Dear Dad // No. 4

Dear Dad,

When I was little, you and I would sit on the edge of the coffee table and watch a show about country line dancing together. You called it “butt dancing” because of the way the people swayed their hips. As you watched, you laughed under your breath and sighed, shaking your head. I was at the age when anything with the word “butt” in it was worth a million little laughs, and so that’s what I did, every time you said “butt.”

I went to Texas this week for a friend’s wedding. Drove eleven hours, stopping for muffulettas and beignets in New Orleans, as all good tourists do. I’d only been to Texas on a couple of occasions prior to this, once for a work conference where we ate lunch at a cattle ranch and I contemplated what it would be like to live among those wildflower-dusted hills every day, and when our family drove across the state when we moved cross-country for the first time. (We’ll get to that story soon.)

When I got home from the wedding, there was a package waiting on my doorstep. It was from you. Wrapped in red tissue paper was a painting you’d done for me (before or after the stroke, Dad? I forgot to ask). Purple and yellow flowers in a glass vase atop a wooden table blanketed with a pink filigree runner. You signed it at the bottom, your name almost transparent, hovering over the design.

I called you immediately and thanked you for it. You were in high spirits, and asked what I’d been up to, so I told you I’d been in Texas for a friend’s wedding.

“Texas?” you asked. “Is that where you went to school?”

“No, I was visiting a friend,” I explained. “I went to the University of North Carolina for school.”

“Oh, yes,” you said. I could hear your mind putting the pieces together as you spoke. Then you said something I never expected. “I remember that!”

“You do?” I was taken aback.

“Yes! Yes! I remember that. I think—maybe—we went there…?”

I  grinned so wide it hurt. “You did! You came to see me there.”

“Yes, of course,” you continued with certainty. “I remember that.”

But here’s the thing, Dad. I didn’t believe you.

It’s so hard to know when you truly remember something and when something else is going on, when an inkling grabs hold of you when someone speaks a familiar word. Which memories are yours and which are ones just planted there, latching on to the tug of recognition deep in your mind?

My guess is that the truth is somewhere in the gray, fluttering about in the space between real and imaginary. You once caught me in a white lie when I was young, and you said to me in your philosophical way, “Ah, Ashley, but what’s the truth?” The truth was there in your eyes. You knew it already. You were waiting for me to admit it.

So here’s my admission, Dad. I don’t trust that you really remember what you say you do sometimes. I’m wracked with guilt for doubting when your sweet voice sounds so knowing and sincere, but still something holds me back. And sometimes I hold things back from you when we talk, because I can’t bear to have you say you remember, when I know I won’t believe you.

That’s why I didn’t tell you about the butt dancing, Dad. I didn’t tell you about how I can still picture those people on the television screen in their tight jeans and cowboy boots, hands clutching hats to their heads, dipping their shoulders to and fro while you mutter and laugh at them. I didn’t tell you that I can still hear your voice in that moment, our laughter filling the living room over the raucous music pouring from the TV.

I didn’t tell you that when I was in Texas at the wedding, I sat at a table and watched everyone butt dance for hours on end. And all I kept hearing was your laughter over the music, over and over again.

I promise I’ll try harder to trust, Dad. I won’t keep things from you, because that isn’t fair. You deserve the opportunity to disprove my doubt, and I need to be brave enough to take the chance. We’ll do it together. The truth will be what we make it.

Love,

Ash

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Dear Dad // No. 3

Dear Dad,

There isn’t much I remember about the day you married Mom. I was three years old. I had thick bangs that hung level with my eyebrows and straight blonde hair streaked lighter by the sun. We lived in Virginia, in a house by the sea with big windows that let in the sunset as each day came to its end. Our driveway was made of sand, so anytime someone drove over it the tires made a crinkling noise, like a bowl full of Rice Krispies when you pour in the milk.

You got married at our house. There were a lot of people there, the normally spacious living room packed with bodies, all of them taller than me. Mom had sewn her dress herself out of a beautiful deep green fabric. I was the flower girl and wore a matching dress that she’d also made.

The only thing I remember about the ceremony is that when the two of you kissed I wasn’t expecting it. I shrieked and ran down the hall into my bedroom. It felt like something important had just happened. And it had. From that moment on, you were ours and we were yours.

I’ve seen photos of that day in the albums Mom has. As a child I loved those albums. I’d take them down off the shelf and flip through the plastic pages, examining the details in every photograph.

There are a lot of photos of you and Mom talking with people I don’t know or remember. Your mouths are open, mid-sentence, and your eyes hold the spark of the moment. What you’re feeling and responding to. In one photo, Mom is standing behind a wall with a serious look on her face. Concentrating. No one is speaking to her, but she’s alert, honed in on something I could never decipher from the photo.

I asked her about it once, and she explained that she was waiting for someone to give her the cue to enter. There was timing in these things, getting married. It all seemed so involved to me.

But now I myself am married and I understand. There is timing to these things. To finding one another.

I know the story of when you and Mom met. We all do. It’s one of our favorite stories, and Mom always told it with pride and a glint of magic in her voice. It’s a simple memory, but it had deep meaning to her, meaning we could feel in her words.

Mom was living in Virginia Beach, VA. It was just her and me then. She owned an art gallery where she sold artist’s work and provided professional framing to clients who came to see her. I learned to crawl and to walk in that gallery. There are photographs in Mom’s albums of me on the floor, about to crawl, a chevron rainbow of frame samples clinging to the wall behind me. Apparently I liked to hand the samples to customers.

Mom glanced up as you walked through the door, and she knew as soon as she saw you, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that one day she would marry you.

So you see, Dad, there was timing in all of it, from the beginning. What if you hadn’t stopped by the gallery that day? Would you and Mom have met another way? What if she’d said no and decided not to show your paintings in the gallery? Would you still develop a relationship with her?

But we know what happened. She did say yes, and even the presence of little me didn’t deter you.

Out of everything you and I discussed as I grew up, we never spoke of this memory. Mom’s version was always the one recited. So now I’m left wondering what you thought of the day you met her and the day you married her. All I ever remember you mentioning from the wedding day is how someone’s car broke down, and all the men went outside in their suits and ties and pushed the car out of the sandy driveway.

We have a picture of that in the album, the men all leaning down, fingers spread against the car, feet anchored into the ground. I’ve seen it when I flipped through the albums. In the photo it’s still light out, but only just. In my mind I can imagine the scene unfold as I examine all the photos one after another.

The sun is setting in the distance, streaking the sky the color of peach sherbert. The air smells briny and, faintly, of car exhaust. A crowd stands around the front door and watches as the men grunt and strain. In the midst of them are Mom and I, watching you push, knowing that you’re not leaving with them.

You’re staying with us now. You’re ours, and we’re yours.

Love,

Ash

 

Dear Dad // No. 2

Dear Dad,

You don’t have a first memory anymore. Not from the beginning of your life, at least. For some reason this fact bothers me greatly, as if everything that happened between your first memory and the day you lost them all is dependent on the existence of the first. I know this isn’t true, but I fret over your memories all the same.

My earliest memories are of you, Mom, and Tom. Tom is my biological father, the father I knew didn’t want me but sometimes tried to. I knew this from such a young age that I cannot think of a time I didn’t know it. It has always existed, this fact, molded into me in subtle ways from before I was old enough to comprehend it.

I have very few memories of Tom, but the ones I do have feel connected to you, as if I’m comparing and contrasting the two of you even at such a young age.

This is my earliest memory: I am sitting on top of an old metal rocking horse. Mom and Tom are arguing in the kitchen of the apartment Mom and I live in. The lights are off, save for the overhead fluorescent in the kitchen, its dim yellow hue illuminating the apartment. I can’t remember what they’re arguing about, but I can see them through the cutout in the wall over the sink. Are you there, too, and I have forgotten? The edges of the memory are blurred with age. I must be around two or three years old. I’m chewing on a square of purple Bubble Yum. I keep putting more and more pieces in my mouth as that first tang of sweetness fades, until there are too many and it’s hard to chew.

The fighting intensifies in the kitchen. Someone slams a cabinet door closed. I chew in time with the shouting, rocking myself forward and back as fast as I can. Suddenly the horse jerks as my toe hits the ground and I lurch forward, my chest hitting the back of the horse’s head.

The gum slips down my throat. It stops halfway down my esophagus, too large to move. I’m not scared that I’m choking. What terrifies me are Mom’s words racing through my head: Don’t swallow it, she’d told me as she handed me the package of gum. It’s for chewing only. If you swallow it, it’ll stay in your stomach for seven years.

I’m going to have purple gum in my stomach for seven years. How long is seven years? I swallow, hard, and feel the lump creep slowly downward. I wonder to myself, as Mom and Tom yell at each other, whether I will ever be hungry again, or if I’ll live off this one lump of gum for eternity. Will there be room for more than just the gum in my stomach?

As the voices from the kitchen fill the apartment, I open the package, unwrap a small rectangle from the sugary wrapper, and pop a piece of purple sweetness into my mouth. I chew, careful this time to sit in one place.

That was the first time I remember choking, and this is the second.

You, me, and Mom are sitting at our long rectangular table eating dinner. You and Mom are at the heads of the table and I’m in the middle, sitting on the wooden bench. My feet don’t yet touch the floor. The kitchen lights are on, bathing the space with warm light. We are eating away in comfortable silence. Steak. I’m sure there’s more to it, but the steak is emblazoned in my memory because it’s what I’m chewing when it slips down my throat and lodges itself in my windpipe. Unlike the pliable gum, the steak is hard and painful and unmoving. I let out a little gasp, and you leap to your feet. Before I’ve registered what’s happening you’ve heimliched the piece of meat right out of my mouth onto the plate.

In my memory I don’t finish dinner. You and Mom relent and let me bundle up and go outside because something special is happening. It’s snowing.

I race in circles in the chilly night air, tilting my head toward the sky as I try to catch the flurries on my tongue. I call for you and Mom to look—Look! It’s snow! You open the blinds so that you and Mom can watch me through the sliding doors. I can still see your faces smiling at me through the glass.

Love,

Ash

Dear Dad // No. 1

Dear Dad,

On August 19, 2013, you had a stroke while walking down the stairs to your studio. When you finally hit the landing, head cracking against the floor, you had a seizure. A second seizure followed in the ER.

Mom called me at approximately 9:30 in the morning. I was at work. I took the first flight out I could manage, a red-eye that landed at 12:30 a.m. I walked through the sliding glass doors into the hospital at 1 in the morning, dragging my suitcase behind me. The suitcase wheels squeaked on the glossy linoleum, the sound echoing down the empty halls.

You always hated hospitals, and yet here you were, four floors up. I needed a pass code to get into your unit, the Neuro ICU.

I didn’t have a place to go, so for five days I stayed in your room during the day, curled up in a putrid orange-colored leather chair listening your machines beep and buzz. Sometimes an alarm went off. My heart always clenched when I heard it, even when I learned that it didn’t mean something was wrong. A monitor tracked your oxygen level and heartbeat. When the doctors did their morning rounds I would stay in the chair, watching them poke and prod you, and try not to come off as a ragged mess. I drank a lot of chamomile tea. I don’t think it helped.

The nurses found me a blanket and shampoo. I’d flown all the way here with a suitcase that barely had anything in it, just a T-shirt, pair of flip-flops, and a book. The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, in case you’re curious. At night I slept in the ICU waiting room. Most of the time there were a few others there, too. People like me. There was a lot of crying in that room. People couldn’t keep it in.

You’d lost so much weight by the time I saw you again, on my next trip two weeks later, that I walked past your hospital room and kept walking. I didn’t recognize you. I know the nurse could see the shame on my face as I asked what room you were in, only to have her point right in front of me.

There wasn’t much change in your condition. I didn’t know if I would ever speak to you again. I thought it was the end.

On October 29, we spoke for the first time since the accident. I called the hospital and was routed around and hung up on twice before I made it to your room and you picked up. It surprised me how you sounded like you still. I don’t know why I expected you to sound like someone different. But your voice was the same as it had always been. The voice of my father.

Your voice is the only thing you kept.

I had to introduce myself to you. How does that work? A daughter introducing herself to her father. You said, “Oh, Ashley, yes. I think, yes, Ashley.” You were trying to place me. There was something there. Recognition from deep in your subconscious, muddled in all the brokenness inside your brain.

I had to explain my relationship to you. You didn’t know what a daughter was. I didn’t tell you that you aren’t my biological father. That seemed like too much at once. There would be time, I hoped, for that conversation, somewhere in the future or maybe never. We don’t have to ever talk about that, Dad. The summary is: You’re the only one who wanted the job.

You don’t remember anything of your life before October 29. You have no memories, save one of your uncle and one of your grandmother from when you were around five. You don’t know anything of our life together. You don’t remember me sitting with you in the hospital, kissing your cheek and wiping your face. Everything is gone, lost in the abyss of broken synapses and blood-filled crevices.

What does that mean, when someone forgets their existence? Does that mean you’re still my father? Can I still be your daughter if you don’t remember me?

We didn’t talk long. I could hear how tired you were. The last thing you said before goodbye was, “I don’t know who you are, but I feel somehow like I should tell you I love you. So, I love you, dear.”

I held it together until we hung up.

It’s taken me a while to figure out what I can do to help with your recovery—a recovery I’ll admit I didn’t think would happen. Then I realized. You may not remember anything, but I do. I can tell it to you, Dad. You may never remember, but you’ll know what things mean again.

What our stories mean. What our jokes mean. What happened to us when we were a family.

I’m going to tell you everything, Dad. The good, the bad, the beautiful and the heartbreaking.

The memories were your gift to me. The words will be my gift to you.

Love,

Ash