I’ve got a small space in my brain to recall all the memories I ever shared with him. It’s more like a tiny junk drawer, really: the Monster Truck rally where we couldn’t talk over the hyped-up engines, the one time he wouldn’t drive away from Wal-Mart ‘til we thanked him for buying 79-cent Hot Wheel cars, and his bachelor pad, of course, rank with the smell of marijuana and cheap frozen pizza. One particular time, Dad took us in a borrowed pick-up truck to his buddy’s place before leaving for the night to go out drinking. Brother was five years old, maybe, and his stubby fingers tried dialing Mom’s number to pick us up. It would be another decade before I saw him again.
Usually when I’ve tried to tell my life story, I end up emphasizing how often I brushed up against death: the hot August day when I nearly drowned to death at the community pool; a decade later when I crossed the 35-W bridge a half hour before it collapsed; the pitch-black Sunday afternoon my ’97 Honda got struck by lightning. I tell those stories usually because I’ve always sensed my life was significant, that God was keeping me alive for something awesome like turning the tide on an injustice, being published on any best-seller’s list, or beating the world record for the most Hot Pockets eaten in a minute. I have been telling myself that story for a long time, and I’m afraid recently that it’s because Dad—or New Dad, three years after the divorce and onward—never themselves told me anything like an atta-boy.
I wanted New Dad to be my hero. I wanted him to do what God did in the very beginning, speaking and creating something where there was previously nothing. I wished he’d speak into the formless void of my identity, whispering that I was greater than the sum of the firework shows I put on for people. Of course, I didn’t think that deeply when I was seven: smiling and laughing with me while he cut up hot dogs and pulled Go-Gurts out of the fridge for lunch would’ve felt the same.
It turns out New Dad wished for the same thing. He never said that. I felt it, though, in his cold frowns. I felt it the last time we hugged: it was 1999, I was going to bed, and the shark movie Deep Blue Sea was playing on VHS behind us. I felt it at a student-teacher conference in fifth grade. I might as well have been sparklers on the 4th of July, and my teacher a five-year old girl who’d never seen anything that bright before. I walked out with my eyes glued for New Dad to break out into music. I kept waiting, even after “Good job,” a flat statement with a teaspoon of syrup. I am still waiting. It has been eleven years. I am now wondering if New Dad has been waiting longer than I, waiting for the permission to love another like he, too, was beloved.
New Dad and I tried silently negotiating room in each other’s hearts, but neither of us had keys to give. New Dad loved us, I’m sure, but he told us by working long hours in the construction business. I like to imagine him plastering stucco onto new houses, every movement of his hand an expression of how much he loved us. I imagine him hoisted up on a ladder, tears creeping out his eyes and freezing in the whip of a winter’s wind. If I ever make it to heaven, I hope I get to roll back the film and prove that somehow my daydreams were reality, and that he wore out his body every day for love’s sake.
photo credit: a really cheesy father picture from google images