Three weeks ago, you turned 80 years old. You celebrated by giving away the shipment of food I’d sent you, and calling to ask that I not be mad at you about it.
“It was for the children,” you explained, mentioning the children of an orphanage your church cares for.
“I’m not mad, Dad. I can send more.”
“They didn’t have anything, and I don’t eat a lot anymore. It’s just me.”
I know, Dad. I never forget.
Our conversations since then have grown more urgent. You tell me stories with a fierceness, relentless, never pausing for me respond other than to laugh at your jokes and mmm-hmm when appropriate. I’ve wondered if this is what happens when we near the end. I hate myself for it. I wonder it all the same.
Two days ago, you spoke for twenty minutes solid. You told me a story about a putrid woman you knew who once wrote on an official document of some sort that you weren’t intelligent. Years later, you both ended up teaching at the same college. When she asked you if you’d gone to school and gotten an education for yourself, you took the opportunity to issue a long-awaited jab.
“Why, yes, I did,” you said. “Where did you go to school?”
“The University of North Carolina.” You inflected your voice in a rather good impression of a hoity-toity woman, and I laughed, already wincing at where this was headed.
“Oh,” you said in your own hoity-toity way, “Well, I went to Yale.” To me, you added, “And everyone knows Yale’s the best! Not like that North Carolina! They’re just as good as anybody, but no one’s better than Yale!”
With that, you burst into great, heaping laughter.
I chuckled along with you. What else was there to do? Three days ago, you’d remembered that I went to UNC and loved it. Now, you’d forgotten.
Loving you is a constant lesson in grace, Dad. You told me this story for twenty minutes, forgetting each time you reached the end that you’d told it to me at all, and starting over again at the beginning. I laughed each time. I winced each time. I was thankful you were in such good spirits.
And then you stopped. You grew very serious, and I know exactly what you said because I won’t ever forget it.
“You know, none of them understand about you. My relatives. My family. They don’t know who you are or why I took you in.”
My heart beat out of my chest. I’ve never told you that I wasn’t your biological daughter. I never had the courage. I didn’t understand how to explain it to you or how to broker that conversation, and deep, deep inside, I was afraid it would change things between us. All these years, all I’ve wanted is someone to want to be my father, and here you were. I couldn’t risk it. So I kept it locked away and hoped that our blood didn’t matter. We were father and daughter because we chose to be, and in the end, that had to be enough.
All this time, you’ve known. Or at least today, you knew.
“None of them understand,” you continued, “because you aren’t Italian. But I always knew that didn’t matter, because you’re special. You hear? You’re special, and you’re smart, and I knew that. It didn’t matter to me.”
“I’m going to have to go soon. I’ll die. But you know this now. I love you, and you’re special. And I always knew it was worth it. You. I knew it, even then.”
I couldn’t say anything, Dad. Sometimes words can’t form around all that joy and pain and truth and love and fear. It takes up too much inside, and everything gets sucked in around it, a black hole of wordless wonders inside of a heart.
All that’s still inside me as I type this, Dad. One day I’ll unearth the words from the deep places they’re stuck in now, wedged in the crevices of these emotions. I hope you’re wrong, Dad. I hope you have a long while more to call me and tell me stories that may or may not be figments of your imagination. I’m not ready to stop listening.
Thank you for knowing the truth without my needing to speak it. Thank you for saying the words you did. Thank you for defying your family to love me. Thank you for knowing I’m worth it.
You are too.