It was the Halloween when Matias had thrown up in the Viking helmet. He was only four and throwing up had become his go-to any time he picked up a cold. There were times mom would hug him and let him heave all over her, and we’d only know she wasn’t impervious when we’d hear the echo of her quiet “fucking hell!” once she’d stepped into the shower when he was asleep. More often, it would be a call from the school that altered the afternoon schedule for all of us as she went to claim him and found him stood like an atomic thing, alone, frigid, in the center of an emptied room where he had projectiled on what was repeatedly stressed was “a carpeted floor and therefore difficult to clean.” Two of those occasions – he would mention at some length, for many years – were his birthdays. He was a sweet kid, a funny kid. So it was, for all of us, a bit of a sad thing.
But puking in the Viking helmet was next level. Because that helmet belonged to our father. Our father who stood ramrod straight whenever he talked of rules for living. Discipline. Industry. Perseverance. Self-reliance. Stroked his pectorals, looking at us one by one. Progeny. We maybe didn’t notice how his gaze rested last on a horizon approximated by the top ridge of the neighbor’s fence.
Poor Matias, the baby, that Halloween, about to spray the inside of mom’s Odyssey.
You have to wonder, don’t you, the thoughts that go through a person’s head – even our mother’s, god love her – when they rapidly process which object within reach to hand to a child about to puke prolifically. You wonder then, don’t you, what it says they think about the person the selected object belongs to. Especially. We stress. When it was our father’s. When it was a Viking helmet. When the helmet had intricate grooves made difficult to clean. When it was, he claimed, a museum-accurate, battle-ready replica he’d only recently acquired. When it was velvet lined. The velvet lined with concussion-absorbing padding which was apparently absorbent of other things. When its regal Odin-carved brow was tufted with the fur of an actual grey wolf around the severed horns of an allegedly rare and wild bull.
Even Matias – puke soaked, fever dreaming – froze in doubt when our father’s treasured helmet was put into his hands.
We’d never know our father’s first raids. Rumor, only, or the crossing and uncrossing legs of our mom’s good friends in short dresses. But we’d never exactly know the merciless plunder gone into his sudden absence from our family, what “courage in battle” he felt a need to launch at our mom, what, in Odin’s name, he might be trying to prove. We’d only know our acquired need to negotiate the microaggressions of seating mother, father, and his girlfriend or second wife at our graduations, at our weddings.
We’d never know how the bleach of toilet bowl cleaner eats away – deeper, the longer it’s left – at the tender plush of velvet, the concussion-absorbing foam. We’d never know of the rust come into the intricate crevices of a helmet once protective oils had been stripped away. The progressive rot of horns once bleach ate their glossy shellac. A wolf itself would have known enough to run from such cleaning. Would have licked tenderly the vomit that, wolf to wolf, might have constituted the generous sharing of a meal. The love of an elder to young.
But we’d not been the one, that Halloween, to witness the screaming. Not known the feverish heat radiating off Matias, still strapped in his car seat, when our father met them in the drive and first glimpsed the bilious gastric secretions of his last born son pooling dark as blood in the Valhallic glory of his treasured helmet. Not known the flash of an arm in the driveway light, vivid as a blade.
Our father of chest-thumping noble virtue.
We’d never know that Matias saw it as simply as a flipped switch, like the tiny wooden engineer of his trainset: Matias, sick in the helmet; our father shifted to a new track. The puke, the helmet, our father gone. Simple math: Matias’s fault.
We’d know the decade of unmet eye contact that followed between father and son. The weed, the molly, the LSD, the bottles, the crashed car, the failed classes, the hand-painted band name on the back of his bass, “Land of the Dead.”
We’d know, in wide-eyed shock, gushing praise, gods astounded, when Matias found his thread of talent and righted himself. We’d know – stunned, in gawking awe – the shock of seeing Matias fall in love. Tiny, puking Matias in cow-eyed, earthshattering love.
But we’d never know – only Matias would know. The moment his first child was born.
The moment Matias bent and first smelled the crown of his baby’s head – inhaled, doglike, in his mouth as much as his nostrils – the biologic identity of life that was such stupendous, warm weight in his hands, that beat of heart against his own. His child, his partner, his family. Matias knew. Matias finally understood. “That wasn’t why. Fucking helmet wasn’t why.” Bent low, kissed his baby’s crown. “Real Vikings didn’t even wear horns.” Whispered into his baby’s tiny ear: “Real Vikings came home.”