reason, I didn’t.  My dad and I normally timed it so that we were on the same subway car home to Queens but I didn’t see him.  There had been delays.  When I got home, a police officer was stationed in front of our house.  An ambulance was at the curb.  All the lights were on in the living room.  The officer held my shoulders, trying to get my full attention. “Do you have a back door we can use?”  he wanted to know. I nodded.  My pantyhose were pinching my waist.  When I finally asked him what was happening, he said, “They are working on your mother.”  I heard the words but couldn’t understand their meaning.  The driveway was dark, full of snow, my feet breaking the icy surface with each step.

The back door was locked.  I didn’t even have a key. I peered through the glass and saw Debi standing in the kitchen sobbing in the arms of a police officer.  She saw me and opened the door.  When I asked what was going on, she shook her head and cried more.  Then my father was behind me.  We must have been on the same train after all.  We both moved past Debi to the front of the house.  I never expected to see my mother’s inert body, her clothing cut off, EMS workers surrounding her.  The furniture was shoved to the edges of the room.  Suddenly I was on the floor, at her level.  I don’t know how I got there.  I may have fallen or fainted or tripped.  My father fell on top of me.  He screamed, “My wife!” 

My father and I were placed on a couch in a dark room at the back of the house.  Windows were opened.  The air outside was arctic, but I was not cold.  My body was fire.  Someone shouted to breathe deeply.  A neighbor came over. The one who was a doctor.  But it was too late.  My mother was still not breathing.  She was put on a respirator but was deemed brain dead at the hospital later and the machine was disconnected.

That was day eight. My father clung to me, his plastic glasses askew. 

Leslie Lisbona recently had several pieces published in Synchronized Chaos, Dorothy Parker’s Ashes, The Bluebird Word, The Jewish Literary Journal, miniskirt magazine, Yalobusha Review, Tangled Locks, and Smoky Blue Literary.  She is the child of immigrants from Beirut, Lebanon, and grew up in Queens, NY.