Nonfiction by Erin Slaughter
The Ghost of Every Cell Still Lives Here
There is a photo. My father and I in the ocean, 1999. I was seven. He is wearing swim shorts, a striped wool sweater, and sunglasses that look like the nineties. I’m wearing an oversized Chicago Bears sweatshirt, his. His hand on my back, helping me wade through. A wave beginning to swell behind us, asymmetrical landscape. The water so clear and green-blue.
The little girl in the picture wears her hair in a ponytail. She doesn’t know anything yet and I love her. Her face looks easy—not “easy” like capable of being used, but calm, free. I am her and I am not her. Over the course of seven years the human body regenerates all its cells so that technically nothing of a person is the same as they were seven years before. I am her and I am an entirely new person twice over; I know things now and I understand my heart, or God, or whatever you want to call it, as ocean water: bleeding, eternal, polluted, rhythmic, alive. Constantly in motion. It has been seven years since my father died and I know things now and there are things I still don’t know, like how taxes work. Or what were the last words he said? Even scientists still don’t know how big the universe is, or how to remove stretch marks. It has been seven years since the man in the picture was murdered and the girl walked upstairs alone and closed her bedroom door and did not cry. I am her and I am not her. The ghost of every cell still lives here.
Playlist for a Funeral
- Somewhere Over the Rainbow- Barry Manilow (Chosen by His Mother)
- Forever Young – Rod Stewart (Chosen by His Sister)
- Faithfully – Journey (Chosen by His Ex-Wife)
- I Will Follow You Into the Dark – Death Cab for Cutie (Chosen by His Oldest Daughter)
Play on a loop. Sit in the chapel pews. Look straight ahead. Wake up where the clouds are far behind me…Do not think about the cousins that hate you because you drove to go shopping and get pizza last night. Do not look at the strangers sitting behind you, who will later want to touch your hand and repeat the same phrases: “better place” “can’t believe” “remember talking to him” “he always talked about” “so proud of” “everyone is so.” Forever young, forever young…Do not look at your sister’s flushed face or your mother’s trembling hands. Let her hold yours, squeeze them even, if only to keep hers still. Allow her this, even though it makes your skin itch. Look straight ahead. Sleep alone tonight…Try not to roll your eyes when his coworker, the hairy, kind woman, tells you his soul was saved. Try not to make a gagging gesture like some bratty teenager when she touches your sister’s shoulder and says he accepted Jesus into his heart, she was there, she knows. This is supposed to be solace. Look straight ahead. Do not cry, jesusfuckingchrist, do not cry. Do not think about why you won’t cry. Maybe let your voice break a little when you stand up to say your speech at the podium. Maybe just a little, so they know. That you are not empty. That you’re not going to burn down the building. Fear is the heart of love. Do not look beside you. Do not look up. Do not look back. Look ahead. Keep looking ahead.
Moments of Impact
Because Pam pled guilty to my father’s murder, there wasn’t a trial, but two years later there was a sentencing. I flew in from my Texas college to Alabama, stayed at my Grandma’s house. It was too much like repeating the week of the funeral to be at all comfortable. On a Monday morning, my mother, grandmother, sister, and aunt rose for the judge, and Stephanie and I saw Pam for the first time since that week at her house over the summer, when they were married, when he was alive. She was dressed in jail stripes, wiry hair and no makeup to hide the puddle of her face as she took the stand and said her piece. About how she wasn’t a bad person. How she felt her soul drain out of her like a bucket of cold water when she reached for the gun.
After Pam spoke, we were required to read an “Impact Statement.” The one printed here is the original one I read in court that day, with bracketed edits added in January 2016, five years after the sentencing:
I was 16 years old on August 23, 2009. [I thought I was so miserably old, and then] It was the night before the start of my senior year in high school, when a phone call caused my entire life and the lives each person in my family to be decimated beyond recognition in the course of a few minutes. [Who even uses the word ‘decimated’? It was more like a mouth full of sores than a wrecking ball.] Nothing you could ever see on TV or read in the newspaper prepares you for the shock and profound sense of surrealism at having something like that happen to you, in your life. [Mark said this almost every day for a year afterwards, watching crime shows on TV in the garage.] On a night when my sister and I should have been picking out our outfits for the first day of school, instead I was witnessing my sister collapse in tears on the stairs with my mother as she told us what had happened; that my dad had been senselessly murdered by his wife Pamela, someone he had loved and trusted. [I didn’t know if he had really loved her, trusted her. How could anyone, even him, truly know?]
Consequently the first week of my senior year was spent in Alabama attending my father’s funeral and dealing with the details of his death. [I spent most of that week talking on the phone to JJ, who was already dating another girl, and being accused by my grandmother of Not Caring because I didn’t cry in public like the rest of the family.] It was like a sick, twisted dream, to have to see your dad, the man who made up half of you, who you spent your childhood memories with, who talked to you and hugged you and supported you, now an empty shell in a casket who would never be able to do any of those things again. [We saw him in the casket and we laughed because there was nothing else to do. He looked like he could rise up and scold us at any moment.]
When I returned home and went back to school, I received little to no support from my teachers in catching up on what I had missed, and for a while I was struggling. [The principal was supposed to have informed them, and I only found out at the end of the year that he never did.] My mother couldn’t speak a few sentences without bursting into tears, and it was impossible to be at home without being constantly reminded that everything we knew was in shambles. [I got my driver’s license the morning after he died; small victories for normalcy.] My sister, Stephanie, who was 13 at the time, began to make some bad decisions that I felt I had to cover up from my mom, as neither one of them could handle it. [Her toy box filled with cans of Budweiser and Four Loco, her backpack stuffed with aluminum and glass.] I was preparing to graduate high school at 16 years old, working a part time job, involved in extracurriculars and trying to figure out my future, all while simultaneously feeling as if I was the one responsible for holding my family together, since no one else was able. [You do what you have to and you keep moving. No one else was able.]
In January, my sister went into rehabilitation for drug and alcohol use after being brought home by the police twice. [What I found most troubling was that I never would have gotten away with the things she did, but my parents were too tired to fight with her.] In June, my mother went into rehabilitation herself, after turning to alcohol to cope with the sudden loss of my dad who was her best friend and partner in raising us children. [He called my mother to tell her he was going to break things off with Pam and joked that he should give her the address so we would know where to find his body.] Neither of these major events, occurring within six months of each other, would have happened without the loss of my dad. [An avalanche lived inside all of us, just waiting for a reason to press through our skin.]
As for me, I didn’t turn to drugs or alcohol, or break down, incapable of continuing daily life. [I told everyone I knew about what had happened. I told strangers.] Instead I was forced to sacrifice the last morsel of my childhood that I had left. [That was the only sentence I teared up while reading. Selfish even then.] During those trying times, I had to be strong for everyone else and I didn’t get an adequate chance to grieve, something I am still dealing with now. [When I passed Stephanie on the witness stand, after she read her statement and I took the stand to read mine, I hugged her and told her I loved her for the first time in four years and the last time since.] I graduated and moved out of my parents’ house two months before my 17th birthday. [He paid for the summer classes that got me out of high school a year early.] I ended up spending a year at community college, which never would have happened if my dad had been around to look at colleges with me, something he was so excited about doing. [I felt like a failure, but it had nothing to do with him.]
There are some days that I still think, “Hey, I haven’t talked to my dad in a while, I want to call him,” before remembering that I can’t. [In the O’Hare airport, in the aquarium, at my desk at work.] When I want to tell him about my travels and plans for the future, I can’t. [In a hotel room in New Mexico, on a plane to London, on the first day of grad school.] He will never have the chance to meet my future husband, and my husband will never know him. [And please don’t make me carry his picture down the aisle or stitch it into my gown.] On my wedding day, he won’t be there, just as he wasn’t there at my high school graduation and won’t be for my college graduation. [At the time, this seemed like bullet-points in a distant future, but now two of three have passed.] When I see a man who looks like him, I stare and follow them around to try and get a glimpse of my dad. [I still do.] I am severely damaged and that is something that contaminates almost all aspects of my life, no matter how much I try to hide it. [I am severely damaged and I am very good at hiding it.]
The worst part in all of this is knowing that my dad was brutally murdered at the hands of someone he loved and trusted, his own wife, Pamela Terry. [Years later, a friend would remark: ‘Of course you don’t know how to have a healthy relationship!’] Because of her actions she has irreparably inflicted pain upon our family as well as her own. [She said the reason she didn’t kill herself after killing him was because she thought of her kids.] While everyone deserves forgiveness, everyone also deserves justice, and I hope that for the sake of everyone who has been affected that she is sentenced accordingly for selfishly ripping the life from someone whom she once promised to love and protect. [At the sentencing, underneath her sweater, my aunt wore a shirt that read: Hang the Bitch.]
Erin Slaughter is currently pursuing an MFA at Western Kentucky University, where she teaches undergraduate writing classes. She has been nominated for a Best of the Net Award and a Pushcart Prize. You can find her writing in River Teeth, the Bellingham Review, Sundog Lit, and Gravel, among others. She is the author of a poetry chapbook, Elegy for the Body (Slash Pine Press, 2017).