Dear Dad // No. 29 You Know This Now

Dear Dad,

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.

Love,

Ash

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Dear Dad // No. 28: A Storm Off Course

Dear Dad,

It’s raining here where I am, and whenever it rains, I’m guaranteed one thing: a call from you.

You’ve become quite the weatherman this past year. You watch the news every morning and every night, and sometimes, when time permits and the paintings aren’t calling for your attention, you wander over to The Weather Channel. That’s when I get a call. Normally they’re short conversations. You just need to check that I’m okay, that my house hasn’t blown away in some freak gust of wind, that I haven’t drowned in flooding. It doesn’t help that you can never remember where exactly I live, so you call me for all manner of weather-related concerns: tornadoes in the Mid-West, flooding in California, torrential rains in South Carolina. But you do have an uncanny knack for knowing when it’s raining around me.

Tonight, it’s raining, and tonight, you called.

The conversation went just as it normally does when there’s weather involved. You consulted with me about the volume of rain, whether we were safe from flooding, if it would last a long time. When you were satisfied that I was dry and safe, you said, “Oh, and there was one more thing we needed to talk about.”

I would’ve never guessed what came out of your mouth.

The thing is, Dad, you’re not well off. You live off your Social Security income. G and I supplement things—your food, your phone and cable bills, etc.—but to be honest about it, you don’t live in the grandest of circumstances.

And you’re the most content, happy person I’ve ever met.

At close to 80 years old and unable to read, you found the apartment yourself, rented it yourself, and live by yourself. You cook for yourself, paint every single day without fail, and go to Mass every day except Sundays (which is too crowded for your tastes). You walk your neighborhood rain, snow, and shine, spilling your wisdoms and kindnesses all over the sidewalk like treasures hidden in smog. One of the things I have the hardest time with is knowing that your living situation isn’t what I would give to you, and accepting your right to live how you’d like, not how I decide for you. (I’m working on it, Dad.)

So today, after you’d settled things with the rain, you surprised me when you said, “So you think when we sell another painting, you think maybe if we sell it for $150, we could give $24 to you—no, $25—$24 to you, and then another $25 we could give to the children?”

At first I thought you meant my children, of which I don’t have any. Every now and again you ask me, “Babies yet? No babies?” and I say, “No, no babies yet.” So at first, this is what I thought you meant. It wasn’t.

“I mean the poor children,” you clarified. “I think we can give $25 to you—”

“No, Dad—”

“Yes, and $25 to the poor children. Because there are poor children, you know, and they need food too. Can we do that? Can we give money to them? To help them out?”

I had to promise you many times that I’d do this. I’d take $25 for myself, for keeping your website up-to-date with the images of your work and answering your customers’ emails for you and relaying the messages, and that I’d be sure that a group who feeds and cares for poor children would get another $25. I promised to do this every time you sold a painting. Out of $150, you’d keep $100 for your own needs. I promised, I promised, and I promised, and finally, you believed I’d keep my word.

For some reason, as I stood in the kitchen and watched the steady rain come down outside the windows and listened to your request, I heard your doctor’s voice in my head. A warning, three years old, given to me as you lay unconscious in the Neuro ICU and I sat in the chair beside you. You need to prepare yourself, the doctor explained. Oftentimes, they’re mean after an event like this. There’s a lot of confusion and frustration from their new limitations. It’s unfortunate, but it seems to happen that way more often than not. 

I listened to the doctor, Dad. I prepared myself for your anger and your gruffness, your temper and bristling condescension. After three years, it’s yet to arrive. It’s a storm foretold, and blown off course.

How wonderful would it be if with every horrid prediction made in life, we simply puffed out our cheeks, let loose a great gust of breath, and cleared the thundering skies? Let’s start over, we’d say, just like you did three short years ago. We can do better. We might not have much, but look what we can do with a promise.

Love,

Ash

Dear Dad // No. 27: Strange, Little Miracles

Dear Dad,

Something miraculous happened the other day. For the first time in years, you read a word.

You were never a great speller or reader. You grew up in an Italian family in New York in the forties. Your grandmother forbid English from being spoken in the home, and your public school forbid anything but English from being spoken in the classroom. Words spanned two languages, two households, and enough stubborn Italians and stubborn schoolteachers to halt any progressions you made in either direction. Your handwriting was a joke in our house, because it looked like unintelligible chicken scratch. You couldn’t spell and didn’t mind. None of it mattered so long as you could paint.

After your stroke in August 2013, you woke in the hospital after almost three months on various life-support machines. The first thing you did was mime for a pen and paper. When the nurses gave you a set, you promptly started to draw. And draw. And draw. Random letters and numbers made it into the drawings, which were at first nothing but squiggly lines. But this was as close as you got to reading.

The doctors encouraged you to attend rehabilitation for reading and writing, but you insisted that you didn’t need to fret over something like that with “the time I have left.” Every moment was devoted to painting and strengthening your muscles to walk again. When you were released from the hospital shortly before Thanksgiving 2013, you still refused the written word. My first love was needless to you, but I didn’t say anything. After everything you’d been through, who could argue with those five little words? “The time I have left” is a short sentence with a big punch.

I let the words go, and here we are. Years later, still without the knowledge of how to read and write. You manage well enough. I programmed your cell phone with speed dials and you memorized the numbers for each of us. Your bills are paid in cash and a walk down the street. When your health insurance comes in the mail, you call me and I pass the word to G to come by and read it over with you. You are amazingly, astoundingly, self-sufficient.

Sometimes I find myself sad that I can’t share a book with you. I can’t drop one in the mail and talk with you about it when it arrives. I’ve contemplated the best way to send you an e-reader and set you up on audio books, but how to explain an iPad to someone who can’t read? How will you know how to navigate it? What if you get confused? Who will help you with it?

And then, a few weeks ago, you called me.

“Ash! Ash, you’ll never guess,” you began. “I was standing on this corner, on this street corner, you know?”

Already I’m picturing it. The cars racing past, the winter wind cutting through the buildings, horns blaring.

“And there was a bus coming, and I was waiting, and you know the front of them? With the things that scroll?”

I imagine the city bus pulling up to its stop, and you on the curb, waiting. Maybe you’re wearing a Steelers sweatshirt and your coat, a pair of faded jeans and your old loafers. Do you have on a baseball cap or a toboggan? Is there snow on the ground, caught in the curve of the curb and the road? These are the things that pester my mind while you speak.

“The things that scroll:” the electronic message boards announcing the bus route on the front of the bus, above the window.

“I know what you mean,” I say, and you plow on.

“Yeah, those things. Well, I was standing there on the corner and the bus was coming—”

And here I’m nervous, Dad, because I picture you so small on the street, with your cane, which I just found out for the first time that you use now, and it rocked my entire mental image of you. My Father, a man who never walked with a cane, an instrument of someone either injured or elderly. My mental image is still all askew—

“—and I looked up at the scrolling thing, and I knew the word!”

“Really?!”

“I know! Can you believe it? I knew the word…and then it was gone.” You laughed, thoroughly entertained. “Oh, well. But you know, they might come back. I told the doctor about it, and he said you never know. Stranger things have happened before.”

There it is, your wisdom. You find it in everything. And I can’t help but think that sometimes, stranger things aren’t strange at all. Maybe, if we pluck a slightly different word free, maybe they’re little miracles instead.

I hope that whenever your miracles happen, Dad, you’ll call me. I want to know about every word you find again, even if it’s just for a moment. I want to hear about the little seeds that spring to life, despite the fog that sometimes clouds your mind. And when the chill of the wind whips across my cheeks, too, I’ll think of you and your newfound words, your reminder of strange, miraculous things happening every day just out sight. The slow, slow progress of a seed, just about to bloom.

Stranger things have happened, Dad, and will again. Just wait and see.

Love,

Ash

The Memory Letters Turns 1

Dear reader,

Today marks the one-year anniversary of this little experiment. One year ago, I was lost, in search of a way to understand the pain I couldn’t shake surrounding my dad’s stroke and the feelings it revived within me. I wanted to understand. To process. To move forward.

I never thought a single other person would read these words. I put them online solely because I thought that if I made a devoted space “out there” I would be pressured to maintain it, and thus, to write. But I honestly never pictured anyone else reading, and the thought of someone else reading really scared me. These were private thoughts, some of which I was ashamed to have, much less share with others. It was an immense leap to put them out in the world, but I’ve always believed that if something scares you, you should try it. Follow the impulse tugging at your heart and shed the fearful inhibition of habit. It’s not always easy, and it was not easy to do in this case either.

But one day I did it, and here you are.

If the counter on the sidebar is to be trusted, there are over 200 of you reading this journey. This blows my mind. That there are other people who have stopped to read a website without any pictures on it—in this day and age—is truly striking. So today I wanted to say:

Thank You. Really. From the bottom of my heart.

Writing about my family and our wild, twisting journey has been a painful, purifying joy. A year later, I am ever so grateful that I leapt when I was afraid to. I’m also thankful for the outpouring I’ve received. Comments, tweets, emails, messages. You have responded to my words with words of your own, and each time they have touched me. That you take time to respond to me, to ask how Dad is, and to tell me your own stories, is amazing. I know you could read and move on. Click the window closed and turn your attention back to work or the kids or that coffee you’re nursing, but you haven’t. You’ve reached out to me, and I want you to know that it’s meant the world to me.

I have learned a great deal about myself from this experience, and I’m sure that as I continue to write, I will learn a great deal more. Thank you for journeying with me. Let’s keep going, together.

– Ashley

Dear Dad // No. 14

Dear Dad,

I’ve  been thinking about love lately. About the twists and turns love requires of us. About the hardships.

When you’re young, you think love will be grand. It will be easy. It will require no work, no dedication other than to its pursuit. No compromises or heartbreak. But as everyone learns, none of that is exactly true.

When I entered the fourth grade, we’d just moved from Lake Havasu, AR, to San Diego, CA. We settled into to our little home one block from the elementary school. Each morning you walked me and J to school, dropping J off at the kindergarten building while I headed on to my classroom, in a bungalow on the other side of the school. There are things I remember learning in every year of school, and in the fourth grade, I learned cursive. It’s also the first time I remember struggling with my name.

Whenever we moved, Mom  would head to the school to enroll me. I’d sit in the office and swing my feet, and Mom would explain to the counselor about my name. No, you hadn’t legally adopted me, but could I please use the same last name as the rest of my family? We always joked that Mom could sell ice to Eskimos, and in most cases, the counselor would eventually relent, and I would spend the school year going by Ashley C instead of Ashley W. But in some cases, the school held firm, and in those years, I had to go by my legal name. Ashley W it was.

And so as I sat in that hot classroom my first year of school in San Diego, I learned to write my name the way everyone else did. Then I went home and taught myself my other name, the name I went by at home. The name the rest of you used.

Sometimes when we walked to school in the mornings, you and I argued about things. Sometimes I think we argued just to argue. Sometimes I wondered if we argued because I was being the wrong Ashley in those moments. Ashley W instead of Ashley C. Ashley W was fastidious and drawn to the logicalness of things. The right and wrong. The black and white. Ashley C was the Ashley I tried to be. Drawn the creativity and passion. To freedom from restraint. To bravery.

Once, I found you in the kitchen spreading peanut butter on a piece of sandwich bread using the belly of a spoon. I climbed into the Director’s chair next to the counter and watched you work.

“That’s not how you do it, Dad,” I said.
“What’d you mean, how you do it? It’s peanut butter.”
“You’re supposed to use a knife to do it.”

You stared at me, the curve of the spoon full of peanut butter. Then you mashed the rest of the peanut butter onto the bread, tossed the spoon in the sink, and sauntered down the hall, shaking your head. “God, Ashley,” you said as you left. “Don’t be so bourgeois.”

I had to go into Mom’s studio and find the red dictionary with the cloth cover to look that word up. I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew from your tone that you hadn’t meant it as a compliment. But that was okay. I knew it had to do with the fact that I was curious about things you didn’t think I needed to be curious about. Like cars that had back seats and jeans that went down all the way to your shoes, music by Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, and braces like the kids in my class had. What I wouldn’t have done for a pair of braces in the fourth grade. But people didn’t need braces, you said as we walked to school. That was cosmetic. We needed to strive to see past all that. To think about the things worth thinking about.

So I tried. When we had trouble meeting the water bill one month, J and I sat in the front yard on the big green electrical box near the sidewalk and brainstormed how we could fix it. Apparently it wouldn’t work to put buckets under the faucet to catch all the water before it went down the drain, because the water company charged you when the water came out, not went back in. (Tricky.) When J and I wanted a swimming pool but you said we didn’t have the money for that kind of thing, we volunteered to dig the hole ourselves. But digging swimming pools is on the list of things that renters can’t do, along with paint the walls and put star stickers on the ceilings over the beds.

And so you and I lived and let live, even though we butted our heads every now and again. Slowly but surely, I grew accustomed to writing Ashley W instead of Ashley C, and the Ashley C that I had been faded away. But J and I went to the same school, and eventually C would too, so soon they learned about my two names. The Ashley W who existed at school and the Ashley C who existed at home, scheming up ways to build swimming pools in the backyard and selling lemonade on the corner.

C and J teased me unmercifully, as siblings do. It was their greatest ammunition in an argument, and the three of us had grand fights, kicking and hitting and pulling hair. But they always had the final straw waiting in the wings, the one nugget of truth to throw at me when the battle was at its most desperate.

“You aren’t really part of this family,” they would scream at me. “Dad isn’t really your dad.”

And that was that. The fight was over, all except for the victory laps. What could I say? It was true, and they knew it. Because at school I was Ashley W, the legal name. At home I was Ashley C, the pretend name.

It was important to you that C and J win our arguments. They were younger, you explained. Younger children should be allowed to win. I don’t think you ever knew that C and J had already figured out how to win on their own, without the need for older-sister mercy.

But sometimes my temper flared. I fought on, refusing to relent, and got in trouble. That’s when all my cursive practice came in handy. Your favorite punishment was for me to write a very long sentence some astronomical number of times. I will never again for the rest of my life hit my little brother J and my little sister C. You’d check on me in my bedroom at my desk, the pencil scribbling furiously across the paper. Eventually I would hit the invisible line in the sand, and you’d tell me I could stop. Mercy granted after one hundred lines.

But now the battle was between you and me, and I couldn’t lose. So I’d keep writing, finishing whatever the penance had been. Five hundred sentences. Two hundred sentences. Each line as neatly written as before. Once, I ran out of paper before I’d finished, and spent the rest of the night feeling vaguely as if I’d cheated without meaning to.

At the time, I remember thinking that it was hardly fair to always insist that the youngest win everything. But in a way, Dad, you prepared me for the world better than I would’ve imagined. I understood then that not everything was going to make sense or be logical or fair, and that sometimes I would have to deal with that reality anyway.

And in ways I wouldn’t understand until many years later, you taught me about love.

I remember so many good things about San Diego. I remember the countless trips to the ocean, riding home with strands of my salty hair in my mouth as I lay on the floor of the van. I remember begging to walk to the 7Eleven for red Slurpees. Watching fireworks each Fourth of July from the park behind the elementary school. Visiting you and Mom at art shows on weekends. Sunday lunches with Grandma B. A trip to Disneyland with your younger brother F and his wife R.

I also remember the fights.

For some reason, they always happened at night. Like you and Mom swapped your daylight personas for something altogether different once the sun went down. I once asked C and J how they managed to sleep through the arguments each night, and J shrugged and said, “Sometimes I wake up, but then I go back to sleep.”

This was a fit of strength I didn’t seem to possess, because from the fourth grade on, I spent the rest of my life waking up to each fight, lying in bed listening to the complicated dynamics of my parents’ relationship play out in the kitchen as the stereo blared. I still remember the first fight I woke to, because it was one word that jarred me from my sleep: knife. My feet tugged me from the bed and carried me down the hall without conscious thought. I clung to the edge of the wall just around the corner from the kitchen and tried to will myself to go back to bed. Only when Mom convinced you to put down the knife and stop threatening to cut your wrists with it was I able to pad back down the carpet and climb to the top bunk. C was still asleep below, snuggled under the quilt.

Most nights after that I managed to stay in the bed, to listen from beneath my Lion King comforter, eyes wide in the dark. Until the night you said you were leaving.

I didn’t even bother with the ladder. Just leapt from the top bunk right onto the carpet below and tore down the hall. When I turned the corner, tears already cascading down my cheeks, you were standing in the foyer, threading your arms into your jacket. You and Mom froze when you saw me, the fight melting away in an instant.

“Please don’t leave,” I begged. “Please don’t leave, Dad.”

You were the only dad I had. You couldn’t leave. You couldn’t.

And you didn’t. You and Mom smoothed my hair and rubbed my back, and I went back to bed, hiccuping against the tears. It was quiet the rest of the night.

The next day it was like nothing had happened. This was how it always was after your arguments. The sun came out and the soft California breeze blew away the angry words that had clogged the night. All was well again.

It’s hard to explain what the years of this cycle taught me, Dad. But I try now to think about it.

It taught me that love is hard. That marriage doesn’t mean easy, and that it is something you have to work for every single day. That love is enough until it isn’t, and that once you hit that point, there has to be something else there to hold on to and pull yourselves through the muck by. It taught me what I wanted in a marriage, and what I didn’t. It taught me to strive for forgiveness, and that sometimes, forgiveness is the hardest part of love.

You taught me that no matter what my name is, I determine who I am. That life isn’t fair, and we must accept this in order to struggle past it. That no matter what happens during the dark hours of night, the sun will always return. That love is grand and wonderful and hard and painful all in the same breath. And that it is always worth striving for.

Love,

Ash

Dear Dad // No. 10

Dear Dad,

Something important happened to me recently. I had a short story published. Its publication coincided with the Camelopardalids meteor shower. This is an interesting coincidence, because my story takes places around a meteor shower, a scene that was somewhat inspired by an experience with you.

In May 2000, I was in high school. These were not our best times, Dad. You and I were on rough footing, staring at one another over a sea of emotions too complicated to navigate. But despite that, you came outside one warm night and stood in the road with me. We craned back our necks and looked skyward.

Halley’s Comet gifted us a beautiful sight that night. Its interstellar debris burst into starlit streaks in the black sky. We stood side by side and watched the heavens open above us, and for a moment all was forgiven. We were just a daughter and her father, two specks of light in a vast expanse of possibility.

As I looked up, you asked if I knew what shooting stars really were. I didn’t, so you explained that shooting stars are not stars at all. They’re broken rock and debris raining down, bursting into brilliant flashes of light as they enter Earth’s atmosphere.

We bonded over this shared knowledge, and I discovered my way into your heart. I couldn’t be as confident as C or as funny as J. I could not embrace the insecurities of a life of an artist, but I could be smart. I could soak up knowledge like oxygen, and your love of academics would see that in me and, I hoped, appreciate it.

Our relationship wasn’t better right away, Dad. But it got there. We worked toward a place of understanding. We worked toward respect and forgiveness. Isn’t that the way it is? We had a choice. We could either abandon one another to the chasm that separated us in that long stretch of time, or we could fight through it, learn about one another, try to understand. And then we could accept. Only after that point did we have any chance for a future.

On the night of May 24, 2014, I went outside at 1 a.m., stood in my backyard, and once again set my gaze to the stars. But a thin film of cloud cover had rolled in while I slept, and there was nothing to be seen. I pressed my toes into the damp grass and waited patiently, but I never saw anything.

I wasn’t too disappointed, Dad. I knew that somewhere beyond the veil of clouds, the sky was alight, whether I saw it or not. Like our futures from that point in May 2000, we couldn’t know what was going to happen, but we could have faith. We could trust that even though we couldn’t see a future in which our relationship recovered, such a thing existed.

It took many years, but we found that future. We took the debris of my adolescence and morphed it into something beautiful: a relationship built on mutual respect and love. Now each time I hear of a meteor shower I think of the two of us, standing in that road with our heads back, watching discarded bits of the universe turn into something wondrous above us.

Love,

Ash