I still remember the bright, light blue letters plastered on that old orange juice advertisement: “A day without orange juice is a day without sunshine." I guess that’s why losing my father will always remind me of citrus. He made me fresh orange juice in the morning before taking us all to church every Sunday. Thinking of him tastes like lemon zest that tightens your jaw and makes your teeth cramp. He helped me plant orange-lemon hybrids in our backyard. The first time we tasted one, I cringed. He will always feel like the rinds peeled off of me that left white residue and dried tang on your fingertips. To me, his death is that familiar sticky coating that lingers on your fingers even after you wash your hands. After digging your nails into the bright orange rinds and causing a little juice to spray out, it leaves a thin layer that makes my peeled body seem slightly more protected from the outside world. It separates me and brings me comfort.
I still wear my father’s old jackets even though I know it will sting being covered in his old lining. My mother said it was gross of me to keep some of his clothing, like it was the skin shed from a snake: lived-in. But I like zipping up a layer of him and feeling myself settle into a person who had experienced more life than I. It makes me feel like I can just absorb some of his knowledge; some of him. Maybe he can still help his little girl learn to take on the world, like he used to. Maybe I just want to feel something. Even if it’s pain.
The day he died, my mother was sitting on my bed at 7:35 in the morning. We were going to Disneyland to celebrate my little brother’s birthday a week early and my mother’s birthday a day early. My brother, Aron, was turning nine. She received a call from the hospital he had been in for the past year and half; we thought that maybe he felt a bit better and it would be him on the other end of the phone. My mother and I were victims of hope. Hope is my least favorite word and I am totally its bitch. It makes sure that you will never accept your reality like a knife capable of slicing skin and making juice trickle out. I felt like a tangerine, subjected to the thin blade of longing and dribbling out at the seams.
My mom put the phone call on speaker as the man on the other end relayed to us that this morning my father’s lungs had finally forgotten how to breathe and that his heart had learned to stop beating. That man introduced me to loss: a loss of a past filled with rides at Disneyland and churros on Sunday. And a loss of watching the special tree grow in the front yard and plucking off the ripe oranges. I learned two things that day:
1. Birth smells of citrus spraying out of the freshly peeled orange whose rinds are still pushed underneath your nail beds. An unparalleled attachment between me and my mother was born that day.
2. Death is when you squeeze the pith out. My father died.
The only good thing about knowing you have ALS is that you know that it will kill you. What you must learn is that it will also kill you slowly. I guess I was relieved that he no longer had to struggle to breathe. I found comfort in knowing that his muscles were no longer furiously disobeying him and bruising him from the inside out. It was August 7th, the day before my mother’s birthday. I skipped breakfast that day.
I rode in the passenger seat of the car with red heart-shaped sunglasses covering my damp eyes. On my phone, I searched “amyotrophic laterals sclerosis, death.” The ALS association website was the first to pop up. The link was already purple from me clicking on it so many times before; I had poked at it so often that the website developed the texture of an overly ripe Valencia orange that fell heavily off of the tree with a thump and gushed out just a little bit. My father did the same thing until his plump body flattened on the dirt soil and all his juice drained out, slowly.
This website explains that ALS is a neurodegenerative disease that literally translates to “No muscle nourishment.” Without nourishment, the muscles degenerate, which leads to the loss of voluntary actions. Voluntary actions include: putting his arms around me, posing for a family photo, and making us breakfast in the morning. It meant he could no longer go to Disneyland with us, sit in the white boats of “It’s a Small World,” and sing that incessant tune over and over again until it grinded my nerves. Who knew that I would ever miss that.
“Don’t let your brother know yet, I don’t wan to ruin his birthday.” Ok mom, I won’t.
We both wore sunglasses while she drove in silence. Today was a celebration.
Nothing reminds me more of my father than Disneyland. He loved that place so much none of my older siblings can even stand to hear the theme song anymore. It still held wonder for my younger brother and I, though. We used to go almost once a month and my father always made us all go on “It’s a Small World” at some point in the day. I always dreaded that. I wanted to go on all the fun and exciting rides, like “Thunder Mountain” or “Indiana Jones,” and I hoped that he forgot or might let us skip it. But he insisted that it was one of the most beautiful creations in this “small world,” apparently there was “an inexplicable presence there.” I always thought the secret “presence” was long, drawn out boredom and I would try to put it off till late in the night so I could nap on my father’s cushiony bicep. Only I ever saw him cry a little underneath the Mexican dancers when the tune started being sung in Spanish. I don’t think he ever suspected that I opened my eyes and saw him weep for his home country and his own deceased father. I kept it my little secret.
On the day he died I rode it twice. My unknowing brother complained while Mom and I cried. Now every time I sit in those white little boats and go through the castle to the unchanging tune of “It’s a Small World,” I can’t help but feel the presence of my father as if I’m 8 years old and he’s buying me pink cotton candy. I feel him put his arm around me and call me his little princess again. The time passes so slowly, and I love it.
It makes me want orange juice for breakfast again.