Dear Dad // No. 9

Dear Dad,

There were signs from the beginning. Signs that this was going to be an uphill-both-ways kind of life, but maybe those were the kinds of people we were. Uphill-both-ways-in-the-snow kinds of people.

I was five at the time, and one doesn’t think about these things at five. One thinks about the hand signals one makes to her father as she kneels at the back of our white Ford Aerostar, flashing what might appear to a passerby as an odd amalgamation of gang signs but were in fact a five year old’s hand signals for impending danger. FALLING ROCKS. CURVING ROADS. STEEP INCLINE. IMPENDING STRIFE BROKEN BY MOMENTS OF PURE, UNADULTERATED JOY AND LOVE. The road signs on the interstates between Florida and Arizona said everything but this last phrase, but they could’ve said it all. In many ways, they did.

The first cross-country move we made is also the first move I remember. We traversed the country from Florida to Lake Havasu, AZ, in two vehicles: Mom, little J, and me in the Aerostar and you in the rented U-Haul. You were nervous about driving it. More than once you said, “I don’t understand why I’m the one who has to drive this thing.” You didn’t like having to do things that were unenjoyable, Dad. Driving a U-Haul was one of them.

We brought the cat with us in the van. She probably would have preferred being left in sweltering Florida to being dragged across the country in a minivan with two kids and the swerving roads. Instead, we left Mom’s ice-skating trophies behind. You heard about those trophies for years afterward, every time you and Mom got into it over who had sacrificed more for the other. You drove the U-Haul, Mom gave up her trophies. Everybody gave up something in that move. (I left behind my first best friend, the curly-haired selfish beauty, Bonnie.)

I don’t remember you and Mom discussing what the I-Ching said, but surely you must have asked it. No day began without a reading from your dilapidated leather-bound copy. You sat in your director’s chair with a steaming cup of coffee and a half-eaten piece of sandwich bread smeared with peanut butter next to you. Each morning you tossed three pennies against the counter and jotted down the combination. There were scraps of paper all over the house with your pen marks on them, the code for which passage in the I-Ching you should consult. Three straight lines stacked one on top of the other. A straight line, a line split in half by a circle, a dotted line. Two dotted lines and a line with a circle. And on and on. Either way, I don’t remember the book saying anything about our move to Arizona. It must have agreed.

The trek took seven days. We stopped at night in dive motels, paid for rooms with two beds and plunked our tired bodies onto the thin mattresses, let the cat out of the carrier to wander the worn carpet.

I remember enjoying the trip for the most part. Mom drove while J and I played on the pallet of blankets she’d set up behind the driver and front passenger seats. The van didn’t have any other seats besides those two, but we didn’t mind sitting on the blankets. It made it easier to play. Whenever there was something pretty to look at, J and I would either stand up and look out the front window or the back, the latter of which meant shimmying down the tiny passage between our pallet and the boxes of paintings until we reached the back window.

The van didn’t have any windows on the sides. For years I was madly jealous of my friends’ parents’ cars: sedans with side windows where you could stay seated and see the world fly by on the other side of the glass. A seatbelt was a luxury because it meant you had a seat all to yourself. And a seat meant a window. To this day I love losing myself in the view out a passenger car window. Funny the things you get attached to.

We made it all the way to Texas before the U-Haul broke down. You and Mom rented a new one, unloaded the boxes and furniture, and reloaded it all into the new truck. I have no memory of this, but I’ve heard Mom talk about it. I don’t know what you guys did with us or the cat while you lugged a houseful of belongings and paintings and art supplies between one U-Haul and the next, but it must not have been very fun.

The hand signals are what I remember the most. We devised a system of  gestures to let you know what the road signs said once when we reached the mountains you dreaded. (Eyesight wasn’t your strong suit.) When we’d approach a sign—say, FALLING ROCKS, which was your most hated of the options we encountered—J and I would crawl to the back of the van and crouch on our knees (standing up was problematic because of the curvy, bumpy roads). We’d wave our skinny arms around to get your attention and give you whatever hand gesture we needed to, conveying appropriately the peril that lay ahead, then crawl back over to our pallet.

FALLING ROCKS.
CURVING ROADS.
STEEP INCLINE.
IMPENDING STRIFE.
PURE, UNADULTERATED JOY.
LOVE.

It was in such a manner that we made our way across the country to the desert of Arizona. You’d taken a teaching job—not anywhere big, but it was a stepping stone, as stepping stones go. Art History students at the Mojave Community College were soon going to meet their match: You, a Yale-educated painter who was currently barreling across the state of Arizona with two kids, a wife, and a very cranky cat in tow. Mountains be damned, we were going to survive this trip, set up shop in the middle of the blazing desert, cook ourselves some eggs on the sidewalk (which you kept telling us could be done in the desert), and watch you become famous.

This was the plan, and we were sticking to it.

Love,

Ash

Dear Dad // No. 8

Dear Dad,

You recently had some dental work done. You used to abhor dentists. Apparently you’ve carried some of that with you, because you weren’t that thrilled this time around either, but you consented anyway.

I asked what the doctor had done, and you said, “The bottom ones were good, but the top ones…fare-thee-well.”

I cracked up. I hope I didn’t offend you, because you weren’t trying to be funny, but I couldn’t help it.

After talking about your desire to move (again), you said that you’d gone to church today.

“Went to see the pope. Heard his story. Sounded like a great idea, so that’s good.”

Again I laughed, and again you were confused.

This is how our conversations go. I have to be an active listener, deciphering meanings from the puzzle pieces you give me.

You went to see your priest. You discussed the pope and his policies. They sounded like good ideas.

Sometimes, like tonight, things flow between us so similarly to how they used to that for the briefest of seconds I forget everything that’s transpired since last August.

I wish things could always be like this. Easy and clear. But they aren’t. Sometimes we struggle and the words evade your mind and I can’t put the pieces together and it all falls apart before fifteen minutes have passed. Those are the days that I hang up the phone and feel the weight of the stroke bearing down on me. I know you feel it, too, because you tell me so.

“I’m sorry. God, I’m just…my mind…the words get confuddled. I can’t find…the words are lost. What was that word? God. Plastics…no…plastics…NO!”

I never could figure out what word you were searching for, Dad, the day your mind got stuck on “plastics” and wouldn’t let go. Sometimes there isn’t enough context for me to read between the lines. Even when I do figure things out, I try to give you the time to connect the dots yourself. To let your mind stretch and reach for things without my interference. I read somewhere to do that, and so I try.

It’s hard not to help when you flounder. This must be how parents feel as they watch their children struggle with things like multiplication tables and long division.

“And that’s when I wait.”

This is how you described the end of your day. You wait, the same way we all do. You wait for the adventures that lie ahead. It doesn’t matter what struggles you’ve had, what teeth have been lost, what words you cannot find. You are always hopeful for tomorrow. And because you are hopeful, I am too.

Love,

Ash

Dear Dad // No. 7

I have known the taste of salt water,
And the smell of decaying forests,
And the cracks in hundreds of sidewalks.
I have loved the gas pedal,
And the airport concourse,
And the ever-changing time zones.
In all of these places,
I thought I could find a home in not having one;
I have chased the sun across the sky so many times,
Not yet ready to admit,
You never catch up.
– Unknown

Dear Dad,

When we spoke the other day, you said to me, “You know, I’ve been thinking about moving.”

God how you love to move. It’s in your blood, a restless energy that even now shows itself, after everything you’ve been through. Does it originate from the same source as your creativity? I’m sure someone out there has written something on that subject. I’m going to guess that it does.

You and Mom had been married only a few months when you moved for the first time. Within your first year of marriage you moved twice. From Sandbridge, VA, to Marathon, FL, and then to West Palm Beach, FL.

Marathon was the place I remember most from those early moves. You’d always wanted to live in the Florida Keys, so that’s where we went, to a house on stilts over an inlet of water.

Your mother came to visit us there. Grandma B was a squat, stern woman with a deep voice and fluffy gray hair. She’d been married twice, once to your father and once to a man who was the splitting image of Clark Gable. She was strict in a way I didn’t understand, because her voice was laced with more than just her Italian heritage. It was laced with a history and prejudice I couldn’t comprehend.

I recently made a copy of the VHS tape Grandma B recorded during that visit. The shaky film begins as she pans around the living room, which is packed from wall to wall with art supplies. A massive table sits in the center of the room, covered with paper, tools, and mat boards. Against the wall are Mom’s two giant mat board bins stacked one on top of the other. They’re so tall they almost touch the ceiling. There is no room to walk, no surface uncovered. How did we live in that, Dad? Atop a little table is the TV, and then the low-sitting square coffee table that I cover with my blanket and lay upon each morning (because there is no couch) while I watch Jem.

Grandma B moves the camera over the room. Your voice is in the background.

“Save some film for outside, Ma. Take some pictures of the water.”

“I already did,” she answers.

The tape cuts to the balcony. The house sits on a canal lined with speed boats, crystal-blue water meandering by lazily. You’re off the screen, telling Grandma B how barracuda swim down the inlet beside you as you do your laps. Her voice comes in over yours as she mutters to herself, “I can’t believe this. This river, right outside your house.”

You walk J over to the merry-go-round horse you’re painting. It’s one of the greatest things in the world to me, that there’s a merry-go-round horse on my back porch. You sit J atop the horse and try to get him to wave at the camera. He smiles, his right eye slipping inward. The doctors have told us that J’s eyes will need surgery, but you refuse. People shouldn’t mess with things just because doctors tell them to, you say.

Grandma B pans the camera down to a cat on the balcony by the sliding glass door. “Is that yours or hers?” she asks.

I pause the tape and rewind it, listening to this again. Wasn’t the cat both of yours? The question implies separation, as if your lives weren’t fully merged with your marriage. I try to hear your response, but I can’t make it out.

Mom always said that Grandma B hated her. As a child, I didn’t understand this. Why would this woman hate my mother, her son’s wife? I never saw it. But on the video there’s evidence I’d been too young to notice.

Mom’s voice sounds from somewhere off-screen. She’s giving your mom a suggestion of something to record. Grandma B ignores her. Another time Grandma B snaps at her in response to something. I can hear Mom striving to be involved in the conversation, to point out something wonderful to Grandma, but she can’t win.

Here it is on film, the evidence that two people can have such varying experiences with the same person. Grandma B would go on to become one of the most honest people in my life, an honesty I always respected. Yet on this tape I can hear the disdain in her voice toward Mom. I try to balance the two Grandma Bs in my mind, to recognize that she is both of these people and that they can exist at the same time without compromising my good memories of her. I have to do this with most of my family members, Dad. Most of all you.

It was at Grandma B’s insistence that we left the house on stilts and moved into a condo in West Palm Beach owned by your uncle, Tommy. By that time Mom was working two jobs, one as a waitress and one as a hostess. The two of you did a few art shows on the side, selling your paintings. We lived in the condo for such a short period of time that I don’t have a single memory of it.

When you mention relocating now, Dad, I can’t help but think back on all our moves. What were you looking for, each time you uprooted us? What were you running headlong in search of?

Success, maybe. Recognition for your art. Peace enough to counter your restlessness. A home that you couldn’t find. A home that you wouldn’t allow yourself to find, because to find it meant settling, and there was too much openness left to explore. Too much sky to see. How could you possibly pick one single place to stay when you hadn’t seen them all? When the possibility of something better existed right around the corner?

And so you consulted your beloved I-Ching, and away we went. Each time we moved, we carried part of our previous homes with us, a nugget of wisdom gleaned, a lesson learned, a prejudice gained. Like I’ve done with Grandma B, I’ve had to reconcile each place for what it is and what it contributed to our long, twisting tale. To how it shaped me into who I am today.

I don’t know if you ever found what you were looking for, Dad. You dreamed of a life you couldn’t find, a truth that eluded you until you lost hold of it in your tumble down the stairs last fall, when life took hold of you and changed your course.

Trust me when I say to you now, Dad, that you don’t need to move. You need to stay with your doctors and, for the first time your life, be still. Be still in the here and the now, and in exchange, I’ll tell you about the moves. Maybe that will be, for now, escape enough for your wanderlust.

Love,

Ash

Dear Dad // No. 6

Dear Dad,

When I try to remember when J was a newborn, there is only one moment that comes to mind.

I am four years old and standing outside your and Mom’s bedroom door. Mom is crying. To this day I can hear her cries in my head. The pain in them is astounding. Deep, deep pain  only a mother can produce.

The door is cracked. I can just make out your silhouettes in the dim light. You’re both standing over an incubator. It looks like a glass house, a dome enshrining my newborn baby brother.

I didn’t understand why J had to stay in there all the time. Mom took him out to feed him and then put him back. I’d asked for an older brother and gotten a younger one that I couldn’t touch and couldn’t play with.

And then the memory ends. That’s all I have of it. The next thing I remember is J being okay and us being inseparable. (Mom later explained to me that he was suffering from severe jaundice. I’d always assumed he was born premature.)

He was the sweetest baby, Dad. Beautiful, thick brown hair that fell in waves. Chubby cheeks. His voice was high and cherub-like. He was beloved by everyone. The sweet baby boy who looked just like his father.

I loved him from the start. Not the kind of love that one has to try for, but an instantaneous love. One of the photos in our family albums from this time is of J and me on a scooter that sits low to the ground. Our legs hang over the sides, feet on the carpet. We’re twisting up to grin at the camera right before we tear off down the hall on a great adventure.

And yet there was always something fragile about J to me. Maybe it’s rooted in that first memory, his tiny body curled up inside that dome. Even when he was little, I was filled with a protectiveness over him I couldn’t explain.

When he was old enough to talk, he learned my name. “Ash” is a hard combination of letters to pronounce, so for a long time I was known as “Ass-ley.” Ass-ley his sister. Ass-ley Mom’s daughter. Ass-ley Dad’s daughter.

It was only later that he learned I didn’t have the same last name as the rest of you. By then he was old enough to sense my weaknesses, and he teased me unmercifully with this knowledge, as siblings will do. I’m sure I got him back a time or two, as siblings will do. We fought like cats and dogs, one minute scratching each others’ eyes out and the next cuddled on the couch with bowls in our laps, ice cream dripping down our chins as Rescue Rangers blared from the television.

When I was nine and J was five, we lived in a small house in a cul-de-sac in San Diego. Every house on the street had kids in it, and we spent every moment not devoted to school or homework outside together, traipsing through each others’ yards, chasing down the ice-cream man, piling our bikes on the sidewalk.

The house at the center of the cul-de-sac was owned by a reclusive family. Their children were home-schooled and only played with the rest of us once, maybe twice, a year. I know it had something to do with religion, Dad, but I don’t know which. Kids don’t take note of that kind of thing. We only noticed that they never played with us. That’s all that mattered.

One day the middle child, Levi, got very sick. The family didn’t believe in doctors, so they’d prayed at his bedside that God would save the boy. He died a few days later.

The next day, J and I got into an argument in our front yard. We were standing on the edge of the driveway. A few neighborhood kids hovered behind us, waiting for us to finish so we could get on with whatever game was occupying our time. None of us paid any attention to the van backing out of the driveway at the center of the cul-de-sac.

J pushed me away and yelled, “No, Ash! I hate you! I wish I’d never been born!” He darted out into the road just as the van sped down the road.

My breath caught in my throat. I leapt into the road to grab him at the same moment he dashed back to the driveway. We smashed into one another as the van tore past, the family staring out the big front window, their faces still and empty.

Draped over the mother’s lap was Levi’s body. I saw him there as I looked up, in that infinitesimal moment before J and I moved out of the van’s path.

J pushed me away once the van was gone. “God, Ash!” his little voice yelled. “I could’ve been really hurt!”

He was scared. I could see it on his face, etched in his big brown eyes. He wasn’t really going to do it, and I’d gotten in his way. J didn’t need me to save him.

He stalked inside, leaving me standing there, heart thumping wildly, the image of Levi’s body playing over and over inside my head.

I went inside and hugged him tight, even when he struggled against me, because he was almost that boy that day, draped across my lap in the road. Instead he was my beloved baby brother still, survivor of the glass dome from the bedroom, keeper of the beautiful brown curls and sweet voice. The boy who looked just like his father.

Even now I want to protect him from things, now that he’s 26 and has lived on his own for ages. I want to shield him from the hurt in the world, hurt that has found him in so many, many ways over his lifetime.

You and J grew very close as he aged, and J and I grew apart. He still calls me now and again, when he needs advice. Each time he does I’m transported back to my first memory of him, to that incubator. The light falling over his delicate skin, the eye mask fastened over his tiny newborn head.

He’ll always be that boy to me. The boy who needs me and doesn’t need me at the same time. The boy who carries on your name in ways I’ll never be able to. The boy who had everyone’s love from the start, because he was the keeper of the beautiful brown curls and sweet voice. Because he is the boy who looks and acts and thinks just like his father.

Love,

Ash

 

Dear Dad // No. 5

Dear Dad,

I meant to write you sooner, but the days got away from me. Do you know what that means? It means that time has slipped through my fingers too quickly and I’ve lost track of it.

I wonder if this is how you feel about your memories. Like you’ve set them down somewhere, like your glasses, and forgotten where you put them. Once J (your youngest son) couldn’t find his glasses, and we searched high and low for them. Finally, someone got hungry and opened the refrigerator door. There they were, tucked between the mayonnaise and the ketchup. We laughed and laughed, and J slipped them on his face and told us all to shut up and leave him alone as he blushed from ear to ear.

You think your memories are like that? Lodged somewhere in the recesses of your mind between the now and the then?

I think about things like that as I drive to work each morning. My commute isn’t long. It takes me over a winding road shaded by old trees whose branches reach for one another from either side of the street, like lovers separated by an unconquerable space. As I drive, I think about me and you, and your memories.

Sometimes I can’t decide which ones to tell you first. Or something will trigger a memory as I sit in a meeting, and I’ll wish I could tell you it right then. I’ll try to hold onto it as long as I can, but somewhere between taking down notes for my job and trying to keep the memory fresh, I lose it.

When people ask me about you, I always aim for the positive. Yes, you’ve recovered. Yes,  you’ve lost no mobility, and your speech is about 90% unaffected. You’re as sweet as can be, even though the doctors warned me that most people are frustrated and angry after suffering a massive stroke like you did. But when they hear that you’ve lost every memory of who you were before October 29, 2013, their eyes grow wide. I can see it on their faces. They don’t know what to say.

So I aim for the positive. I tell them that we have a rare chance that one doesn’t often get in life. We get to start over. Rip out the pages of the history book and start from the beginning. We can write it the way we want to write it now. We can make different choices and be different people. We can take hold of all the emptiness leftover from the memories that have gotten away from us like the days speeding past, and we can fill them with new ones.

We’ll look back together, Dad. We’ll talk about everything that happened and what it meant. We’ll talk about when J was born and C was born. When we moved cross-country (twice). We’ll talk about when we ignored the advice of your beloved I-Ching, and what happened to us because of it. We’ll talk about everything that happened when we were a family.

But let’s not forget to look forward too, Dad. After all, that’s the most important part of the story. It’s the part we’ll write together.

Love,

Ash