Rachael Needham was born in Covington, Georgia in 1994. She has a deep love for creating, whether it’s home cooked dishes for her family or organizing a narrative on the page. Rachael was adopted and is very open about telling her story, of which she is in the process of turning into a memoir. She currently resides in Alpharetta, Georgia with her 2 cats, 1 dog, and fiancé, Tyler.
The only time I remember being at Waffle House with my Dad was when I was a toddler. I remember standing on a table, Dad holding my legs just in case I fell, belting the ever so familiar I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family I’d memorized from watching Barney.
People clapped—who would boo a three-year-old?
I woke up later that night, as I often did. Dad and I had a routine—I’d hop in his lap on his side of the kitchen table, and we’d share a plate of spaghetti in the wee hours of the morning. I’d wash it down with strawberry milk, and he’d put me to sleep again.
This night was different, though. Something about the way his shoulders sank, how his head fell, how he slumped in the chair before I climbed in his lap.
Something was wrong.
I opened my mouth wide, welcoming in any sauce covered noodles. He did what he was supposed to do—wrapped a noodle around and around on a fork until it was a nice bite-sized bundle. Soon, the bundles stopped coming, even though there was still plenty of spaghetti.
There were tears on Dad’s face.
Genuine tears, not for himself, but for a friend, for a daughter, for a hypothetical.
My Dad would go to a funeral for a little girl around my age later that day.
I wiped the tears from his cheeks and told him that that would never happen to me. I would never die.
I was four. I knew who Britney Spears was. I knew who Baby Spice was. I loved blonde, baby faced girls like me who sing. As such, I concluded that I, this four-year-old, am going to sing my own “greatest hits.” I would be famous.
And so, I stood before a gigantic television playing early Saturday morning Cartoon Network. Sunlight beamed from the side door of the Mansfield House, its oval windows feeling like a spotlight in the morning sun, and I belted “Hit Me Baby One More Time” in front of the TV.
My brother, Charley, an eight-year-old, rolled his eyes. “That song’s taken!” he yelled, craning his head to see the cartoons behind me. I stomped my foot. “Figure something else out,” he said, waving his hand in a shooing way.
I think for a moment, brighten again, and begin singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
He imitated the sound of a buzzer. “That song’s taken too!”
“Well what songs aren’t taken?” I said, my hands on my hips.
“How would I know that?” Charley sat up, threw his hands in the air, then plopped back down on a couch pillow.
I threw out “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” a fan favorite. Surely, that will be enough. It wasn’t. He didn’t especially like “Rock-a-bye Baby”, I knew that. “Jesus Loves Me?” No? But everyone loves “Jesus Loves Me!”
Charley said I’ll never be a singer if I can’t sing songs that aren’t taken, and I thought long and hard about it that night. I asked Mama what she thought as she tucks me in, and she smiled and said, “What do you want to sing about?” Still perplexed, I drifted to sleep humming about Barbies and babies and horses and love.
Charley and I still lived in the same house. I must have been ten. Uncle Robert had heard I had a voice, so he bought me a guitar. I had no idea what to do with it. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out why drumsticks didn’t fit in my hands like they did in Dad and Charley’s. But maybe
I didn’t touch it the first few nights it stood in my room. It wouldn’t sound good, despite the chords Uncle Robert had taught me. But I hadn’t seen Dad for almost four months and I was starting to hate school. So, I picked it up and played.
I sang an impromptu song about wanting to go away. To go away. All day. Every day. I needed to get away.
Charley burst into my room laughing, saying, “No, no, it’s good. It’s just—” And then more laughing. I still don’t know how to play guitar.
I still sing impromptu songs.
After heaving myself into my car, I shut the door and pressed my forehead to my steering wheel. I was sick of asking the same thing of the nurses and doctors.
“Please call me if he starts trying to leave the hospital against medical advice again. He has dementia.”
They’d nod their heads, give me empty reassurances, and when he would inevitably leave again, I’d call and ask where he was.
“Well, we can’t exactly keep him here against his will, ma’am.”
“He has dementia!” And heart failure. And kidney failure.
“There’s no diagnosis for that.”
Isn’t that what doctors are for? To diagnose?
I lifted my head from the steering wheel and gripped it tight instead. White seeped into my knuckles as I took a deep breath and sang, “Fuuuuuuck.”
Dad would be officially diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia two weeks later at a different hospital with different nurses and different doctors. The joy of being right never comes.
I sing again.
I’m thinking a lot about funeral songs and about which ones Dad’s ashes might like to hear when the time comes. I think about that time coming and wonder if things will be easier or harder than things are now.
“The Parting Glass” keeps coming to mind, and I sing it beneath my breath as I’m packing Dad’s things for his new assisted living home. The tears don’t come until the third time I’ve sung it.
To memory now I can’t recall.
That line sticks to the back of my throat. I stop singing.