The only memory I have of of just me and my father is the two of us watching The Wizard of Oz with our chins in our hands, elbows perched on the end of the bed in the laundry room. I was five years old.
Little did I know he'd be driving up a canyon four months later with a gun on the car seat next to him, and that his '67 blue mustang convertible would stay behind like a Rocky Mountain Bluebird, watching its mate fly away in what I suppose must have been an ambulance. It was my mother's birthday.
One thing I did know is that we celebrated my mother's birthday at the next-door neighbors. I don't remember the sound of the doorbell, but I remember the sound of the sliding door closing while we five children under the age of eight ate cake in the kitchen with the neighbor's children.
The door slid open with the breath of timelessness, blowing a uniformed officer into view. A voice said, "come into the living room, children." Silence.
When he explained that they found our father up East Canyon, the only thing I saw was yellow: Yellow carpet, squishy under my feet. Sunshine coming in through the windows. My twin sister and I giggled.
What did my mother see? I wish I knew. What did she foresee? Her parents moving out from Skokie, Illinois to live closer? Watching the oldest squirrel his way deeper and deeper into the burrow of his bedroom to shut out the responsibility, the memories of finding the handwritten note on the TV set, held down with a bullet for a paper weight?
"You're the man of the house now, young man." But wait, I'm only eight. "You come from five generations of doctors, you know."
The next November, I watched The Wizard of Oz with my family in the upstairs family room held together with wall-to-wall, blood red carpet. That carpet kept our family afloat like a heart beat beneath the rafts of our spread out blankets.
As the years wore on, we ran over that carpet dripping wet from the swimming pool, and our baby sister licked popsicles thinking her father had died of a broken back. We vacuumed out dirt from the back yard gully--the gully where I spent many solitary hours sitting on fallen cottonwood logs, watching dragonflies, or building forts with my younger brother and sleeping in them with a beebee gun, "In case of robbers."
We kids played kick the can after school, built dams in the gully river, and came home to help fix dinner while Mom and we three girls sang our way out of sorrow and learned to make up songs on the spot complete with harmony, (while our brothers shouted, "Stop singing!" from the red-carpeted room where they watched Gilligan's Island and ate spoonfuls of stirred up ketchup and mustard.)
Every year, by the time we'd finished our Halloween candy, the washing machine seemed to slosh out words like a drunken Munchkin, "The Wizard of Oz is coming."
For me, watching it with my family meant sitting shoulder to shoulder with my father, even if it was on the TV where he'd left the suicide note. So what if he threw us children like rag dolls onto the bed in the laundry room, arms and legs flying? Screaming.
Watching the Wizard of Oz meant I was able to believe in an oh-so-real way that Oz and heaven were one and the same thing, and that my father was off to see the wizard in a world of color, walking away from his tornado of Percodan and Darvon addiction. It meant hoping to find a home my eyes couldn't see or comprehend. It meant I'd see my father again, and he'd not only have a heart, but courage.
I've lived nearly half a century and still, The Wizard of Oz is my all-time favorite movie. My oldest brother has found his own Land of Oz while he walks the streets of our town for hours on end, talking to Professor Marvel. When I wrote Secret Speakers and the Search for Selador's Gate, I did it as a rewrite of the story, because for me, somewhere over the rainbow dreams really do come true, even if I still feel paralyzed when it's time to fold the laundry.
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