Tears For My Father and Sea Monkeys, by Dave Cheadle
JUNE 16, 2020
Last week they opened up my father.
He had growths inside him the size of grapefruits. The doctors took one look, shook their heads, then sewed him back up untouched. They said the poor guy must have suffered a long time for the whole business to have gotten that far out of hand. Anyway, he’s not suffering anymore. Dad’s funeral was this morning.
Facing my stepmother at the chapel was tougher than I’d expected. I wanted to take Mom’s elbow and leave, but the line was too short; so I stood there taking his widow’s outstretched hand before we could get away. The woman was crying profusely, mumbling something about how if she had only known she would have gotten him to a doctor sooner. Then she whimpered how Dad often regretted the way he had hurt us, but I had a couple more hands to shake and was not in the mood for apologies twenty-five years past due.
The truth was I hadn’t cried for or about my dad for a long time. Even at his funeral, the best I could muster was an angry grimace. It wasn’t until we got home a little while ago that I finally started to feel anything. It wasn’t until then, listening to Mom making coffee as I leaned in the doorway of my old bedroom, that I spotted the nightstand and remembered my Sea Monkeys.
The whole thing had come down hard and fast for me. I had no way to see it coming. I didn’t know our family was on the skids. I didn’t have anything to compare it to. One day everything was in order; the next, my mom was in hysterics and my father was packing his pajamas. Dad promised that someday I would “understand,” and that in the long run “we would all be happier” if he just left. And then he was gone.
That first summer without Dad is brown grass and dry creeks in my memory, all except for the little bowl of clear tap water on the nightstand beside my bed.
I had seen the ads in the back pages of my Spider-man comic books. The bizarre drawings of impish, little water creatures caught my eye, teasing me to read. I dreamed of guarding and nurturing the microcosmic kingdom over which I would play God. In mid-June, my Sea Monkeys arrived.
At first, my mother was a bit reluctant. She handed over the package addressed to me with a curious “what’s-this-all-about” frown in her eyes and I was not sure she was going to let me keep them. But when Mom saw my excitement, the way I tore off the wrapper and ripped open the box, she softened immediately. Then seeing my confusion as I turned the envelope and directions over and over looking for the Sea Monkeys, Mom quickly became an ally.
“Honey,” she said with a quiet smile, “I think you’ll need a fishbowl and some water.”
“But where are they?” I demanded. “‘This stuff looks like sand. Where are the Sea Monkeys?”
“They’re in there. Those are the eggs. Sea Monkeys hatch from those if you put them in water.”
“Oh.” The disappointment in my voice must have triggered something, because the next thing I knew she was off to the basement to find a bowl.
Ten minutes later we were in my room together choosing just the right spot for the doily and fishbowl. I let Mom fill the bowl, but insisted on pouring in the eggs myself.
A college roommate would later inform me that Sea Monkeys were really just brine shrimp gone mail order, but that summer to me they were angels beneath the sea. At first, I tried to name each Sea Monkey. But within days so many had hatched that I couldn’t count them, let alone come up with enough names. Besides, they all looked the same — thin, little, worm-like animals with black, bulging eyes on top and a row of feathery, swimming arms down each side. Still, I sometimes singled one out and tried to imagine that his name was Tommy or Bob or something, and that I knew everything about him. Watching my Sea Monkeys, I reasoned that humans must all look alike to God, too. For the first time, the words of my Sunday school teacher made an impression. If the Creator could call us all by name, God must really be smart.
It was a little disappointing when I realized one day that my Sea Monkeys had stopped growing. They were as big as they were going to get. Dozens of them could have survived in nothing bigger than a juice glass for a year. The next day my mother came home with a magnifying glass, and I was given a new lease on life.
I’d watch the Sea Monkeys for hours, peering with my magnifying glass through the bowl into the lives of the countless little creatures so delicate and vulnerable beneath my care. Sometimes, late at night when I knew that nobody would walk in on me, I’d scoop one out with an old narrow piece of bent screen that I’d found in the alley. Gently, careful not to squash it, I’d turn the Sea Monkey over on my “scientific” finger, magnifying it to four times its actual size so that I could diagnose its imagined disease and cure it before it would die.
With Dad gone, I’m not sure what I would have done that summer without my Sea Monkeys. I understood these creatures, and watching them let me escape from the shambles that our family had become. Sometimes I’d hear Mom in the other room, sobbing and swearing over the phone at Dad. Compared to what our home had been like, I now realized how rough things were going. But I wouldn’t shut my door. I’d just try to block out Mom’s bitter pleading and pretend there was a storm blowing through and that it was my job to watch over the Sea Monkeys to be sure they were safe in the wind-tossed seas.
One day there was a real storm, our first after weeks without rain, and right in the middle of the lightning and downpour my mother got another call from dad. This time he wanted the good car. I could hear Mom’s part of their conversation even over the thunder. I tried mentally to shut out the yelling, but the ruckus was scaring my Sea Monkeys and I could no longer ignore it. I had to do something.
Then I remembered that my teacher had once said that rainwater was the purest water in the world. I had never changed the water from my Sea Monkeys’ bowl. I would give them some fresh rainwater, and maybe that will calm them down.
Carefully, I lifted the bowl, watching intently to make sure none of the Sea Monkeys spilled out. Step by step, I slowly made my way through the door and past my mother’s jerking back, catching snippets of her anguished threats as I slipped out the back screen door onto the rain-pelted patio behind our house.
Within moments I was drenched. The storm washed torrents of rain down upon our block, making rivers of the alleys and swamps of the lawns. Lightning flashed and jabbed at trees, though I hardly noticed as I stared into the waters of my bowl, watching as the Sea Monkeys sprang to new life at the joy of fresh raindrops from the sky. Water pellets splashed like tiny meteors over the heads of my Sea Monkeys, leaving momentary craters which expanded into oblivion as they were buried by the next drops. I raised the bowl toward the clouds, hoping to catch every drop that I could.
Suddenly, as I lifted my face toward the Sea Monkeys above my head, a huge raindrop drilled itself into one of my eyes. Instinctively, my hands released the bowl, reaching to protect my eyes from the pain.
The bowl crashed onto the concrete beneath my feet.
A mini tidal wave exploded and rolled from the shattered glass around my sneakers, sweeping away my Sea Monkeys in a horrible wash of death.
I froze in shock, gawking at the carnage and shards of glass.
Sick with panic, I fell to the ground, frantic to save even one Sea Monkey somehow. But the rain fell harder, and suddenly I began crying uncontrollably, crawling and groping, my knees gashed and bleeding from the broken glass and coarse texture of the patio slab.
They were dead. I had murdered them all.
Sobbing, I climbed back to my feet, images of my dying Sea Monkeys flashing through my mind.
And then I began to run. Through the lawn and down the alley I rushed, sobbing and splashing for all that I was worth, with no idea where I was headed or why. I just had to get away.
At the end of the alley I turned and flew back as fast as my short legs could push, back past my home and on to the other end of our block. I had done a terrible thing. I had destroyed hundreds of innocent Sea Monkeys. My mind blurred with guilt and fear.
When I spotted the broken rain gutter hanging off the roof of my neighbor’s garage, I knew what I had to do. Water gushed out of the end like a mountain waterfall, cold and wild, plunging ten feet to a foamy pool below. Without hesitation I splashed into the puddle, pulled off my shirt, and turned my face up into the cascade from the rusty gutter.
After a while, I started to choke on the stream and my eyes began to hurt, so I turned my face back downward. But I would not budge from the spot. I would stay there until I was found, until I had atoned for my sin and the whole world knew how very sorry I was for what I had done.
Eventually my mother came out and got me. She had discovered the broken bowl after searching the house, and had gone out to look for me in the rain. When she found me, she didn’t say a word. She gently reached out for my hand, led me from the puddle, then knelt in the alley and hugged me as if she were the only friend I’d ever need. I was saved.
Gradually the smell of coffee replaced the post-funeral sounds coming from the kitchen, and I knew without turning that Mom had a cup in her hand and would soon be stepping to my side.
From the doorway, I panned the fixtures and props in my old room: an overstuffed panda, yellow and hunched against one wall; a dusty shelf of Happy Hollisters adventures, their ragged spines lined in quiet judgment against the final two books, still crisp and unread; and to the right of the bed, the nightstand, wobbly and worn. Resting on the stand was an old photo album, which I found myself picking up before I could wonder why.
The first page showed me as a baby. A few pages later, it was me at age two, playing in the tub.
And then, somewhere in the middle, I discovered a picture of myself raised high in the arms of my father, his hair wet and black from the sea, his arms tanned and steady with the strength of a protector. Closing my eyes, I could hear the sea and smell the damp sands of the beach as my father’s firm hands cupped my ribs and raised me to the sky. Behind us rushed a wave, looming and white with foam. But we had smiles on our lips, and there was trust on my youthful face.
“He must have suffered a long time,” the doctors had said.
Staring at the man in the photo, I wondered how long he had stood beneath his own rusty rain gutter, face turned in guilt and pain to the waters beating down against his eyes and throat. How long had my father wept and choked, waiting for someone to lead him from his puddle, to kneel and hug him in the storm?
The album trembled in my hands as tears began to stream down my face, tears for Sea Monkeys, dropped so many years before — and tears for my father, who had dropped his precious son and died without my hug.
This story originally appeared in Cornerstone Magazine.