Dear Dad // No. 18

Dear Dad,

Today marks the one-year anniversary of your stroke. I’ve tried for a while now to figure out how I feel about this event, because it seems important enough that I should have a particular emotion about it, but I can’t decide on one. All it feels like is that you’re on the cusp of something, and I don’t know what yet.

This feeling reminds of when we left San Diego for the first time. It was the summer before seventh grade, and I can’t remember if we left in a hurry or in our normal way, which I think might be a hurry for most normal people anyway, but who’s to say? I don’t remember packing the house up, or even talking about it as a family, like we did for some moves. I just remember sitting on the floor in the back of the van after we’d put everything we owned except the art into a storage unit in San Diego. C, J and I were all three in the back of the van in the cubby hole you’d left for us, surrounded by the art. I remember that when I looked up, I could see the sky through the front window of the van. It was a beautiful day, no clouds, only blue. That’s when I remembered that I hadn’t had a chance to tell any of my friends that I was leaving. The whole drive to L.A. I felt myself sinking in that knowledge, because I didn’t know what happened to kids who didn’t tell their friends they were leaving. I’d find out eventually.

We left San Diego because you guys thought it would be more economical to live in L.A., because that’s where we drove every weekend to sell your art. Why not cut the travel expenses and just move up there? Made sense to me, but it didn’t stop the sinking feeling that started in the car. I was older now, and honestly Dad, this was the first move we did that I remember being really sad the whole time we drove away. I didn’t want to leave San Diego. I loved it there, and I had friends now. I took tap and ballet and jazz classes three times a week, and I felt at home. Familiar with my surroundings. I’d done the one thing you were never able to do with a place: I’d gotten attached.

It only took about two hours to get to L.A. from San Diego, but it felt like another world. We didn’t have a house to go to, so we got a room at a Holiday Inn overlooking the pool. For the next month, month and a half-ish, we lived in that hotel. It felt like what a vacation might feel like. Every day we ate breakfast in the room and then you took us to the pool for a few hours so that Mom could spread out her framing equipment on the table in the hotel room and get some work done. The hotel staff nicknamed the three of us your ducklings, because we followed behind you to and from the pool every day, carrying our blow-up alligator pool float right through the lobby like we owned the place. School had started by then, but we didn’t have a house or know which neighborhood we were going to end up living in, so we didn’t register anywhere. Instead, we went to the pool every day, which felt like cheating in the most glorious way. C, J and I swam for hours and hours without leaving the water except to jump back in, and you sat in the chair and watched us. Sometimes Mom came to the balcony and waved down at us, and then we’d go back upstairs and eat sandwiches while we watched Sailor Moon episodes on the TV. Then it was back to the pool until dinner, which was my favorite part of the day because it meant we either ate in the hotel’s Chinese restaurant or Boston Market or Soup Plantation. We’d never taken a family vacation, but I was pretty sure this is what it was supposed to feel like.

But some afternoons, we went house-hunting. C, J and I piled into our cubby hole in the van and you and Mom took turns driving the unfamiliar roads until we found house after house. The only one I remember is the one that had a Dalmatian and a swing set in the backyard. I remember staring out the window into the backyard and thinking, “This is what a real house looks like. With a dog and a swing set. That’s a home.” But you and Mom didn’t like that house, so we kept looking.

The only other house I remember is the one we ended up renting. It was in Torrance, up on a big hill so that if you stood on your tiptoes in this exact point in the front yard and the earth orbited at just the right angle, you could see about an inch of the ocean over the top of the house across the street. The house itself was all white. White marble tiles in the front entry, white carpet throughout the whole house, white cabinets with glass fronts in the kitchen, white walls and white trim. It was the most beautiful house I’d ever seen. Didn’t have a backyard for anything, but that was okay. The glass cabinets made up for it. I remember C and J racing around, shouting so that their voices echoed through the empty rooms, while you and Mom discussed where you would paint.

The owner was really nervous about your painting. Worried about splashes and spills. Who could blame her, with an all-white house? After I walked around once, I stayed on the marble in the foyer and watched you and Mom debate whether or not there was enough room in the one-car garage for you to make that your studio. The owner stood beside me, and at one point she leaned down and asked with a curious lilt in her voice, “So, you’re a clean family?”

I knew immediately what she really wanted to know. Would my painter of a father and brother and sister currently tearing down the hallway destroy this white castle she owned on top of the hill with the half-inch view of the ocean? Probably so. But I didn’t tell her this. Instead I smiled and said calmly, “We put sheets up on the walls and floor so that my dad’s paint can’t hurt anything.” True. “And my mom makes us take our shoes off before we can come inside.” False. I made sure to keep my face smooth as she watched me answer her, and I smiled again at the end, just for good measure. I couldn’t tell if she believed me, but I did my best. I knew we needed a house, and I’d never seen Mom so in love with one before. Those glass cabinets, Dad. They were the real deal.

The next day, we were in the hotel room for lunch when we got the call. C and J muted the TV and I paused over the newspaper, where I’d been reading housing ads for Mom, while she spoke in a hushed voice to the person on the other line. When she hung up, she looked at me and asked what I’d told the lady with the white house. I told her what I’d said, and then asked why. Turned out the woman had believed me. She told Mom we got the house because of what I’d said to her. I don’t know how much of that is true or not, but I was always pretty proud that we managed to get that white castle on the hill, even if it was just for a few months.

A miraculous thing happened in that house. I don’t know if the white walls absorbed all the shouting or if I just can’t remember it, but I have no memory of you and Mom fighting while we lived there. Maybe it was that the room C and I shared was off the back of the house, a good ways away from the kitchen, where you and Mom spent all your time. Either way, I remember that we were happy there. Money was as tight as ever, because at $1,100/month we really couldn’t afford this white diamond we were inhabiting, but we laughed a lot. We ate breakfasts at that kitchen island and looked at our fancy glass cabinets, and we stood in the yard and bent just so so that we could see the ocean. And I made friends, Dad. Real and true friends, with a pack of about 10 girls who embraced me even though I’d started school a month or two after it’d begun and didn’t have any of the right clothes. For the first and only time in our lives, we took our shoes off before we stepped onto that white carpet.

But as much as we loved it, we couldn’t afford it.

After about five months, we had an open-house garage sale. We opened the front door, and people came in and offered us a price for things. We put everything we wanted to keep in the living room, which was at the back of the house, but it was impossible to keep track of everyone. A couple of J’s Nintendo games were stolen. You sold our two-seater motorized four-wheel Tonka truck for $5. Mom was livid. She was sure she could’ve gotten at least $50 for it.

The girls at my school threw me a surprise going-away party. I still have the letters they wrote me and the picture book they made out of a purple manila folder. We packed everything up again, all the art in the back of the van, a cubby hole for C, J and me. The night before we left, you let us flip through an atlas and point out places in Oregon we thought we’d like to live. That’s where we were headed next.

But when we got in the car and backed out of the driveway, you and Mom had a change of heart. We were in thick traffic and you guys were arguing again, about something I can’t remember, and then you hit the brakes to avoid smashing into the car in front of us. The shrink-wrapping machine, which we used for your prints, flew forward and struck C in the side of the head. She screamed and burst into tears. J and I jumped up off the floor and tried to lift it off her, but it was too heavy. Eventually you and Mom were able to reach around to the back and lift the machine back into its place.

We didn’t go to Oregon. None of my L.A. friends believed me when I talked to them on the phone and told them we’d changed our minds in the car and headed back south, to San Diego. They passed my seventh grade yearbook around at lunch and let everyone sign it, then dropped it in the mail to me. All of the notes say things like, “Have fun in Oregon!” and “Oregon sounds cool!” Once a year or so I open it and read the inscriptions again, and laugh about it. I never did live in Oregon.

L.A. feels like a dream now, this short blip of an adventure we went off and had before deciding it was too much for us and heading home to San Diego. Maybe it’s because my memory is tainted by my knowledge of what comes next, but everything from L.A. onward feels like we’re on the edge of something monumental, and I just didn’t know what. Maybe it’s that we never quite settled, leaving L.A. so fast. I joke sometimes to myself that I went to three different schools for seventh grade: my middle school in L.A., my middle school in San Diego (where I finished out the year after we moved again), and the Holiday Inn.

When I started at the middle school in San Diego to finish out the remainder of seventh grade, I was reunited with the friends I’d had for fourth through sixth grades. But a funny thing happens when a kid disappears without warning and then reappears six months later. No one would speak to me. On my first day back, a boy named William, who had been a good friend of mine before we’d moved away, asked me, “Where did you go?” I told him we’d moved to L.A. and then moved back. He gave me a funny look, as if he didn’t understand how people could do that, and never spoke to me again.

One by one, I found my old friends. Kids who I had spent the past three years (minus the months we spent in L.A.) sleeping over at their houses and going on field trips with. All of them asked me the same thing. “Where did you go?” Over and over, I explained what we’d done. And over and over, they walked away from me. Something had happened in the months I was gone. All of my friends had acclimated to the new rules that middle school lived by, and having an old classmate who you’d written off suddenly turn up overnight wasn’t in the rulebook. No one knew what to do with me, so they did the only thing thirteen-year-olds know how to do when faced with someone they don’t understand. They ignored me.

I ate lunch every day on a sliver of grass at the chain link fence that surrounded the lunch area. Leaning against the fence, I’d covet the Arby’s sandwiches and Taco Bell the other kids bought in the lunchroom, and wonder about this city that I had once felt so comfortable with and now felt so foreign in. I dove back into my dance classes at my old studio, taking as many classes as I could. I spent every evening during the week at the studio, assisting with little kid classes and helping edit the newsletter, cleaning the studio…anything to be there. At the barre, the steady rhythm of the classical music pouring from the speakers, everything that no longer made sense at school fell into place. Ballet was strict and rigid, and I loved it because of that. It made sense. Everything had a right way and a wrong way, and it was okay to be fastidious and stiff and everything that I was, because that’s what ballet wanted. While no one at school would speak to me, the studio opened its arms, and that’s where I found home again.

When I started back at the studio, you and I fell into our old routine. You picked me up and we went once again to the grocery store. We stood in the aisle and I helped you pick out your wine for the night. Then we drove home and I locked myself in my bedroom, and you sang Frank Sinatra with the speakers turned too high as Mom cooked for you. If we held our heads just so and squinted and the earth orbited at just the right angle, we might think nothing had changed. It was just the same as it had been before, just in a different house.

But at night while I lay in bed and looked out my window at the moon, I couldn’t help but feel like we were on the cusp of something, and I just didn’t know what. Would we leave again, at the drop of a hat? Should I try to make friends? How do you make friends with kids who won’t speak to you? Why did it feel like everything was unraveling, and I didn’t know why or when or where the thread was, so that I could put it back together again?

This is how I feel now, Dad, as I look back on this past year of your recovery and think ahead to your future. I feel like I’m back in my bed in our second house in San Diego, staring up at the moon. I don’t know what we’re on the cusp of, but I feel it coming. Maybe it’s that you refuse the assisted living community that GC has found for you. Once again your living situation is up in the air. You’ve thrown open the atlas and changed direction, and I don’t know where the wind is going to set you down. Part of me thinks you love this, always moving, never staying steady. But you never seem happy with it, so then I wonder.

I don’t have answers for you on this anniversary, Dad. I am beyond thankful that we’ve had this year together, a year that I sometimes thought we wouldn’t get. It hasn’t been easy. Like the year we moved and moved and moved again, we have a habit of cramming too much into too small a space. It leaves us breathless and exhausted, contemplating things that take longer to figure out than the time we’re giving them. Is this our way? The way of our family? To seek out the struggle in life and then fight to find the good in it? I feel like that’s what we do most often. We start with a plan and  veer off sideways when it doesn’t work out quite right, then veer again as we struggle to adjust the sails. Somewhere along the way someone stubs their toe and we all end up with our sides in stitches from laughing too hard. We lived in L.A. for only a blip of time, but we were happy there, I think. We balled all our flaws and our happiness into one white castle and for a few months, we pretended we were something we weren’t. Then we went back home and waited for whatever was coming to come. Because that’s all we could do.

I don’t know what the next year in your recovery will bring, Dad. But I can promise that it will be true to form. There will be tears and pain and laughter and joy, and it will be hard in so many ways. We won’t understand it until we finally stop to take a breath and look back on it. But no matter what—no matter where you go and what happens when you get there—I can promise you that we’ll all be there with you, supporting you. Because that’s what families do. We pack up and run when we need to, and we sit together and wait when waiting is all you can do.

Love,

Ash

Dear Dad // No. 17

Dear Dad,

When we spoke on August 3, 2014, you broke my heart.

You were upset when I called. There was no laughter during this conversation. Only the same strain in your voice that became so familiar from my childhood. You told me a story I had never heard. It was hard to understand everything, because you lose words when you’re upset. But I tried to understand. And I knew it was true, because I had heard snippets of things growing up. Only now did you connect all the pieces.

When you were young, one of your family members (grandmother? aunt?) got sick. You were sent to stay at a Catholic boarding school in upstate New York. You spoke very little English, because your grandmother refused anything but Italian in the house while you were growing up. English at school, Italian at home. Words were always hard for you to keep straight, even before the stroke.

You were terrified. This was the word you used, over and over, to describe it to me. The children at the boarding school were all afraid of the monsters in a room in the hospital wing, the place the nuns sent you when you misbehaved. All of the children at this place were sent here by their families, and you didn’t understand why someone would send you away to a place like that. To be with other children who all were sent away by their families. To a place with monsters.

One day, you were put in the closet in the hospital wing. Where the monsters were, in the dark. And when you said this to me, I could picture it so, so clearly. Because I have been in the closet in the dark too.

It happened when I was young, maybe two or three years old. I went to daycare at a woman’s home each day while Mom worked. My strongest memory of the place is of all the children everywhere. Kids in all the rooms and out in the yard. The woman who ran it kept us divided by age, in rooms with toys and shut doors. Sometimes we were locked in the rooms for so long that kids would wet themselves. No one every wanted to do that, because we knew what it meant. It meant a trip to the closet with the lights off. I don’t remember why I was sent to the closet that day, but I remember the darkness. The sounds of the other children breathing beside me. The sliver of light that snuck in under the door. We sat in the dark and whispered to one another, watching the shadows move through the light, and waited on the woman to let us out.

It took Mom a while to figure out what I kept talking about. Like you, I didn’t have the words. When I finally found them, Mom understood. I never went back to that place.

You told me your story of the boarding school because the person you are living with now, your first wife, GC, doesn’t want you to live with her anymore. I always found it funny, in an interesting life-goes-full-circle kind of way, that GC volunteered for you to live with her once you were released from the hospital last November. You and GC had rebuilt a friendship over the past few years, brought together by your first grandchild. So when GC volunteered, it made sense. Because she’s retired, she could bring you to the many therapy sessions you needed. She lives where you live and where your doctors are located. She had the space and the time to give to you. It seemed like the perfect solution.

But something has changed all that now, Dad. You’ve found an old friend again, a monster that has been with you most of your life, whispering into your ear. You drink because it is a part of who you are. Even after the months of detox in the hospital and your doctor’s warnings, you will not deny this monster. It exists not in a closet or hospital wing, but deep inside, where it can wrap itself around your heart and burrow into your veins. Where it can take you down that road again, the one you had finally escaped.

When I spoke with GC last, she told me a story about you and your monster. She’d come home one day recently, and you were nowhere to be found. You don’t have a cell phone, so she could not call you. She waited, and waited, and waited. You finally returned home at 3 a.m. You were in a jovial mood. When she asked where you’d been, you told her the hospital. She was mortified, and asked why, to which you produced your discharge paperwork for her to read.

After a rousing night at a bar, you had begun the walk home, stumbling down the street. A passerby saw you and stopped. They were so concerned about you that they picked you up and dropped you off at the nearest hospital, where the doctor’s kept you for a bit while you gathered your senses again. Then you walked home, discharge paperwork in hand.

GC was beside herself. She asked why you thought it was so funny. You shrugged. “I don’t know why the person was so worried about me,” you told her. “I’m not even hurt.”

And that’s the crux of it, isn’t it, Dad? You can’t see the hurt, because it isn’t outside of you, a mark on your skin for you to see with your eyes. This hurt is inside, invisible, where it can pain you and everyone around you the most. This is why GC doesn’t want you to live with her anymore. Because she cannot take the stress you are causing her, the worry and fear and anger and arguments over you and the monster you will not give up.

I want so badly, Dad, to have you live with us. But this….The idea of moving you in with us scares me. I work full time, I run a business, and my husband, B, works long hours. You would be alone all day in our home. You cannot cook. You cannot read. You cannot write. You cannot dial a telephone. You could not call me for help. You would wander away in search of something to fill your aching void and soothe your monster, and where would I find you? All of this terrifies me. It keeps me from bringing you to me. And this, in turn, makes me cry.

When I asked you if you would like to live with me, months ago now, you said, “Are you near a bar?”

Sometimes there are things spoken that hurt more than we could ever anticipate, Dad. The answer is no, I do not live near a bar. I live in suburbia. Short of the YMCA and an elementary school, I do not live near enough for you to walk anywhere. And upon hearing this, you did not want to live with me. Me, who would take care of you. Me, who cries as I type this because deep down I cannot shake the feeling that you have rejected me somehow, because I do not live near a bar.

In my heart of hearts, I know that my home is not the right place for you. I am not home for 8 to 10 hours a day. You could not call me for help. You would be so, so lonely. I don’t want to subject you to that. But you have no retirement savings. You have no income other than your Social Security check once a month. You are not a veteran. You have everything against you. We have everything against us.

I don’t know how this will work out, Dad. GC has found an assisted living community that will accept your Social Security. You would have your own room, space to paint, a doctor and nurse on call, three hot meals a day. You could come and go as you pleased during the day. It seems like something good when you write it all down. But when we talk about it, you tell me the story of the boarding school in NY, and I am transported back to the closet as your voice hitches and you whisper about the darkness.

“I won’t go back there. I’ve been once.” Your mind  confuses the boarding school for assisted living as we talk, melding the two together. “I won’t go back. I’d rather live in a box on the street. How can I go to a place where people go to die?”

Oh, God, Dad, there is no answer to this. And so, the conversation ends. There are no solutions, no answers, no decisions. I try to hold it together until we hang up. Then I sit in my chair and cry as the memory of the closet swirls in my mind, and we are there together, trying to fight our way through your monsters, searching for the answers hidden in the darkness.

Love,

Ash

 

Dear Dad // No. 16

Dear Dad,

I don’t think any of us knew what a profound effect it would have on our family when you quit going to art shows. It changed everything.

By the time I entered the fifth grade, we had lived in San Diego for a year. You and Mom traveled to art shows most weekends across Southern California and into Arizona on occasion. Outdoor art shows on the West Coast happen on a schedule that follows the pretty weather: Heavy rotation April through October, with slim to nothing happening in the cold months of winter. This meant that our income fluctuated too. There were times that we went all month without an art show. In the age before there was an Internet to market to, this meant no income. This meant more fights at night. More loosening of the thin, fragile thread that bound us to one another.

One of your favorite sayings was, “You can’t eat the paintings.” You were a horrible salesman, Dad. You’d give your paintings away if it meant a sale. Mom was the one who got us through. She could sell rocks to Mother Earth if she needed to, in order to feed her children. Before you grew tired of art shows and the manual labor that they involved, I had no idea what a warrior Mom was. But you changed all that the day you quit.

There are things you learn at an art show as a kid. You learn, first, that there are not many kids at art shows. This came in handy. I befriended some of the artists, and when they needed lunch, something to drink, or a trip to the bathroom, they would ask me to watch their booths for them. In exchange, I got an odd assortment of things: a Coke here and there, a screen-printed T-shirt with Dalmatians on the front and back, a Disney Pocahontas charm necklace. I learned how to listen to what sports games were happening in the towns where we had shows scheduled, because it meant lower attendance at the show. I learned how to weave unnoticed through a thick crowd of bodies, snaking past elbows and strollers with my hands full of gyros and barbecue sandwiches en route to hungry artists. I learned to calculate sales tax and what it meant to earn back the financial investment we had made on the show before we could make a profit. I learned what it felt like to be hungry, wishing for a sale so that Mom and I could split something to eat.

When an art show is busy, time flies. When it’s slow, it feels like watching yourself age, which, to an eleven year old, takes a really long time. It was neither of those things on the first day of my first show, because on that day, it rained.

Rain at an art show is a four-letter curse word. The word hangs around all day, buzzing in people’s ears. Potters don’t have to worry unless there’s wind, because the water won’t hurt their work. Sculptors care. Weavers care. And painters care.

The moment the first drop hit, all the artists went running. They dashed to their booths no matter where they were—in line at a food stand, talking to a buddy four booths down, in the Port-o-Potty. Everything stopped when the heavens opened.

This was the kind of storm that threatened from afar and then roared in on you, the sky turning dark in minutes and pouring out everything it had at once. Whatever customers we had in our booth vanished. Mom yelled orders to me over the wind, both of us soaked to the bone. It didn’t matter though. There’s only one thing that matters in the rain, and it isn’t your clothes. It’s the paintings.

Mom always kept a box full of ratty plastic sheets behind the booth for rain events. She was behind and back before I’d even known she was gone, a stack of stained plastic in her arms so tall I couldn’t see her face. She threw it on the ground and barked out commands to me: Hold this end up, clip this end here. We blanketed the booth with the plastic from end to end. Not an inch of it wasn’t covered by the time we finished—except us. We didn’t have a fancy canopy to stand under like some people did, so Mom and I clung to one another under an umbrella, and we waited it out.

That was the moment I realized the amazingness of my mother. As I looked up at her, the rain pouring down around us, I realized what she did every weekend when she left us with Grandma B. She gave up everything when we moved to San Diego and started doing shows. Gone were the days of cuddling on the couch watching Who’s the Boss. Gone were the days of a steady income and security. In the year since we’d moved, my mother had blossomed into this mysterious thing that I was only now learning about. She was a warrior, fighting in the way you had asked her to fight. By spending every waking moment dedicated to the very thing you were dedicated to: your art. And she did so without a second thought.

I had always loved Mom, but I fell in love with her that day, as the sky poured down around us. I looked into her eyes and knew everything I wanted to be. I could not be the brave that you wanted me to be, but this…this dedication and sacrifice and sheer determination of will. This was the bravery that I had inside me, Dad. This bravery, I could do.

The next day the sun shone so bright it was like it was making up for past mistakes. I watched Mom sell your work, and slowly, I memorized her sales pitch. I learned about you, through her.

Yale, William and Mary, paintings owned by Rodney Dangerfield, the vice-president of Disney, and the Walter Chrysler Estate. I didn’t know who these people were, but the customers who came into the booth did. One guy liked my spiel about you so much he bought an $80 framed print. That was my very first sale. Not bad, for a rookie.

On the drive home, we tuned the radio to a soft-rock station and belted out Whitney Houston and Sheryl Crow at the top of our lungs as Mom drove, the windows down so that the cold air helped keep us awake. We couldn’t sing for anything, Dad, not like you could. But that’s what made it that much better. We didn’t have to be embarrassed. We were free to like what we liked and sing until our chests ached. We both liked this song Sheryl Crowd had released at the time. About how all she wanted to do is have fun. You hated this kind of music, but you weren’t there. So we cranked up the volume, and sang.

From the time I was eleven years old until high school, I spent the vast majority of the weekends in a year alone with Mom at an art show. During the summer, she and I could pack the van and leave Saturday morning at five a.m., return Sunday night after C and J were already fast asleep, and do it all again, weekend after weekend.

As the years ticked by, Mom and I grew closer than I would’ve ever imagined. We spent all our time together. During the week, I sat at the kitchen table after I got back from my dance lessons and helped assemble prints while Mom cooked you dinner and you sang along to Frank Sinatra and Julio Eglesias at a volume so loud you had to shout to have any sort of conversation. Sometimes, when we had to travel to a show that was especially far away, I would get out of school on Thursday and take Friday and Monday’s schoolwork with me to do at the show.

Art shows were hard, exhausting work, physically demanding, and simultaneously rewarding and demeaning at the same time. I learned what it felt like when adults attempted to hide the judgment and pity on their faces as I struggled to sell something to them. I loved the camaraderie of the artists at the shows, but I hated selling. I hated talking to strangers and the looks in there eyes, the judgment too strong for them to hide. I hated those faces, because I didn’t want their pity. I wanted their money. I had a family to help feed.

And in every moment I spent at shows, growing closer and closer to Mom, you and I drifted.

Sometimes, when the afternoon was slow and the heat bore down on me to the point that I wet a washcloth and draped it over my forehead as I sagged into the Director’s chair behind the booth, I wondered what you and C and J were doing right then. You didn’t have a car, because the van was with Mom and me. Were you walking to the park behind the elementary school so that C and J could play on the swings? What did you cook for dinner? Did the three of you sit on the couch and watch movies together? Did you make breakfast for them? It all seemed so mystical, a far away reality that I couldn’t relate to.

What did I lose while I was off gaining something else?

This was the time that made our family what it went on to be. These years spent separated from one another, weekend after weekend. As you, C and J bonded, so did Mom and I. We became two teams, each playing our part in this life we had built, separate and together in the same breath. I knew everything about you on paper, but in reality the only way we spent any time as just the two of us was when you picked me up from my dance classes on weekdays. We drove to the grocery store, and I stood in the wine aisle with you and helped you pick out what you and Mom would drink during dinner that night. This was our ritual. Our Sheryl Crow. You told me what vintage you wanted and we scanned the aisle until we found it. Then you held the bottle while I found the alcohol content and read it aloud to you.

“How about this one?” you’d ask.

I’d squint at the tiny numbers on the corner of the label. “Thirteen percent,” I’d say.

“Good, good.”

How must we have looked, Dad, as we stood in that aisle, appraising wine together? You in your straw hat and torn jeans, and me in my pink tights and black leotard, reading aloud from a wine label as you considered the price. You drove home and we went our separate ways, only to repeat the cycle the very next day.

This was the cycle of our lives. Mom and me at art shows, and you, C and J at home. You and I existed in our own spheres, orbiting one another like moons. When we argued, it was over inconsequential things, like my determination for grass to grow in our barren front yard. You didn’t understand my constant desire to appear normal. Why, why, why did I constantly strive to blend in? It was so opposite of everything you believed. Yet I came home from school every day and watered the dirt in front of our house, and every afternoon you told me I was wasting my time. Nothing would grow where there was nothing to nurture. But still, I persisted.

And slowly…slowly…over time, slivers of green broke through the nothingness.

These were the years of our nurturing, Dad. The years we spent planting and harvesting on opposite sides of one another. They were the years that I gave up my childhood in exchange for lessons and life. I did it because you asked me to. Because we needed me to. Because I could give Mom what she didn’t get from you each night as you screamed at one another: laughter so great your sides ached and Sheryl Crow’s voice blaring from the van speakers on high as the night air raced through the open windows. Love so strong that it could endure whatever the week brought us, no matter the alcohol percentage.

I did it because C and J needed a home and food and whatever ounce of normalcy I had to give them. Because I could help Mom take the tangled threads of our life and mold them into something stronger. I could do all of this because this was my family and you were everything I had, and I loved you with such a fierceness that I would spring life from dead earth if it would to make us survive.

We were a family, and I did not care what my name was or what I gave up or whether you hugged me the same way you did C and J. I would do it. Because I am my mother’s daughter, and because this was the kind of brave that I could be. The quiet kind who smooths the seams of fraying thread while no one is looking.

Love,

Ash

Dear Dad // No. 15

Dear Dad,

Sometimes I wonder what you dream about now. You say you are healed and remember everything, but then you tell me that we need to do something about our house in California and that you’ll get F to sell it. We don’t own a house in California, Dad, and you and Uncle F haven’t spoken for years now.

But we did live in California, and Uncle F works in a field related to real estate, so that’s why I wonder about your dreams. Is your mind piecing things together while you sleep, only to confuse you when you wake? The mind can do that to a person. I would know.

There are two things I have dreamed about my entire life, over and over again. The first is flying. I can never control it. I dream that I float away without warning, sometimes bobbing up to the ceiling like a helium balloon, other times going right out the open door, fingers grasping for the doorframe a second too late. I float over cities and out to sea, and wonder if I’ll deflate over an island and stay there for the rest of my life, alone in the branches of the trees, watching the world go by without me.

The other dream is of you. I am always young, five maybe. J is little. We’ve just moved into a new house, and Mom and J are playing in his room. The edges of the dream are hazy, like I’m watching it all through an old camera lens. I walk through the house, but I can’t find my room. There is one for you and Mom and one for J, but where is mine?

I end up in the kitchen. All the lights are off, but I can see the wooden cabinets from where I stand, at the mouth of the hall, as the light behind me shines into the room. There is a gaping hole in the center of the floor. Our table is gone. Somehow I know that the hole leads down into the depths of the dark, to places no one wants to go. To places that no one comes back from. A monster clings to the edge of the hole. His face is slick and shiny, his skin a putrid green. He has a bulging belly and thin, bony arms, and he is waiting for me.

I don’t want to go into the kitchen, but I need to get to the other hallway, to search for my room. I try to slip past the monster by running around the edge of the kitchen, but his arms stretch long and grab hold of my ankles. Down I go, onto my stomach on the cold linoleum. He drags me back toward the hole. My fingers dig into the floor, but I’m not strong enough to stop him.

I’m going to fall down into the darkness, and I’m never going to return.

Then I see you standing in the doorway, the light from the hall splintering out around you. I lift my arms from the floor and reach for you. “Dad! Dad, help!”

You stare at me and say, “I’m not your father, Ashley.”

I wake up right as my body slips over the edge of the hole, into the darkness.

I dream this over and over throughout my childhood. Sometimes I wake in a cold sweat siting straight up in bed. Other times, I open my eyes and stare up at the ceiling, wondering if one day you will save me. Even after C is born, the dream doesn’t change. It is always the four of us. It repeats again and again, always with the same result. I don’t know how many hours I spent when I was young lying awake thinking about this dream. Too many to count. But eventually, I figured it out.

You always said the same thing right before I fell: “I’m not your father, Ashley.” For years I fretted over this, brokenhearted that you never saved me. And then I realized something. I never called you “father.” You are my dad, and even then I separated the two words from one another. You weren’t lying to me when you said, in the dream, that you weren’t my father. You’re right. You aren’t. You are my dad.

I stopped having the dream after I realized this. You never saved me from the monster because I had to save myself.

So now, instead of wondering about my dreams, I wonder about yours. What are you dreaming these days? It seems like such a silly thing to ask you, out of the blue without any context, so I never do. Also, I don’t want to upset you by implying that you don’t really remember what you think you remember. Who am I to judge the inner workings of your mind? Yes, there are things that make me think otherwise—like the house in California you insist we need to sell—but still this is not enough for me to burst your hope. You believe that you are the same as you were before, whole and well again, and in many ways you are. And in others, you are not.

Sometimes this is what dreams are made of more than anything else, the hope that we seek in our waking hours. Hope that someone we love will save us from the inner demons that plague us. Hope that we won’t float away from a home we never feel tethered tightly enough to. Hope that we are well and whole again, in spite of everything that says otherwise.

Who am I to take your hope away? Instead, let’s dream together. And when you ask me again about the house in California, I will say as I have said each time before, “I’m sure everything will be okay in the end.”

Love,

Ash