This post has taken me a long time to decide to write. Even now as I type, my heart is pounding.
As some of you know, my dad and I don’t have the best relationship. In fact, for a few years now, it’s sucked. He hardly spoke to me and broke promises. It hurt a lot. I felt like I needed to say something to him so I could move forward, or we could move forward, but I didn’t have the courage to say anything. I was too scared by the what if – what if I did choose to share with him how I really felt?
Two years ago I took an advanced writing class, and we had to write short autobiographical works. My first piece was about my parents. After I wrote it, I read it to my cousin and her girlfriend. They said I should send it to my dad. I said I couldn’t.
In early January, I decided I finally could. This is what I sent to him:
“Going to California
I remember being four years old. I liked to roll around in the deep green shag carpet of the duplex we lived in, playing pretend that it was soft grass. My dad smoked pot and I remember liking the smell, even though I was too young to realize he was on drugs. We would lay there together on the shag-grass-rug and listen to Led Zeppelin on the record player. In those stolen moments, my dad was happy. The music would blast and Robert Plant’s voice would croon out from our small speakers. My dad would crank up the volume on “Going to California,” and Robert Plant would sing about an aching in his heart. I still feel that ache. I was five when my dad left. I hovered at the doorway of the garage, watching my dad move boxes out to his car, one by one. I kept asking him what was wrong and where he was going. He wouldn’t answer me. My mother stayed in the bedroom, shut away from her own decision.
My dad sent cards every year after that; I got one for my birthday and one for Christmas. They contained short notes; usually just an “I love you: from, Dad”. They never asked how I was or told me how he was; I wasn’t supposed to write back. He didn’t call because that was also forbidden by my mother. Sometimes the cards contained a little money or a small gift. One year he sent me The Hobbit; I read it and afterwards clutched it to my chest like a sign that my Dad knew me still, and loved me. How could he not when I had loved the book so much? The next year he sent me a bracelet, and I wondered how those shared times, lying on the rug together, were ever real. My mother would frequently tell me what a bad person he was. He was a leaver, a drug user, and a bad person. She said I looked just like him.
The next time I saw my dad and spoke to him I was graduating from high school. I begged my mother to invite him. Just this one time I wanted him to be there, as a flesh and body proof that he was real. I couldn’t stop crying when I saw him. He kept saying that he was so proud of me and I stood there hiding my face with my hands, noiselessly choking down the tears that were so obvious on my face. My grandparents patted me on the back and pulled me away, closing their ancient arms around me and saying in hushed tones that everything would be alright. Afterwards all my friends and teachers assumed I was crying because I was happy to graduate. I couldn’t find it in me to tell them the real reason why. My dad was really there. He was proud of me.
My dad and I talk now; it’s a start and stop, am I saying too much, or am I saying too little thing. He’s changed a lot since those times I remember as a four-year-old girl. He’s remarried, he doesn’t smoke pot, and he’s not a bad person. Looking back on it, I don’t think he ever was. I used to imagine that when we’d connect again, some day when I was all grown up, everything would be perfect. The problem is my dad never learned how to be a dad. He’s more like this grown up person that I know and happen to be biologically related to.
When I was nineteen my dad took me out to dinner; it was our first dinner together since I was a little girl. We went out for Japanese food because we both love it and my dad’s new wife hates it. It felt like a shared secret between both of us, that tonkatsu really is good. I’d just left music school and was living in Davis again. We decided after dinner to get some carrots at the food co-op, and go feed the horses on the University campus. It was a cool early summer night. In the Sacramento valley, the delta breeze blows off the river in the early evening, and everything chills out. It gets a little dark, a little damp, and not so hot. Nice and breezy. In the early evening we walked along the rows, giving each horse a carrot, and talking about the small things that made up our lives. We paused in front of a horse because I wanted to ask my dad something that had been on the tip of my tongue for the last fourteen years. I swallowed a lump in my throat. “Dad, what happened with Mom?” But there was a problem; right after the words left my mouth, the horse next to us sounded like he had a lump in his throat too. Horses can puke. Did you know that? I sure didn’t. It wasn’t really like a normal person getting sick. It was more like in a sudden and rather horrifying moment, the horse opened his mouth, and fire-hose sprayed my bare legs with carrot throw-up. My dad (my poor, poor dad) just stood there. He had absolutely no idea what to do. Was he supposed to go get something or go find someone? Was there something he should say in the wake of the terrible horse indigestion? I started laughing; the whole scenario was completely ridiculous. What else is there to do when you get thrown up on by a horse? My dad was plainly relieved; his look of confused agony dropped off his face. He started laughing too; little giggles at first, and then doubled over belly laughs. Sometimes being a dad is easy. You just have to wait and see if your daughter is going to laugh first.
I often wish that I was kinder to my dad, or that I thought better of him. Sometimes I can remember he’s trying so hard to be a dad. He calls me and asks how school is going, what I’m studying, and how things are with my partner. He still tells me that he’s proud of me. He wants so badly to know what to do, but it’s not always as easy as laughing. I’ve tried to ask him those hard questions time and time again. What happened? Why didn’t he ever try to see me, or talk to me on the phone? Where did I even fit into his life? Whenever I bring it up, he just says that he’s so sorry. I feel like there’s an invisible wall in between us. I know my dad is right there in front of me, and I can see him, but I can’t reach out and touch what’s in his heart. Deep down I’m still a little girl standing in front of the garage door, and I’m asking him why over and over again, and he still can’t answer me.
One day when he called to talk, he told me that he and his new wife had decided to take all her nieces and nephews on a surprise vacation to Hawaii. He told me that they had never been, and it would be a nice treat for them. I said that sounded nice. I didn’t say that I’d never been to Hawaii either. I didn’t ask why he hadn’t even thought to bring me, or why we had never been on a vacation together. I couldn’t voice out loud all the things that were spinning around in my head. I was so angry. It feels selfish to want something I can’t have, and I can’t really have the perfect dad that I wanted as a little girl. There have been times where I’ve distanced myself on purpose because I hated the reality of this imperfect relationship, this half-formed bond that will never be whole.
A few years later we are driving down 99 south headed to central California, and my dad is going to help me move. Gogol Bordello comes up on the CD player, self-styled gypsy punks playing accordion and singing loud and messy melodies. My dad starts laughing. “I like this,” he says. “It’s cool.” I just smile at him and crank the volume up. In my mind we’re still laying on the rug together, listening to Led Zeppelin. I’m still four years old and I don’t know the pain of him leaving, or of wondering where my dad is or if he even still cares about me. Sometimes it’s so hard knowing how to go on, knowing how to put something back together that’s so fragmented and broken and walled off by fourteen years of unshared moments and unspoken feelings. I only have my own vulnerability, my little girl self that’s still waiting for all the answers. I don’t know if my dad will ever answer me; I still feel the ache.
Going to California; standing in a hill on a mountain of dreams. I’m still telling myself it’s not as hard as it seems. I have to just laugh. What else is there to do?
Sweet Baby James
When I was a little girl I called strawberries “jujubes,” and my mother would let me sit on the kitchen counter while she chopped up endless amounts of jujubes for us to eat. My mother had a beautiful singing voice. She always sang to me while she worked: goodnight, you moonlight ladies. Rock-a-bye, sweet baby Claire. I laughed because I thought the song was about me, but because of my innocence I couldn’t know the truth. It was written by someone else and about someone else. When my dad left, I didn’t know the truth of what happened. The story wasn’t about me, and it wasn’t written by me.
I stayed with my grandparents for awhile after my dad left. I loved the sandwiches that my grandma would make me: salami and cheese on sourdough bread coated in olive oil. I would play with the hidden things in their house. I found my grandfather’s old World War II medals and pretended they were special decorations for my dolls, making up my own stories about how my dolls got their medals. A few weeks later my grandparents took me back to my mother’s house. She was different. She didn’t sing songs, and she didn’t chop up jujubes for me anymore. She wanted me to go play by myself; just don’t bother me, she said. She would lock herself in her room, and I could put my ear to the door and listen to her cry. I was a lot older when I learned her story. My mother had a nervous breakdown when my father left.
I feel like our culture has bought into a fable, one where people become stronger through tragedies. In the story they always learn new things and go on to lead better and fuller lives. But outside the fable not everyone gets better. Some people break and fall apart, even if what happened was what they thought they wanted. My mother had her own story of what she wanted her life to be and her own story of who she was. She was the product of immigrants and the ever obedient daughter. She was the valedictorian of her high school, an overachieving child that did everything right where her older brother did everything wrong. She would marry, and have children. She’d have a beautiful storybook life. It couldn’t be helped that she got sick when she was sixteen. It was tragic, really, that such a promising young girl would be consumed by illness. Of course, it also wasn’t her fault that things didn’t work out with my dad. He seemed like such a nice young man on the surface. How awful that he was on drugs. It wasn’t her fault. None of it was her fault.
My mom wrote her own story, piece by piece. It was the story of a woman who had tried so hard and did everything right, and nothing turned out the way it should have. I became just another disappointment in a long string of tragedies, a baby that didn’t fix anything. I have tried so hard to feel empathetic for her because I know that I have my own stories, my own tales I tell myself of who I am and what I want my life to be. They don’t always turn out the way I think they should. My mother could be kind and very smart, but she could also be cruel and she liked to lie. She was very good at it, but she mostly lied to herself. Don’t we all?
I try to picture her the way she was when I was a little girl, before she broke inside. Back when she was still someone that could say “I love you”. Maybe you can believe it, if it helps you to sleep. I look like my dad, but my voice is hers. Sometimes singing works just fine for me.
If I laugh
One day I realized that in my own writing I was making the same characters over and over again. They were always orphans, and not just standard fiction orphans that had lost their parents in a tragic accident, but orphans that never even knew their parents. They had parents that stood on a pedestal, unmarred by reality. It reminded me of a song my mother would put on the record player when I was a little girl: if I laugh just a little bit, maybe I can forget the chance that I didn’t have to know you.
When I first realized that I was writing these characters over and over again, I felt so stupid. I am not an orphan. In fact my dad is alive and well, and I talk to him on a semi-regular basis. It didn’t make sense to me; I couldn’t understand why I identified so strongly with orphans. But my strongest memory of my dad is still that day he carried out all his things to the garage, and walked out of my life. When I think of my mother, I remember how she went away into her mind. I realized that I felt abandoned, but really I wished my parents had just been someone else. I wished that I had a clean blank page to start over from, and I would write my new story about my parents. They would be so different from the ones I ended up with. I would take away all of my mother’s pain. I would write my dad so that he knew it was okay to tell me what to do; he wouldn’t have to be the cool dad all the time. I would help my mom realize that even if nothing turned out the way she wanted it to be, she could still be a good person. If I asked my dad a hard question, he wouldn’t be afraid to tell the truth and lose me. I would write my parents so that even in all their brokenness, they knew they were loved. They would be whole.
I will never write the story of my new parents. Start over and over again, I can’t change who they really are. The fable where tragedy makes people stronger is sometimes just like real life. We might break, but sometimes we can pick our pieces back up again from where they fell. Not unbroken and not the same, but still standing. If I laugh just a little bit, maybe I can recall the way that I used to be before you. I will never lose my memories of who they were.”
I told my dad in an attached letter that I wanted to share this with him, and I hoped it would open up an opportunity for both of us to talk. I said if a letter was easier, he could say whatever he needed to say that way.
Part of the fable is that when we reach out to people, when we do the really hard thing, it gets better.
It’s been 4 months, and he never wrote back. My heart is broken, but I am moving on.