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December 7, 2013

It was cold, then – no one knows the bitterness of a gray Polish winter like I do. Animals burrowed for months, pipes burst, and the very moisture in the air froze and fell from ten feet off the ground; you could be in snowfall on the street, but find clear skies on the roof.

It was in this kind of winter that I found myself with a dying father and no hope for spring. For so many years, he had spent his days working in the lumberyard and his nights entertaining my mother and me with tales from his youth. Well, if not his youth, than the youth of someone as carefree and daring as we always knew my father would be, given the chance. He would swing in through the door of our basement apartment like an ape, singing a song or laughing loudly as he stomped the snowbroth off of his boots and grab my mother close for a kiss. He would share tales while my mother cooked and I set the table. He propped his bared feet in front of the wood burning stove to bring back their color after his three-mile hike home.

When I was fifteen and dreaming of marrying the Prince of Denmark, tuberculosis took my mother. With her went a piece of my father’s heart just as certain as a lost tooth takes some of the root – what’s left behind throbs with pain and emptiness. He still came through the door each night with a song or a joke, though it was then my job to cook the dinner. While I set the table, my father would warm his feet as before, but we switched from tales of his youth to playing soft songs on his accordion. There were love songs, of course, and sea shanties, and songs for the dead as well as the living. But each was for my mother. Regardless of the lyrics or the melody, everything he played sounded a touch forlorn, a bit melancholy. Spanish Ladies became a dirge of unfathomable sadness in his hands.

On my twenty-first birthday, I waited excitedly by the small window beside our stoop, arching my neck to see my father’s approach at the end of the workday. I was sure he would be bringing home a lovely present, like every year. Down the lane, as the street lamps were lit, a tired looking pile of rags slogged through the snow toward our building. I had never felt such pity for another human being and I had to hold back my tears. It was only a few moments before he was close enough for me to recognize him. My father stopped at the door and took a deep breath. He straightened his bent back and took the door knob in a firm grasp. When he swung the door open, ready to sing, he saw me standing at the bottom of the step, face awash in tears, and he took me in his arms as we both wept.

It was the next winter he fell ill. The seasons in between seemed to only soften the cold, but never break it. Though it may have been that, I think it was the shattering of his facade that finally broke him. With my mother gone, and his magic no longer believable by his only daughter, he accepted what he was: a tired, old man fighting against the seas of time and the coldest winters he’d ever know.

Before the solstice had passed, he was bound to his bed for good. It was then my turn to go out and spend the day working in a paper mill, bringing home the cough of deep lung thrombosis that I could barely hide. Each night I would stop at our door and take a deep breath before swinging into the basement in mid song. As my father lay in his bed near the stove, I cooked the dinner, set the table, and repeated all of the wonderful tales of his youth, lest he forget them along the way. After feeding him and myself, I would pick up the accordion and play a few tunes until he drifted off. Most nights, I would watch him breathe, slightly snoring, until I was certain his chest wasn’t going to stop rising.

Before spring announced itself, I knew the end was near. I had played my after-dinner tunes and was putting the accordion away when my father reached out to touch my arm. I jumped, thinking him asleep, but my brief slice of giddiness melted when I saw the look in his eyes. He waved me close with two fingers barely raised and I leaned in enough to hear him request Spanish Ladies. I smiled through the pain and picked up the box once again. It was the first time the song had been heard in our home since he fell ill, and it was the last time I played it. I watched his lips move as he tried to sing along to my shaky rendition. Every few words had him gasping for air. Before the third verse, his last gasp escaped. I finished the song, tears darkening the felt of the accordion, and put away my father’s instrument for the last time. I pulled him closer than my own skin and wept as he grew cold as a Polish winter.

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