Any Which Way | Tess Kursel

A photo of Tess Kursel's father carrying her as a baby in a backpack child carrier.

April 12, 2020

I met my son on April 11 at 4:38pm.
I said goodbye to my father April 12 at 4:11pm.

My son was wrinkled and swollen, his hand resting on my chest.
My husband slowly walked over to us and crawled into the narrow hospital bed next to me. “He’s gone,” my husband said.

We lay there, quiet. Stuck at this great precipice where boundless possibility begins and ends.

April 21, 2020

Happy Birthday, Dad.

We planted a willow tree for you today.
As we scooped away the wet earth,
the chickens picked at worms
and drank from the hose.
There you go again
bringing joy to all things.

April 25, 2020

I’m usually okay until I get these reminders.

The shirt I bought you in Oaxaca, sherbet green with beautifully patterned seams. You first tried it on at a family reunion. Your sister laughed and asked if you could button the shirt around your big belly. That was the last time I saw you. I didn’t know it would be then.

Your work belt, heavy, succinct, containing only an incredibly strong flashlight and a pair of pliers. You must have had it clipped around your waist as you worked those grueling night shifts. You’d never tell us they were grueling though. “It’s perfect for me. It’s nice and quiet,” you would say.

Those shoes, black and thin, shaped like boats. They remind me of the time we drove down the California coast and you showed me and my brother where you used to do Tai Chi.

In the middle of an incredibly large garden, overflowing with fresh green growth, you bend your knees slightly as your arms began to move gently out in front of you. We all erupt in laughter.

The pain returns and I try hard not to soak this sweet baby’s face with tears that dutifully land on my chest which aches of fullness from nursing this new life.

Buried under the fullness is the dark hollow of your absence. Of still waiting for your phone call to come any day now so that you can say, “Is that my beautiful daughter?”

I wish you could see his sweet smiles as he dreams.

I struggle to pack your things because it means that call is not coming. The baby begins to cry and I hold his warm face close and comfort him. “It’s okay, my love,” I say. And it is in a way. It’s okay because this is how we must live. We have no choice. So for now we live on for this warm bundle breathing softly on my chest as he returns to sleep. His tiny bulging belly pressing against mine with each inhale.

May 02, 2020

I look down at the face of my breastfeeding son,
one eye heavy and glossy as he falls deep into a milk coma.
The other eye is pressed closed as his fat head leans heavy against my arm.
Suddenly I am looking at my father’s face the last time I saw him,
the day my son was born.
One eye heavy and glossed from Morphine,
the other drooped closed from a stroke.

May 12, 2020

Driving the high road to Taos wearing my dad’s oversized jean jacket, worn from years of use.

There is something rotten in my stomach.

I am an apple with a rotten worm hole, sunken and collapsing in on itself in the back seat of the car.

I heard a conspiracy theory about alien bodies being stored in Homestead, Florida, where my dad lived, and I’m eager to tell him about it — to ask if he had heard this theory. “Any suspicious activity to report?” I might ask.

All I can do is smell this jean jacket and tense every muscle in my body to try and hold in the sickness threatening to sink in my core.

May 16, 2020

Can you see it, Dad?
His long eyelashes
The silly face he makes when he is full
Can you see how loved he is?
How lucky we are?

May 20, 2020

Everything I watch inextricably involves a dead dad.
A movie about a heist, a comedy about running, a superhero saga.
I watch the imaginary characters mourn.
They walk in slow motion to drop a single rose onto a casket, and I think to myself, this is not how one says goodbye to a father.
One cannot simply drop a flower to come to terms with the fact that the world is no longer safe.
It no longer imbues with joy.
It is a mass of stale air and the feigned appearance of normalcy.
It is a skeleton of what was.

May 27, 2020

We are piled in bed – my husband, Little Man, and me. We are fleshy layers folded one over another like a sweet buttery dough. I reflect on the day’s most important pieces. Each important piece is simply my tiny son curled up safely on my husband’s chest. Each moment is tinged with the great pain of knowing how proud you would be, and how you will never see his smallness against the backdrop of a loving father. It is a mighty thing.

When I was little, you would lay on your side with your head propped up on your hand. I would climb on you and try to balance, like two wiggly planks side by side. I felt so safe there, teetering back and forth, laughing. My son curls under my arm and breathes quietly as my husband rests his head on me. I stare at them in the gentle pink light of a salt lamp. “Wow,” I think, “My heart is so full.”

Then that wave rises. That wave of grief they say rises and falls like the ocean does. It overtakes me and I feel like I’m choking on fishy brine.

Will the waves ever quiet?

Will I ever feel a full heart without a reminder of the cavernous emptiness?

June 07, 2020

Grief is a scoundrel
A sweet liar
It will tell you that
if things stay loud enough
and busy enough,
it will scuttle away.
But it will just wait,
squat, in the empty air
and the space between the noise
to rob you of your breath.

June 08, 2020

I push through the terror and keep flipping back and back through photos. As much as I am afraid and want to stop, I cannot.

Eventually I reach the pictures of my father. His sweet smile looking up at a towering waterfall. When we arrived there we were sure he would wait patiently for us at the bottom, but as we glanced behind us he was right there. I’ll be damned if he didn’t scramble up those slick rocks right behind us. Everything was made better when he was there. The water sounded richer in his presence. The opulent red of the rocks glistened bright, reflected in his eyes.

Because I remember that my father made everything better, I remember that now nothing can be made better. Everything will just rest heavy like a craggy rock. Silent like a room with no air.

I feel I might choke to death, my mouth dry like I’m eating plain salt crackers with no water.

June 29, 2020

I practice matching your stride and put each tiny foot in a mark
you left on the parched and sandy ground.
I work each lanky limb,
but I am small before them.
Still I search for you in every muscle and nerve of my body,
and at times I think I have found you living on there,
as my knee jerks up when a dog jumps on me,
in those moments when I want the world to simply obey me.
Even more still when I whinny loudly,
to coax a giggle out of Little Man,
when I am called to bake bread for those in pain,
when I want to eat sauerkraut and soft stewed potatoes
so that I have good luck

July 05, 2020

There are happy moments tucked in with all the grief. That is what makes it so disorienting. Last night was the Fourth of July. One year ago was the last time I would see my dad. I woke up this morning feeling the weight of that.

Melancholic, I put the baby down for a nap, and my husband and I stand over the sink washing dishes. Suddenly, it begins to rain.

We stop what we are doing and stand outside quietly on the porch and hold each other while the cool air rolls in. My husband turns and looks at me as the gentle mist reaches us ever-so-slightly on one arm. “You’re so beautiful,” he says, “all parts of you.” “Even my dirty feet?” I ask. “Especially your dirty feet,” he answers. I think of my toes in the loose dirt, and the quietness that rain brings. We fall silent again as we stare out at the chocolate flowers that have overgrown their planter.

A photo of Tess Kursel's father smiling with a hand on his heart.

July 09, 2020

I begged my dad every morning and every night to return to me somehow. I would hope for a shadow on the wall, a cold spot, a whisper, an out-of-place Blue Jay.

A dream:

I am sitting in a closet in my childhood home. There are three trees on the bed. My dad is on one knee just outside the closet and I look up to him as if I am so very small. “Was it this hard when you lost your mom?” I ask him. “Oh yeah, sweetheart, very hard,” he responds.

I wake weeping.

July 21, 2021

“Grief, I guess, is the main thing,” I tell the receptionist as I try to book an appointment with a therapist.

“Well, and I have a three-month-old son who was born the day before my dad died. And, well, also my general fear of intimacy, crippling anxiety, inability to sleep, and the certainty that everything will burst into flames and disappear, and the stomach-churning sense that I am constantly letting everyone down.”

“Grief, though, mainly.”

July 24, 2020

When he left us,
his children felt it,
He was our hero, wailing in the darkened corners of our homes
The sweet solemn air felt it,
There is no breath of life left, gasping into an empty night
The cool metallic Earth felt it,
Shuddering in the absence of his steady pace, aching into a great darkness

There are no heroes left, there is no air, there is no solid ground
All is lost
All is empty

The air becomes thick as the Earth steadies,
but the children only weep,
lost in the shadows of this new unfriendly place.

September 06, 2020

I am walking with Little Man strapped to my chest

These are my first by-myself memories — my first alone-here memories,
I think to myself.

The wind picks up and blows a hundred
baby hairs loose from my messy bun
and into my mouth
I know, Dad
I know you are here
The wind quiets.

November 21, 2020       

We decide to go into the mountains for a night and I am packing a bag, deciding what to bring.

I try on my dad’s faded jean jacket with the thick collar, the plaid long-sleeve shirt, and his black and white bandana with the fringe along the edges. For a moment I am sure they will still smell like him. There is a muskiness that always lingered on his clothes, from years of being washed in unfiltered well water in a machine that thumped around in our damp garage. Even though we moved away twelve years ago, the smell hasn’t left.

Maybe it wasn’t just the water. Maybe it is in our bones. When my dad’s bones became blistered, and he tried so hard to keep this secret, it was that smell that made us certain that nothing had changed.

I put each piece of clothing back into my closet. They don’t have a special place there; they just hang limply with the rest of my things. Most days I try to quickly flip past them when I am getting dressed. Unable to move them, unable to wear them, unable to admit that I am myself, and that the me without a father is the same me.

I pack my bags with all the wrong things and rush out the door.

December 08, 2020

I hold my dad’s address book in both hands and turn it over and over. The smooth leather cover is so familiar and has been worn into a soft glossy finish from years of being tucked into the back pocket of my dad’s jeans. Finally, I build up the courage to open it and flip through the pages, thumbing the paper scraps and receipts tucked inside. I touch the pages gently and run my fingers over the meticulously written names. I hope that somehow his energy is suspended in the letters, and that I might feel it soak into my fingertips if I pay close attention.

Most of his passwords are my name. I melt into the image of his warm hand gripping the black pen band as he carefully notes each birthday and anniversary. I want to be folded up like a scrap of paper and placed in the pages. I want to be tucked in there and squeezed tightly as he sings “Down In the Valley.” I want to hear him get the words wrong and not care. I want to go back and back and back and hear one of his stories. I want to laugh as he draws a stick figure doodle on my birthday card and calls me Warrior Coyote.

January 01, 2021

Nothing is just what it is anymore. Everything has become a symbol. There is a stuffed elf poking his head out of my son’s toy basket. His red hat is pulled down so his button nose peeks out under the brim. It is just like the elf I sent my dad last year, pushed up against jars of homemade apricot jam and apple butter.

Did he laugh at the elf’s button nose?

Did he taste the jars of sweetened fruit?

In these celebratory moments that fleck our lives, there is a vast ache. I wonder why I did not spend more time asking these questions. Was it busyness? Was it denial that a day would come when I could not ask?

January 10, 2021

March 24, 2020, 4 seconds long.

The last message you left on my phone.

I have saved about 30 messages from you just like this one
“It’s your dad, call me back.”
Simple. Concise. Somehow so distinctly you in so few words.
That southern drawl. The raspiness.
You must have always called me after getting off the night shift,
or just as you awoke from the nap you would take once you got home.
I was always afraid that each message was your last,
and that I would be left with those little soundbites.

I imagined that they would bring me comfort,
that I would have a way to hear your voice no matter what.
I have been too afraid to listen, though,
I am certain it will break me.

February 23, 2021

I have been an insomniac my whole life.

As a young girl, my dad would check on me late into the night and see that I was still awake through the yellow glow of the hallway light. He would kneel by the bed and sing to me until I fell asleep.

I was sitting in the bathtub counting my toes, ‘til the radiator broke and the water all froze…

My husband would joke that I only get good sleep at 5am and he was right. I would be comforted to sleep by the gentle glow of the early morning.

But this has changed. I don’t resist the dark quietness of sleep anymore. Maybe I have stopped fearing the small deaths of life. Now I hope to find my dad there in the thinness between deep and eternal sleep.

Tess Kursel was born in a small town in Missouri, and is currently a writer and entrepreneur living in Santa Fe, New Mexico with her husband and son.