Dear Dad // No. 19

Dear Dad,

Sometimes in life we have to talk about things we don’t want to talk about. The way I see it, we have two options. We can either pretend it never happened, or we can try to find the sliver of elusive light amid the crowding darkness. I told you I would be honest with you, and that I would tell you the good with the bad. So here I go.

By the time I was fourteen, Mom and I had been doing art shows together just the two of us for five years solid. We were as close as two people could be. We even had our own little saying, something we’d made up between the two of us. One person always began it the same way, and the other person continued it:

“I love you,” one of us would say.

“I love you more,” the other would say back.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Mom and I were the only people who told each other this. It wasn’t just an expression of love. It was a proclamation of everything she and I did for each other every day when we prepped your prints and framed your drawings for the coming art show, and every weekend when we left the family behind to sell your work. It was a challenge, because love can be hard, and we lived a hard life that needed a strong love to survive it.

One day, you pulled me aside and gave me a bit of advice of your own. It was not enough, you told me, just to tell Mom that I loved her like this. I had to show her. Love is a verb.

I can still picture it, the two of us standing in the kitchen, which doubled as our living room because the house was too small for Mom to have a framing studio and the family to have a living room too. We’d set up the TV in your master bedroom and put the couch in the kitchen, and I remember at first I thought this was just about as looney as it could be—except then I discovered that the kitchen got the best sunlight there ever was, pouring through the wide glass windows right over the couch. That became my favorite place to read. I used to drape my legs over the couch and let the sun warm my calves as I lost myself in A Wrinkle in Time and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, over and over and over again. That’s where you told me about love, one day in the golden sunlight of the kitchen. And I never forgot it.

A lot happened in that kitchen after that lesson. A lot of experience piled onto this one single lesson that you’d given me. It all started with Disneyland.

Out of everything I’d given up to travel to art shows with Mom, the greatest disappointment to me involved dance. Because I was gone every weekend, I couldn’t take weekend classes or travel with the other students to the competitions that they did. Competing was a form of pride in the studio, a marker of the level you’d achieved, and you could only move up so far until there was nowhere else to go but into competition-level classes. I used to sit outside the studio door and watch these classes with envy leaking out of my pores. I wanted so badly to be able to travel with them, to attain this level of achievement. But I couldn’t, because I wasn’t available to travel to competitions on the weekends.

But eventually, Mom worked it out so that I could move up into the classes that I so desperately wanted. She arranged the art show schedule so that I could attend the majority of the competitions, and she traveled with me and watched me compete in front of the judges. Dance became not only mine, but yet another activity that Mom and I shared. When I won, so did she.

So when it was time for the largest dance competition that our studio attended, I begged and begged to be able to attend. It was held every year at Disneyland in Anaheim, a two-hour drive from San Diego and a multi-night hotel stay. It would be an expensive trip. The dancers were required to wear matching purple jackets with our studio’s logo on them and our names embroidered on the front, right over the heart. I didn’t have a jacket yet. They were expensive and unnecessary up until this point. But now, with competitions, they were required.

Again, Mom found a way to make it work. She talked the studio owner into letting us pay half-price for an old jacket that someone had purchased and never picked up. I remember bringing it home with me and showing it to you. I couldn’t help my expression. This jacket was from a couple seasons ago, before the studio had changed their official color from blue to purple. You didn’t understand why I cared so much about the color. All I could see is that it was blue when it was supposed to be purple, and how much I would stand out amid a crowd I was supposed to blend into. You rolled your eyes. It was just a jacket.

Before Mom and I left for the trip, I thought long and hard about putting a piece of duct tape over the name embroidered onto the front of the jacket. Lorraine, it read. What would be worse, having the wrong name on the wrong-colored jacket, or having a piece of duct tape on the wrong-colored jacket? Eventually I decided to let it be. What was one more name that I didn’t understand amid all my other names?

The competition was like nothing I’d ever seen. It was three times the size of the other competitions we did, performances taking place in multiple rooms at the same time. When I wasn’t performing, I’d sneak into the room with the ballet soloists and snag a chair in the corner so that I could watch. It was round-the-clock stimulation. Glitter and sequins and parents wound so tight it was like their bodies were pressure cookers about to explode. My studio did well, and by the final night, everyone was in jovial spirits. The kids packed into a big rec room attached to the suites we’d booked while the parents headed out to a restaurant nearby for celebratory drinks. You could practically see the steam trickle from the parents’ ears as the pressure of the past three days released. We kids were thrilled that they wanted to go off on their own. We ordered pizzas and played Truth or Dare and told ghost stories with all the lights off. It was a party like I had never been to, and suddenly, because I had survived it right alongside the other dancers, I was in. It didn’t matter what color my jacket was or what the name on the front said. I was one of them now.

When the parents came back, they mingled with the kids in the rec room. Everyone shared stories of their favorite performances and dance companies, soloists who had wowed us and routines that we did or didn’t think had deserved to win.

At this point in my life, I had learned what the various levels of inebriation sounded like. I could recognize the difference between tipsy and drunk and beyond drunk in about half a minute based on the sound of someone’s voice. This was the education you never thought you’d given me. All those nights sitting quietly at the kitchen table assembling prints while you sang and lectured Mom on the various theories of your favorite philosophers had taught me something I’m sure you’d never intended. So that night, when Mom walked into the rec room, I could tell from across the room that she wasn’t drunk. She was tipsy enough to be happy, to smile wide and laugh freely. I walked across the room and stood next to her, and we listened to people tell stories of the weekend, and we laughed with everyone.

Then Mom took a step back, stumbled, and fell. Her head hit the corner of the wall. It happened so fast that she was on her feet again before I’d really registered that she’d fallen. Her cheeks flushed and she brushed everyone’s concern off, and we went back to laughing, all in the span of just a few minutes. But then I saw the blood.

“Mom, you’re bleeding,” I told her.

“What? Where?”

The trickle of red oozed down her neck from under her short brown hair, stark against her tanned skin. “On your neck. You’re bleeding.”

People noticed now. Two of the other parents were nurses, and they ushered Mom to a couch and began separating strands of her hair, trying to pinpoint where the blood came from. I stood on the periphery of the crowd of adults and held my breath, my heart hammering.

A gash had opened across Mom’s head where she’d hit the wall. She needed stitches. But she was upset by now, embarrassed and eager to return to the buoyant energy filling the room just a few short minutes ago. She began to fight with them, pushing and struggling. The adults held her down. One of the nurses brought in an emergency kit and said that they would have to shave part of her hair off in order to close the wound, and that’s when Mom started yelling.

I couldn’t do it, Dad. I couldn’t take the look on her face and the blood on her neck and the way she fought and yelled at the adults holding her in place in the couch. My heart couldn’t process all of this pain and anguish and torment, and I flew out of the room before they’d started stitching Mom together again, flew down the hall into a bathroom and locked the door behind me.

Three of the other kids sat outside the door and begged for me to come out. But I refused. I couldn’t watch them stitch my beloved mother together again while she fought against them. Eventually though, I had to come out. They were done stitching Mom’s head, and I wanted to be with her.

Mom and I slept on the floor that night, bundled beside one another in blankets. I don’t remember why we slept on the floor, but I remember watching Mom cry beside me, the heavy weight of her sobs crushing into me.

We’d carpooled to Anaheim with another family, a mom and her three girls. The next morning, as my mom and the other mom loaded the car with all our costumes and makeup and dance bags and luggage, the four of us girls stood around near the automatic sliding glass doors that led in and out of the hotel. One of the girls, who was a few years younger than me, leaned back against the glass just as someone walked up. Reacting to the motion sensor, the door slid open, right over the girl’s left arm.

I’ll never forget the sound of her scream. Her arm was pressed like a dried flower between the thick panes of glass. Her mother raced from the car and lifted that big glass door right off its hinges, freeing her daughter’s arm. I’d never seen anything like it.

Not a soul spoke in the car on the way home. I don’t know if the other girls and their mom didn’t speak because they were so shocked by what had happened with the door, or if they were shocked over what had happened with Mom, but it didn’t matter. I had never before and have never since heard silence like that. Silence made loud by such an incredible amount of pain and fear. Pain at what had passed and fear at what was to come.

When I got home from school the next day, Mom was waiting on me. She led me into her bathroom and sat down on the toilet. I remember the frisson on fear that shot through me when she told me what she needed me to do. Earlier that day, while C, J and I were at school, she’d told you what had happened at the hotel. She’d asked you to change her bandage, and you’d refused. She needed me to do it now instead.

I was so angry with you, Dad. Angry beyond words. You didn’t believe Mom about what had happened. You accused her of going off to have an affair, of getting hurt while she was away being unfaithful. Out of everything that had happened, out of all the shame and embarrassment and pain that I had experienced with Mom over the past 24 hours, I never in my dreams expected you to react like that. And now, because you refused to help, here I stood in the bathroom with Mom, her head bent back so that I could see the area that had been shaved around the gash.

I changed Mom’s bandage for her until she no longer needed me to. Her hair grew back, and no one at the dance studio ever spoke to me about what had happened ever again. But I remembered it all, like a stop-motion movie playing on repeat in my head.

Now when I woke in the morning and shuffled into the kitchen, I noticed the empty and half-empty bottles of wine sitting on the sun-drenched kitchen counter. I counted the beer cans. When we stood in the aisle at the grocery store and I read you the alcohol percentage on the wine labels, I thought about how you wouldn’t help Mom when she needed it. How you refused to believe her story, even after I found the bravery enough to knock on your studio door one day and tell you that Mom wasn’t lying.

Love was supposed to be a verb, Dad. Love was supposed to mean that you opened your arms to Mom when she got home, broken inside and out. Love was supposed to mean that you comforted her, because it was an unfortunate accident that had caused her and I both pain. But you didn’t do that. And try as I might, I couldn’t find it in myself to forgive you for that for a long, long time.

When I think back on my youth now, I know that this was the moment that things changed for me. I started keeping track of how much you and Mom drank each night, a mental tally that I never consciously decided to start doing but somehow did anyways, every morning before I left for school. And gradually, so gradually I can’t pinpoint exactly when, I developed a deep loathing of alcohol. I couldn’t stand it. I blamed it for how you had reacted to Mom’s accident, and for Mom’s accident happening at all.

Why did you and Mom have to drink each night? What was it about our lives that made you seek out solace in something else, something that caused you so much pain? Why was this event, which loomed so great in my life, not enough to change things? Where was I supposed to find forgiveness inside myself when all I felt was anger?

I don’t remember you and Mom ever speaking of this event again. Like all of your other arguments, it slipped away into the void, the place where you put everything you didn’t want to say to each other. The place that filled and filled with each passing year with all your disappointment and sadness and anger. There are some events in life that are so painful and so disturbing that people never speak of them again, and for our family, this was one of those moments. You never perched on the edge of my bed and asked me if I was okay, if I wanted to talk about what had happened. I changed Mom’s bandages until her head healed, and then the whole thing faded away, just like Mom’s wound. Over the years, when something would cause me to think back on this, I wondered if Mom had a scar on her scalp. Because this subject felt taboo—just as taboo as asking questions about my biological father—I gave up my curiosity to the void, right alongside the pain.

Everything that happened between us, Dad, everything that came next, it was all predicated on this event. Everything changed after this, because now it wasn’t just you and Mom in the void. I was there with you, and I didn’t want to be. I would spend the next four years struggling to find my way out, and not caring what I gave up in the process.

I’m sorry I have to tell you about this, Dad, and I’m sorry that forgiveness was so hard to find. Eventually, your lesson came back to me, and I tried with all my might to apply it to you. I had to, because it’s like you said. Love is a verb.

Love,

Ash

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