“He misses you,” she sighed while fidgeting her fingers around the wine glass. I continued washing dishes as a way to keep myself distracted, but the tone in Nora’s voice was difficult to ignore. I could feel her honest intentions and I became painfully aware of the emotional turmoil choking its way up my esophagus. The rough taste of a conversation I’d been trying to avoid for nearly a decade was nauseating, and although silence seemed like my only escape tactic, I knew I would have to muster up some word vomit. She took a sip of her vinho verde, and said, “The loneliness is killing him. Do you have any idea what that’s doing to his depression?”
“I haven’t seen him in years,” I shrugged. She inched closer to me, turned off the sink and looked directly in my eyes. Nora’s freckles had bloomed over the years and her strawberry hair had grown more auburn. Her hazel eyes were still vibrant if not more, and the green rim around her pupil reminded me of our childhood. As children, Nora would always stare up at me curiously, yet now I was regarding her with a similar curiosity, admiring how my younger sister was blossoming into an adult. She used to speak with a tone of pure innocence, but now, at 21 years old, her voice was a loaded weapon and the words “He loves you” were her ammunition. Out of habit, I laughed, but my sense of humor was not well received. She responded quite seriously, “And you love him.” I began picking at my nails, trying to find a way to debunk her authority, particularly her command of the word “love.”
I have always loved ice-cold clementines. The first bite breaks the fruit’s thin skin and juice floods the taste buds as sweetness sticks to the lips and lingers on fingertips. I have always loved the ocean. You can dive inside, dive deep and go underneath, underwater where bubbles slide along your sides. You can swim and sink inside the self, plunging into the bottomless depths of your mind. I have always loved the color green, the sound of “good morning,” handwritten letters, nude paintings, and napping under tulip trees, but my love for him was anything but sweetness. My love for him was shooting a bullet and missing the target.
Nora persisted, “Can you find it in yourself to see him?” Before she even finished I was shaking my head in disagreement. “Have you forgotten what kind of person he is?” I snapped. Nora took a breath and said, “I’m not asking you to forget. I’m asking if you’ll forgive.” My throat felt heavy and my tangled thoughts were clouding. I once read that, in the 1800s, “to forgive” meant to begin to thaw, and this definition felt most authentic to my condition. I searched for the power to forgive him, but all I could remember was myself standing before him frozen.
I am 18 in my mother’s house. Friends and family are pouring in with congratulatory hugs, preparing to send me off to college. Nik bolts over to me, asking “Where’s the booze?” He catches me off guard. “Closed bar. You know how he gets,” I reply, trying not to get into it. He gives me a puzzled look, lowering his voice to say, “I can smell the whiskey on his breath.” I stop dead in my tracks, caught in a whirlwind of what to do next. I find Nora and she’s already aware of his situation. I catch my mother’s eye in the distance and she mouths ‘I’m sorry.’ As I step into the living room, I spot his cloud of gloom reeking like a pack of cigarettes. He has one hand gripped around his glass and the other sliding up Yolanda’s skirt. He’s spitting out slurred curses like spatter paint. People are staring uncomfortably and I overhear someone ask, “Who invited him?” I meet his gaze and thunder claps inside my chest. I approach him and choke the words out of me, “What are you doing Dad?”
He throws his glass on the floor. “This is my house and I do what I want.” My mother quickly steps in but he tells her to “Stay the fuck out of this.” I feel myself shrinking as the air is sucked right out of the room.“You think just because it’s your special day you can tell me what to do?” There is fire in his eyes and none of us can tame the dragon coursing his veins. My friends are terrified, my family is disappointed. My mother is begging him to leave and he repeats with fury, “This my home!” But we both knew that wasn’t true.
“Stop lying to yourself,” I cry out, “This isn’t a home. For you, it’s nothing more than a bed to blackout in. Do yourself a favor and leave.” He steps right into me and spits out, “Puta.” He walks past me and out the front door. Nora rushes over to me, frightened as an 11 year older should be. I take a deep breath trying to relieve myself, but before I know it, someone screams and any opportunity for peace is shattered. I turn around and see my father pointing a gun at me.
“He’s gotten better,” Nora interjected so to assuage my thoughts, but still the memories kept flooding in, and I doubted she was old enough to remember his reign of terror with the same conviction as I did. Nora embraced me and I could smell the argan oil in her hair, the hemp seed lotion on her hands, and the faint scent of Jasmine incense that smuggled its way into the fabric of her sweater. In her entirety, Nora was sweetness, especially in the way she held me in that weak moment. Her touch was comforting but the more unconditional love she directed towards me, the more I couldn’t stand myself for avoiding confrontation. For so long, I’d be avoiding his phone calls, trashing his postcards, and dodging conversations at the mere mention of his name. Once he was arrested, I couldn’t bring myself to face him and perhaps that is why I conditioned myself to hold on to my resentment. Why couldn’t I be more like Nora and release all this hatred?
Nora retreated to her canvas bag and pulled out an envelope with my name on it. She placed it gracefully on the counter, and suddenly all the weight in the room was centered on that piece of paper. “Open it,” she said, inching it closer to me. Inside was an itinerary for a flight out of White Plains, New York to West Palm Beach, Florida. “He was released on medical parole. I’m going to see him next week. This is for you if you’ll come with me,” she explained. Of all that words that could have smuggled their way through Nora’s lips, I was not expecting her to admit medical parole. He was out of prison and not because of good behavior or some over-crowding technicality. He was dying.
Nora had arranged for Nik to drive us to the airport. Despite the roar of road rage coming from passing traffic, the car ride was relaxing and also quite refreshing because I hadn’t seen Nik since I moved from the Hudson Valley to work with the Writer’s Coalition in Brooklyn. Nik was a dear family friend whose grandparents lived across the street from my childhood home. He knew my father and he never criticized our family for having its complications. As children, Nik and his family offered me and Nora an escape from disarray. Hearing his voice again reminded me of those free and easy afternoons spent on the river: we could climb past the train tracks and skip rocks until the sun would set behind the blue Catskills. I’d been so busy facilitating workshops and embedding myself into a new society that I had almost forgotten the community I’d left back home. It felt gratifying to remember these past memories, and I could only hope it would feel somewhat the same when I would face my father.
Check-in and security were a breeze, especially compared to the countless hiccups Nora and I had experienced when traveling in the past. We both had our luggage lost in transit, Nora was called in for questioning, and I remember Airport Security once confiscated all the tampons from my suitcase. Perhaps the most memorable time Nora and I were on a flight together was when we committed to a twenty-three-hour journey to Zurich for our cousin’s wedding. We watched the sunrise during our layover in Istanbul and fell asleep in the car drive to Basel. I was 20 and Nora was 13, yet neither of us was equipped to face the language barrier and culture shock that welcomed us. Unfortunately, it seemed that this journey to Florida would present us with similar difficulties; the first challenge being how to explore unfamiliar territory, how to properly greet my father who I hadn’t spoken to in over a decade. Luckily, I had two hours suspended in the exosphere to prepare myself.
Once we landed, we hailed a taxi to drive us to his condominium, and my stomach started turning immediately. I kept my eyes glued to the window, counting the palm trees pass us by. My headphones were loud enough to sound out surrounding noise, but once I saw Nora tormenting the driver, I turned my music off to investigate. My father’s caretaker had mailed Nora the address, but she implored this could not possibly be his place of residence. As I paid our driver, I noticed the wailing sirens and emergency vehicles parked on the street and in the driveway. Nora immediately exited the vehicle, charging head first into the blaze of flashing lights and then frantically into the house only to be escorted out by officers. We had walked deliberately into a hurricane of pandemonium, and the challenge began with finding someone with answers. The emergency responders couldn’t spare me a breath of time, but then I was met by a soft hand on my shoulder. I heard someone ask, “Are you Nora?” and I turned to find a middle-aged woman, probably in her early fifties greet me with kind eyes. “No, I’m Ava,” my voice cracked, “Nora’s my sister.” I motioned for Nora to come join me, and the woman introduced herself to us as Sheila, my father’s caretaker. Before Sheila spoke another word, I already knew. I already knew we were too late.
On May 26th, 2017 at 4:23 P.M. my father Alberto Carvalho died at 68 years of age. He was an immigrant from Algarve, Portugal who obtained his American citizenship at the age of 18. Shortly after, he was stationed in Vietnam where he served the United States and was repaid with a critical case of PTSD that he, later in life, self-medicated with whiskey. He wasn’t always a heavy drinker. When he returned in 1975, his night terrors were pacified by my mother’s love and affection. He only resorted to the bottle when her tenderness wasn’t enough to cure his affliction; when his children would beg for his attention yet rarely receive it; when the bills piled up and he was too depressed to return to work; when he would crawl into bed in the early morning smelling like someone else. Prior to the divorce and his separation from the role of father figure, he wasn’t always a heavy drinker, a destroyer. He was once my father, and I did love him dearly, but he was diseased, and in the way of hurting himself, he continuously hurt me and my family. All I ever wanted was a sincere apology.
In the midst of Nora’s misery and my tangled and tumultuous feelings, Sheila was our saving grace. I was grateful to have her company because Sheila, having been surrounded by death working in her profession, was selfless and spoke to us with a voice of sympathetic consideration. She had also been working with my father to finalize a will. The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind until she brought the documents to our attention. Sheila knew the protocol well and extended herself as a resource to ease the process. I had never arranged a funeral or dealt with life insurance and I didn’t know who to call about his Veterans Affairs paychecks, but my inexperience didn’t change the fact this responsibility fell on me.
The passing days felt like weeks as we motioned through the list of end-of-life arrangements. It was decided that the body would be cremated and a funeral would be arranged once we were back in New York, but then we were faced with the question who would even attend the funeral? The few friends he had called him Al, but his family barely called him at all. In the countless meetings with the estate attorney, tax accountants, his life insurance agent, and bank attendant, we had encountered more people than we expected would arrive at his funeral. Even more questions surfaced as we address the will because what we discovered was not what we were expecting. My father was a cheap man, always holding onto his money as if he had none, but once we counted the zeros on that piece of paper, everything I’d known about my father’s financial “crisis” had been a lie. Nora and I were the sole beneficiaries since he refused to speak to my mother and he never remarried Yolanda, who unsurprisingly left him once he was arrested. I never liked Yolanda but I loved the idea of inheriting the money she once chased after.
The money wasn’t everything I inherited either. Three years ago, my father’s mother, who was still living in Guia Monte Juntos, Albufeira passed away at 89 and willed her land to my father. I vaguely remembered the property from when I traveled with him to Portugal as a child. If there’s anything I do remember, though, it was walking to the beach and indulging in the smell of fresh bread from the bakery. I used to puzzle over why my father left all that wonder behind for an adult life of drunkenness and jail time. Had he lived in Portugal, things would surely be different for him. He’d fit right in, indulging in the country’s surplus of port wine. But more importantly, his criminal record would cease to exist because living in Portugal would not only have separated him from that leech Yolanda but instead treat him as a patient on account of the country’s decriminalization law. He would never have been arrested for carrying any substance so long as he wasn’t trafficking large quantities. I never condoned his habits, but I knew better than to try and stop him. In Portugal, he would have been entitled to a little puff, a popped pill, or even snort a line to get his mind going, and he’d still have his freedom to walk to streets. He might even still be here today because Portugal offers treatment and rehabilitation programs for their addicted citizens, and we all know he needed it.
Unfortunately, he missed that opportunity and remained locked up behind bars until his ruined liver worsened enough for them to release him. He never did anything with the land until he signed the will, transferring the property to my name. My name. That’s what surprised me the most. He handed down this pivotal asset to his oldest daughter, the only daughter who truly made an effort to eliminate him from her life. Was this my apology? Or was this my escape? I hadn’t even thought of traveling to Portugal again, but now that I had a house with my name on it, I couldn’t resist the tempting thought of leaving this reality behind for rocky beaches bordering the Atlantic.
Once we were back in New York, it was decided that I would return to the Faro District. I was fortunate enough that my travel plans didn’t conflict with any upcoming workshops, which meant I could do most of my tasks from virtually anywhere (so long as I had internet connection and accounted for the time difference during conference calls.) Nora, on the other hand, couldn’t spare to take any more time off from her graduate studies, and part of me felt guilty for traveling while she stayed back to tackle the funeral arrangements. It was disheartening to embark on this journey without her, yet Nora continuously encouraged me to maintained a sense of exhilaration as the date on my plane ticket inched closer. She believed my time in Portugal would offer me “a sense of closure,” and although I dismissed the thought at first, I couldn’t help but meditate on the fact she could be right. Again and again, Nora continued to impress me with her growth and maturity. She made me question which of us truthfully was the older sibling. It was a strange sensation, but I welcomed it.
Little did I know, that strangeness would not leave me as promptly as I would have liked. I couldn’t exactly put a finger on it, but something about this trip was different. I had traveled more than I could count on both hands and the nervousness that steadily crept in could not compare to my previous experiences. I knew enough Portuguese to get me from the airport to my destination, yet from there, the rest of the journey was ultimately up to me. Perhaps it was the sense of freedom that was intimidating or the wealth of responsibility that awaited me on the other side. I was a homeowner in a land where I knew little to nothing about property laws and I knew very little of the woman, my grandmother, who lived her life within those walls. I could only hope this journey would be kind to me.
Suspended 40,000 feet in the air, I finally felt at ease. The majority of the surrounding passengers were sleeping peacefully as the clouds accumulated outside their windows. The turbulence was subtle, except for when the aircraft reached an even higher altitude and jolted me within my seat. A fear of flying couldn’t be entertained, however, because I felt very alive. Very well and alive, I watched the city lights miniaturize alongside the height of mountains in the distance. I began to fall deeper in love with the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean that reflected painted layers of sky more intense than any of my favorite sunsets. Outside these tiny windows was a hyper-awareness of what creates the world around me, and I carried this sensation with me throughout the duration of my seven-hour flight.
The plane landed in Lisbon, the country’s largest city and capital. Although I wanted to explore all the history packed into the old city’s pastel-colored buildings and coastal castles, I rented a car and ventured three hours south to Algarve. With each passing moment, the air thickened with the scent of brine and my stomach growled at the thought of fresh baked cod with olives. It was nearly 8 P.M. when I arrived in Guia Monte Juntos, but unfortunately, I was not able to unpack and relax in my home. Until I met with the Public Notary, I could not step foot on my grandmother’s veranda and rightfully claim the space as my own. It would be days until I had a verified translation of the will, let alone probate or certification by an English solicitor. In the meantime, I booked a room at the Casa da Colina downtown where the city life was promising and the locals were welcoming. Virtually everything I could need was in walking distance: food, entertainment, and most importantly—the beach.
While I waited for the Portuguese Civil Code to work in my favor, I decided I would revisit a distant yet fond memory. I packed the car and headed west with Sagres as my destination. The road, uninterrupted by curves and bordered by short yet vast stretches of grass, appeared to be endless. It felt like driving on a landing strip as if Mother Earth ruled a pencil and ran until the tip broke where the road traded in for sand. As I traveled further, it became virtually apparent why I still considered Portugal the Old World. My eyes were drawn to the red lighthouse neighbored by archaic stone structures in the distance. Against the timeless horizon, the lighthouse stood like a push pin tacked onto the map, a rose petal floating in a pool of water.
Parked and exposed to the elements, I could smell the ocean within seconds.
The wind was ecstatic, whipping against my skin as if it were passionately thrilled by the sight of life. There was little vegetation except for the green patches of grass. Anything courageous enough to grow in this expanse would only be uprooted by the wind and cast over the cliffs. Dangerously curious, I approached the edge and witnessed the Atlantic crash its waves against the rocky surface and pull back like a blanket. I must have been two hundred and fifty feet above sea level, and peering down the vertical precipice, I spotted a pair of fishermen with their feet over the edge, casting a line into the depths. My great-grandfather was a fisherman. In the early morning, he and my father would walk their boat down to the beach, and his grandfather would recount stories from World War I. He taught my father his first word of English, Miss Kiss, but that’s another story.
With the air currents pushing me closer to the crumbling edge of the Earth and the rock beneath my feet surrendering its grip, I could not muster the fishermen’s strength, and I retreated. My father had always told me to be wary of the waves because the ocean in Algarve is aggressive, like hands climbing the shore with greedy fingers, claiming fistfuls of sand. Yet somehow there, in Sagres, up against a treacherous climate, I felt safe. I motioned toward the tip of the peninsula where the bellies of the clouds were violet and stretching well beyond my field of vision. I remember a youthful self, nearly twenty years younger, once standing in this exact position next to my father.
“Do you know where we are?” he says. I nod my head, but I don’t know the significance of where we’re standing. He extends his hand and points straight ahead. “Do you know what’s over there?” he asks. “The ocean?” I shrug, simply because I cannot see anything beyond the reach of sky. “That’s our home,” he smiles. “We’re at Cape St. Vincent, Costa Vincentina, the westernmost point of Europe. If you were to swim...and swim and swim and swim, you’d reach our home. It’s all the way over there. You can’t see it, but it’s there,” he chuckles.