by Christina Rivera Cogswell

The surgeon finished his description of the triple heart bypass procedure, “So, do you have any questions?”

“My family knows me for being tough,” my father said. “Don’t put any soft spots in my heart okay?”

Not even six Valium could curb the under-breath adjectives the nursing staff attached to the patient in Rm. 634. The translucent hospital gown, however, revealed frailty I’d never seen on my father before. Frailty that didn’t match the man who raced me to the top of Pacific City sand dunes. The man who refused to let me win once in over a thousand games of cribbage. The man who credited the streets of Los Angeles with his rearing.

As he was wheeled through the scuffed double doors, I touched his arm and mumbled a broken sentiment. My father re-directed this attention to the 200-pound male attending nurse and summoned slurred words from the anesthetic: “Let’s go out to the parking lot. I’m going to kick your ass.”

In the waiting room, under a monitor blinking his surgery status, I fell asleep and dreamt of my father. We were standing on a cement sidewalk outside the hospital. I faced my father’s back. He faced a black horizon. I shouted: Dad, aren’t you supposed to be in the hospital?

He didn’t turn or answer.




The sound came from the top of the berm. It was a long throaty moan. I had just moved into the house where bear, elk, and mountain lion roamed between the aspens beyond the fence. New to the wildlife of Colorado, I guessed the source to be a romantic fox. But then the woman knocked on my door.

With a ten-pound bag of cat food under one arm, she introduced herself as the previous owner of my house and explained. The matter was of a cat. And no ordinary cat. But a scrappy black thing plucked from a woodshed by animal control and left at the pound with unknown written in for his birth year. She pointed to the berm with an affirming nod. That’s caterwauling.

She explained that this cat was different. This cat hunted to eat and scratched out his business in pine needles. The woman said she tried three times to keep the cat on the other side of the six lanes of highway between our houses. But each time the cat fled back to the acres of wild grass beyond the berm. She held the bag of cat food out to me and pleaded: Please take care of him?




The missing years in my father’s childhood always seemed more unknown than untold. My father bellowed Spanish nursery songs from behind the shower curtain—lyrics he could not, if pressed, translate. When I was six, my dad, through call and response, perfected my pronunciation of bésame culo. It didn’t just make him chuckle; something about the swear seemed to have fit into his own six-year-old back pocket, a secret password that opened street doors.

The black carbon of my Dad’s birth certificate reveals few clues. His first name, Benjamin, is a common reference to the youngest son, a hint of his mother’s exhaustion—or her premonition. She died when he was four. My dad procured no memory of his father other than a single black and white photo. I knew Dad was the ninth of nine children. He was left to the care of his eldest sister. This sister left a plate for him on the kitchen counter while she served her family in the living room. There are no photos of my father as a boy. So it is my little brother with a black helmet of hair atop a collection of skinny brown limbs that I insert into this picture of the sad boy at the kitchen counter.

When people inquire as to my ancestry—as their eyes linger on my almond-brown arms—I reply in automation: I don’t know. My father was orphaned. I have been asked so many times, I learned the word in Spanish: huérfano.

My Dad credited his survival of childhood to his good humor and bad attitude. It must have been these same rough-edged traits that first attracted my mother to him. She married him the week she graduated from college and had her first child ten months later. By then, I suspect, she had unveiled the reality of what it meant to marry a man who did not need a wife, but a home.

As a child, I sat on my father’s lap and listened as he repeatedly recounted the story of their engagement: Your mother dangled, upside down, from a tree by her knees. She swung back and forth and begged me to marry her. On a road trip through California, he took me to a tree and pointed to its lowest branch: Right there. That’s the one she hung off.  I think it was the story he needed, of being wanted.  

I would not think more of my father’s homeless memories, or my inheritance of them, until decades later.




Cats are acceptable in my mountain town as a cheap alternative to mouse traps. Slade, the new boyfriend I shared the house with, had never owned a cat. His black brows creased as I insisted upon the adoption. Slade tracks bull elk in the fall, skies with avalanche gear in the winter, and finds a wood project for his miter saw each spring. He said an animal with a tail like that—always curling and contorted in expressions of vanity and disgust—couldn’t be trusted. But I was new to his town and he wanted to keep me around. So he bent to my assertion of cat-girl-ness in the valley of cowboys.

The cat came with the house. That’s what we told our friends. We considered re-naming him Michael Jackson for his tuxedo coloring, slick moves, and white gloves. In the end we decided if he came with the house, he came with his name: Zinger. I had to teach Slade how to pet the cat. Not with curt pats. But the downriver draws that pulled Zinger’s flat back into a hill.

Zinger met all the standards of a successful mountain cat. When the tall grasses sprung from the softened snow, he began leaving animal gizzards in the center of bedroom carpets. On occasion, he’d regurgitate an entire nest of baby mice, then stand erect and paw the corners of his mouth clean as I retched in horror. Slade was impressed with the mice count. But the two still made wide circles around each other’s claims of the territory.

Slade’s skepticism of the cat vanished the day he found the dead duck. A trail of white down feathers led me to the yard where Slade’s solemn shoulders hunched over a shadow on the shorn green lawn. The duck looked comically together other than its completely missing head. Slade whispered with reverence: Zinger killed a duck. Slade was raised with a succession of black labradors that disappeared for months of their puppyhood for something he called hunting camp. Zinger could not have retrieved anything of more cultural significance for the man by my side. “Zinger hunts,” he said again as he shook his head in respect. That night Zinger strode across the cushions and stepped onto Slade’s chest bone. Two inches from Slade’s chin, Zinger lowered and lawn mowed Slade’s chest with his flexing nails. Slade, knowing no better, assumed this was a normal expression of cat love. And for Zinger, it was.

People living within a four-mile radius regularly left the voicemail: I found your cat’s collar with a pile of fur. I’m sorry.  I’d peer out the window as I listened and see Zinger sunning himself on the deck. I’d put down the phone and walk over to him, scruff his neck till he tipped his chin where I’d see the scratches marking the subjugation of another animal to his kingdom. It was certainly this command of the land that kept Zinger alive beyond the berm despite the nightly cackle of coyotes.




My father’s office was on the 36th floor of the Sears Tower, four states from our home in Oregon. Chicago smelled of Old Spice, briefcase leather, and the chalky rectangles of hotel soaps left in the wicker basket outside his bathroom. Dad had a chain of secretaries across the Western states with 70’s names like Linda and Barbie and Diane. I knew these women were on the other end of the yellow coiled handset when my Dad teased and chuckled like a five-year-old. I like to think the banter was harmless. But I can’t think of a man in a suit in the 70’s without putting myself in the heels of the woman trying to smile beside him. There are things daughters will never know about their fathers.

One of my first memories is finding a dollar bill on a sandy path near the Pacific Ocean. I squealed with thrill and folded and unfolded the dollar as my father whistled through his smile behind me. Years later, I learned to count via my father’s coffee tins of nickels, dimes, quarters, and silver dollars lined from smallest to tallest in the pantry. We stacked the metal circles into gilded leaning towers and added them into tens and hundreds. My father would cup the coins and waterfall them into our hands; what we caught, we could keep. On Easter, my father masterminded legendary hunts in the acre of weeping green behind my house. Children under five plucked Susan B Anthony’s from behind the ears of white Trilliums while 17-year olds scrambled up Douglas firs pocketing sums that made neighbors gasp and my father giggle maniacally.  What I did not grasp at the time was that my father was as generous in giving money to the casinos as he was to us. He detested smoke and drugs, and didn’t drink. Free of any stimulant other than the sound of coins falling, he dropped the family savings into a slot machine, rhythmically pulling down a barbed arm in search of alignment. At first I thought it was an addiction to risk. Now I see it was an inherited addiction to loss.

At the big table in the dining room of my childhood, our family felt whole. My mother passed butter. I picked at the veins of fat in the meat on my plate. But once our bedroom doors shut softly, the voices upstairs climbed steadily. The next morning, my dad was all-whistles again. But his song would pause when the water heater kicked in for my mother’s shower and he prowled into her bathroom. As he swept her up in the wet shower curtain, his roar of delight and her scream of fright echoed throughout the house. My sister would stop playing the piano. My big brother would pop up his head from the hood of his car. My little brother would put down his trading cards. And I’d hit pause on my walkman. We all looked up. But we were all too young to note the absence of her subsequent laugh. My father’s love was something that jumped out from behind doors. It was a game. A joke. A hunt. The only way he knew.

Every Monday, Dad tossed a faded black duffel over his shoulder and whistled his way through the overcast Oregon dawn to the airport. All dads, my siblings and I assumed, flew away on Mondays and came home on Fridays tired and hungry and angry. The bad attitude that made him an effective boss pushed his wife and four children into orbit around him. The airport steakhouses forced the notches on his belt outward and layered plaque like pavement through the map of his arteries. Stress thick as fog turned the shake of salt in his hair to snow by forty-five.




Slade and I adopted a black Labrador named Pearl. Zinger looked out the window, but his tail slashed the air. At least once a day, Zinger unfurled from the couch in slow motion and strolled to an inch from the sleeping dog’s muzzle. He’d wait with stone cold patience until Pearl awoke flat-faced in fear. Then he’d touch his pink nose to Pearl’s black snout with the tiniest of butterfly kisses. Nose tap. Nose tap. And then SWACK, he’d lay a full-pawed slap across Pearl’s velvet cheek. Sometimes Zinger would rise on hind legs to bat both sides of her head at once.  Later in the day, Zinger often returned to Pearl seeking an honest cuddle. But the dog just backed into walls and whimpered.

Slade is nothing like my father. I once had a relationship with a man who reminded me of my dad: witty, street smart, heartful, walled. Our dynamic was so native, I almost didn’t see it. Myself on my mother’s path. When I became conscious of it, I ended the relationship without explanation. I knew only to run.




Sears incentivized my father into early retirement. I came home from school on Monday and found my Dad on the couch. At first, he tried to manage us, thinking perhaps that’s what Dads-in-homes did. But when the family clockwork ticked on around him regardless of which way he pointed, he relented. A few weeks later, our fat gray cat, Boris, began following my father’s every step. Our pets previously knew only to stay out of the big man’s way. So our small heads all tilted as my father swung a dramatic kick with a deflated, “Get away cat!” Boris dodged the slow strike and weaved himself through my father’s legs roaring with affection. My father escaped down the hall in a trailing chuckle. That’s when we knew retirement had done something to my Dad when we weren’t looking.

Retirement brought my father home at the same age I began sneaking out of my basement bedroom window. I often returned late in the night, buzzed or bewildered and smelling of cigarettes and campfire. In the mornings, my father played it cool. But I’d still muster an angsty reason and stomp my way behind a slammed door. It wasn’t my mother, with all her words and empathy and emotional IQ that came downstairs. It was my dad. He knocked gently. He never talked. He just sat on the side of the bed, sometimes putting a hand on my back. Letting me cry, till I was done.

My father began walking loops around shopping centers with other people threatened by doctors with the stick of heart disease. Suits pushed to the back of the closet, he had settled into wearing a rotation of t-shirts imprinted with: “It ain’t easy being me.” “Knows everything.” “You can’t roller skate in a buffalo herd.” And, “I am what I am.” He liked to end conversations with his mall-walking community by pointing at these lines written across his chest. Dad counted over 10,000 steps in circuit every day.  It wasn’t enough to evade heart disease.




Slade and I had to relocate to the basement of his parents’ home while our kitchen was renovated. I knew Zinger would refuse to leave his house, so I installed a cat door in the garage and bought a self-feeder, automatic-filling water bowl, and plush dome-bed. Zinger poked his head in, and left with a disgruntled sniff. Two months passed without a sighting of Zinger. I attached my hope to cat prints in the construction dust.  We returned to the house another two months later with our first load of boxes. I heard mewing and out from the bushes screeched a skinny Zinger. I called his name. He held his next step mid-air for a second. Then he disappeared into the high grass. But by nightfall, Zinger had curled up at the foot of our bed again. We scratched behind his ragged ears and cooed our admiration for his survival skills. After that day, Zinger spent more time on the couch side of the berm.

Zinger turned up his pink nose when we presented each of the swaddled hairless creatures we brought into his house. Yet somehow both my children said cat before they said mom. The many times motherhood felled me into bed, I’d pull my face out of the wet pillow only when I felt the springback of the bed announcing Zinger’s uncanny arrival. He didn’t push himself into my lap or purr loudly. He wasn’t that type of cat. I just felt his impression near me, maybe a single paw or his back touching my leg or arm. As he waited, he looked out the window.




My father survived the triple heart bypass. That surgery added seven years to his life. It was diabetes that took him, one body part at a time. It began with a gray patch of flesh under his foot—an ash gray that belongs on burnt wood, not human skin. First his toes, then arch, heel, ankle, and calf all sink-holed into the gray. Doctors declared the flesh dead, wheeled my father behind walls with hidden saws, and returned him with stumps wrapped in white bandages. One leg-shaped emptiness under the white hospital sheet. Then another. It’s a shocking way to watch your father disappear. But it’s a devastating way for a man—who has credited his survival to his own two feet—to watch himself disappear.

Hospice sent a special bed to our house. The heavy cocktail of medications made my father’s scalp itch. With both hands he’d cradle and scruff his shaggy head with vigor. Minutes later, he’d drop his head into his hands and scruff again. Looking out the window brought him pleasant distraction. Outside, tumbling chipmunks and chickadees jostled over seeds fallen from the suet feeder. Dad would sink a little into the bed and say, “Won’t you look at that…”, never finishing the sentence. We’d watch together. Focused on the flit and patter of those tiny wings and paws. Distracted from the itchiness of dying.




I found fewer animal gizzards. Yellow puddles of bile were left around the house with less calculation. Zinger’s belly grew in strange proportion to the rest of his body. His skin sagged on a hanger of jutting shoulder bones. Not even the vet could name the mass of fluid drowning Zinger’s body from the inside out. Zinger was twelve pounds of lean feline muscle in his prime. The vet sat cross-legged on the floor next to me as he said, “Take away that mass of malignancy and what’s left of Zinger might only weigh five pounds.”




My father had a gambling buddy named Bob. I can’t describe Bob because my father never invited him to the house. But Bob used to call. And then Dad would disappear. And return home, sometimes a day later, smelling of stale fabric and casino buffet. In the whittled down months of my father’s life, people stopped by, knowing it was their last chance. My mother told me Bob stopped by. But my father, watching the chipmunks cartwheeling off the bird feeder, just waved Bob’s request to visit away. “I don’t have time,” my father said.

Dad didn’t like tattoos. Not on waiters, or my friends, and certainly not on my boyfriends. But Dad’s hospice nurse, Teresa, was covered in trails of colored ink. Teresa lifted, massaged, bathed, and pushed my father around under the mantra of tough love. A language in which they shared fluency. My mother and I heard their laughter from down hallways and behind doors. When we came in the room, Teresa and my father continued their quips in raised eyebrows and rolling eyes. Dad became okay with tattoos.

It was Teresa who gave my father permission to die. She later told me her exact words: I love you, Ben. And I want you to know, it’s okay to go now. With the stubbornness that clawed my father up against orphaned odds, he held on more than six months past the doctor’s most optimistic prediction. But he took his last breath less than 24 hours after Teresa told him it was okay to stop fighting. I did not know this. That the dying need permission. That they need us to let go too.




The morning the vet was scheduled to come with only a needle, I watched Zinger sitting in ragged profile, his swollen legs splayed in wrong angles to make room for the mass to sit between his collapsed haunches. His fur cracked and revealed dry white seams. His collar hung loose and crooked.

In Zinger’s craggy silhouette, I saw my father. His feral instinct to fight under a parched skin of smothered will. A body sagging on ready-soul. And those half-mast eyes watching the horizon. I crawled to Zinger. He faced me and I pet him in the places I knew it didn’t hurt. As I called forth his choking purr, I recounted the tales of his unlikely and charming existence in my life. I thanked him for his loyalty to our home and the family he’d inherited. I told him that while his love was complicated, it was understood. That love comes with family the way cats come with houses.

I paused, climbed over the crimp in my throat, and explained what was going to happen after the vet arrived. I told him there would be no more pain. That he would leave behind a legend. That we’d be fine without him. And that it was okay to go.




The flesh of my father’s finger grew around his wedding ring the way a tree will sometimes wrap its bark around a fence post or forgotten bicycle. The brown skin on his ring finger became level with the metal. It is this hand with the silver band that I remember: tying a fishing lure, dealing a cribbage hand, flipping tortillas on an open flame. After my father died, I asked my mother if I could have that wedding ring that was engraved in so many of my memories at child-eye height. She said no. She said the kind of no she’d been waiting forty-six years to say, the kind of no that made me see at eye-level. At 1800 degrees my father’s ring melted, and mixed, with his ashes. But at his Celebration of Life, my mother laid my Dad’s shirts out across a table: It ain’t easy being me. You can’t roller skate in a buffalo herd. I am what I am.

She gave him the last word.

I did not inherit my father’s inside-homelessness. Or his addiction to loss. My father had walls. Walls were what he knew how to build. Walls that protected him, isolated a wife, and gave a daughter the perspective from which to seek freedom. I did not marry a man who needed a home. And yet I know—it was my father who put the unequivocal “yes” in my mouth when the woman on the doorstep held the ten-pound bag of cat food between us.

Christina Rivera Cogswell’s essays are published or forthcoming at Bat City Review, Atticus Review, and Catapult Magazine. She’s a recipient of artist grants from the Millay Colony and Vermont Studio Center. She is working on her first book of flash CNF. You can find her on Instagram @seekingsol.