Authors: Cylin Busby
a father–daughter memoir
CYLIN BUSBY & JOHN BUSBY
For Mom—C. B
I dedicate this book to my family:
Polly, Eric, Shawn, and Cylin—the ultimate reason to keep on keeping on
All locations, dates, events, and people in this book are real.
Some names have been changed.
WHEN MY DAD DIES, HIS BODY will go to the Harvard Medical School at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, though I suspect they are mostly interested in his head. Before the surgeons there embarked on what was at the time experimental surgery to reconstruct his face, they asked Dad if he would sign a document bequeathing his body to the hospital. They explained that they would then be able to use his skull as a model to instruct medical students training in facial reconstruction. His was an interesting case—the lower half of his jaw was removed when he was shot in the head with a shotgun. His tongue was torn in half, his teeth and gums blown away, leaving a bit of bone that was once his chin connected with dangling flesh at the front of his face.
Dad saw the surgeons’ request as a hopeful sign. During his hospital stays, he always had a yellow legal pad by his bedside to
communicate. On this day he wrote a note to Mom: “They want my head after I’m gone, asked me to sign something to donate my body. Must think I’m going to live through the surgery.”
The request also made me and my two older brothers feel somewhat better. We sat outside Dad’s hospital room, playing Go Fish and War under the constant surveillance of the two Falmouth police officers who were on guard duty. “After Dad’s dead, we’ll get to see his skeleton,” Shawn pointed out. “We could come visit it.”
I wasn’t so sure, but when I questioned him, Shawn snapped, “It’s our
—they’ll let us come and hang out with his skeleton whenever we want to.”
I also wasn’t quite sure how they would get all the skin off of Dad, and what they would do with it. But I didn’t like thinking about things like that; it reminded me of a scary comic book my oldest brother, Eric, had shown me once that had a creepy skeleton guy doing evil things and carrying around a big, huge sword. I just couldn’t picture my dad like that.
The series of surgeries needed to reconstruct Dad’s face would be not only experimental but also incredibly expensive. And since Dad was a police officer, shot in the line of duty, the town of Falmouth would be responsible for the costs of reassembling his face—and his life. About two months after Dad’s shooting, our hometown held a fund-raiser in the form of a bake sale and a somewhat inappropriately named “fun run.”
The day of the fund-raiser was unseasonably warm and muggy, the November sky threatening rain. I wore blue shorts that were supposed to be saved for my school gym uniform, along with my winter coat and a pair of dressy sandals I’d gotten for Easter. Since Dad’s shooting, Mom’s rules about which clothes I could wear—and about everything else—didn’t apply anymore, and I was pretty much free to do whatever I wanted.
I eyed the bake-sale table, wanting a chocolate chip cookie—my favorite dessert, and Dad’s, too. I asked Mom for some money to get one. She looked at me like I’d lost my mind. “They’re selling them to make money for us,” she said, pointing out the obvious. “Just go get one if you want it.” And she turned back to whomever she was talking to. I stood behind her for a second, wishing she’d step in and say, “Okay, I’ll do it for you,” like she used to do, knowing that even at the age of nine I was still painfully shy, but she didn’t.
After a few minutes of standing around, I had worked up the courage. I approached the table and asked one of the women working there, “Can I have a cookie?”
“They’re fifty cents for two,” she responded before her coworker, a woman with long brown braids, said, “Do you know who this little girl is?”
“Tell her your name, honey,” she said to me, and I did—my first name. “What’s your
name?” the woman asked, giving her friend a knowing wink. When I told them my whole name, they both got this sad look—a look that I was getting used to seeing
on adults whenever they talked about Dad. “Of
you can have a cookie, sweetheart. You take as many cookies as you want,” the first woman said. The woman with the braids asked, “Can I give you a hug?”
After giving the woman an awkward hug, I sat on the curb to watch the runners cross the finish line. I had already eaten two huge cookies before my brothers found me, my face smeared with chocolate and crumbs. “Give it,” my oldest brother said, motioning with his chin to the last remaining cookie in my hands.
“Go get your own,” I said, pointing to the bake sale. “All you have to do is tell them your name and you get whatever you want,” I whispered excitedly. Watching my brothers descend on the snacks and each get a big hug from the woman with the braided hair, I felt at once sick to my stomach. It was partly from stuffing myself with sweets, but also something else. We were just regular kids, suddenly thrust into a world of pity cookies and hugs from strangers. But with the small-town fame and all the public pleasantries came an unfortunate reality: someone wanted to kill our dad, and maybe us, too. It was a strange mix, being the most popular and most miserable at the same time. My older and wiser cousin summed it up best when she told me, “Everyone thinks your dad is going to die. But you’re lucky—you don’t have to go to school.”
It wasn’t until later, when my family had been relocated to an undisclosed address deep in the South—a tiny town where no
one would try to hurt my dad or kill the rest of us—that I realized how “lucky” I had been, and how much I missed that notoriety and the distraction from reality that it afforded us. Instead of free cookies, there was just the waiting—waiting to see if Dad would pull through, waiting for whoever they were to find us or not find us, waiting to see what would happen next.
ON August 31, 1979, we were supposed to go see
The Muppet Movie
. Dad had promised us that when he woke up, he’d take us to the movie before he went in to work the night shift. He was a police officer on Cape Cod, in Falmouth, Massachusetts. He worked the 11:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m. shift, then slept during the day for a few hours.
Usually, he’d come home from work right around the time I was sitting down with a bowl of Cocoa Puffs. Sometimes he’d hang out with me and my brothers until it was time for us to catch the bus, eating a piece of toast with raspberry jam, his favorite breakfast, or telling Mom about his night. But other days he’d go straight into the bedroom and change into his good suit, the dark brown one with the big lapels. He’d wear a cream-colored print shirt underneath, and a tie, too. I thought he looked like a movie star in his suit, with his strawberry blond
hair, green eyes, and broad shoulders—like Robert Redford or Clint Eastwood. But as good as he looked in it, that suit always meant Dad was going to court to testify in a case. It also meant that he wasn’t going to get much sleep, so we should be sure to stay out of his way when we got home from school in the afternoon.
During the summers when we didn’t have school, Mom made sure to have us out of the house by 8:30 or 9:00 a.m., rain or shine. We’d go to the beach and have swim lessons in the morning. Then we’d spend the rest of the day there, eating bologna sandwiches that were a little too warm from sitting out in the sun and begging Mom for quarters so we could cross the hot sand to the ice-cream stand for a Nutty Buddy or some chocolate chip cookies. Mom usually brought a big bottle of something to drink and a few Styrofoam cups to keep us from asking for soda money, too. But on days when she was feeling generous, we could get a real soda in a cold can from the ice-cream guy. I loved the feeling of a freshly opened Orange Crush, so cold and fizzy it hurt my mouth to drink it fast.
As the afternoon wore on and my skin started to feel tight and hot from the salt and the sun, I would take my favorite towel, a white one with a bright rainbow arching across it, and wrap it around me, even covering my head. Then I’d lie in the sand by Mom and watch the sunlight filter through the stitches in the towel, transformed into my own private rainbow. Sometimes I’d fall asleep cocooned like that until it was time to go home.
On days when it rained, we still went to the beach for our swim lessons, and we’d stay for as long as we could take it. If it was a light rain, Mom would bring an umbrella and tell us to get out in the water. “What difference does a little rain matter, since you’ll be getting wet anyhow?” she’d reason. She’d plant the umbrella in the sand, take out whatever paperback she was reading, and plunk down in a beach chair.
My two older brothers and I would come out of the ocean hours later, lips blue and shaking, only to wrap up in towels that were wet from being left on the beach in the rain. It’s not like my mom or my family loved the beach—we weren’t trying to break any records for being the biggest sand bums on the Cape. But Dad had to sleep, and when we were stuck at home there was no way that could happen.
Snow days were Mom’s worst nightmare. We’d be sent out to go sledding for hours at a time, just to keep the house quiet. We’d come back in, soaked to the skin, and shuck off our snow-covered coats and boots with Mom whispering, “Your dad is sleeping, so keep it down.” But we’d always want to watch TV or play records. And then the fighting would inevitably start. Maybe Eric, who was thirteen that year and totally into sci-fi, wanted to watch
while I wanted
Little House on the Prairie
. We’d end up yelling and chasing each other around the house, throwing Atari game cassettes at each other, Mom reminding us that Dad was sleeping, only to see him appear, bleary-eyed, groggy, and in his underwear, at the bedroom door. “Keep it down to a dull roar,”
he’d growl in his heavy Boston accent. Then he’d disappear back into the bedroom, and we’d try to be good for at least a half hour or so.