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

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3 thoughts on “Dear Dad // No. 18

  1. Grace August 19, 2014 / 8:53 pm

    Your writing is beautiful, so full of truths and ultimately love for the flawed and precious state of family.
    x

    • The Memory Letters August 20, 2014 / 12:51 pm

      Thank you, Grace. I’m always so glad to hear that my writing has touched someone.

      • Grace August 20, 2014 / 12:52 pm

        Your writing is powerful and tender hearted. You come from a place of forgiveness. Your lovely words touch me.
        Thank you.x

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