Dear Dad // No. 25

Dear Dad,

It’s time I tell you about South Carolina. About the beginning, at least.

The first thing I remember noting about the South in October was how green it was. Trees everywhere. Everywhere. Sometimes it felt beautiful and sometimes it felt claustrophobic. I wanted to hop in the back of the van and drive to the ocean, but that was almost two hours away now. No longer could we decide on a whim to spend a day at the beach and be there, our toes burrowing into the sand, twenty minutes later. The closest thing we had was Lake Murray. Uncle F’s house was on the lake, in a quiet neighborhood with gigantic lawns and two-car garages. I’d get up in the morning and walk down the hill to the water, stand on the dock and watch the sunrise burn off the fog floating above the water. I felt like I was on a different planet.

It was cold in South Carolina, at the end of October. A few days after we moved it was Halloween. I decorated C and J’s faces with Aunt L’s makeup and helped them dress up. Then we walked around the neighborhood and trick-or-treated, our breath making little clouds in front of our mouths. I didn’t dress up that year. I felt sad deep in my heart, a sadness I now know was homesickness, but at the time I just couldn’t find the energy for dressing up. As it turned out, I never dressed up for Halloween again.

Eventually the weather turned even colder, and Uncle F and Aunt L brought me to a place called Burlington Coat Factory and bought me a real, heavy coat. I insisted on one at least two sizes bigger than I actually needed, for growing of course. That coat was so huge on me, I don’t think I’d fill it out now. But I was prepared for the growing I was sure I was going to do. Always, always prepared.

During the day Uncle F and Aunt A went to work and we hunted for a house. Mom and I scanned the classified ads in the newspaper and then the five of us climbed into an old, tiny Mercedes that Uncle F let us borrow. C, J and I sat on cream leather seats in the back, seat-belted in for the first time in our lives. I remember that we argued over being too close to one another. We couldn’t spread out, lie down on the floor and slide around when the car turned a corner. The car, the trees…everything constricted us from the beginning, in ways we weren’t prepared for.

The street signs in Columbia confused us. For a while we got lost, went round and round in neighborhoods we didn’t understand. Finally we realized that the street names were different on either side of the road. To the left would be one road and to the right another. That was just one of the many things we didn’t know about this new place we’d moved to. Other things we didn’t know:

That the barbecue was fluorescent yellow. They called it mustard barbecue and put down five plates of it at the first meal we ever ate in the South. Maurice’s BBQ, it was called. The five of us stared at the plates until finally J asked, “Why’s it that color?” Until then I thought barbecue was a dual-meaning word: cook on a grill outside and bathe some meat in something red and sweet. Not in Columbia it wasn’t.

We also didn’t know that there were no sidewalks, or when there were, they were only on one side of the road. J and I wondered from the back seat of the car one day, “Where does everyone ride their bikes?”

Or why all the businesses were in buildings that looked like houses instead of buildings that looked like, well, buildings. This bothered me for ages and ages for some reason.

Eventually though, we found a house. A Ranch, they called it, which meant it didn’t have stairs and was all on one level. White-painted brick with the biggest front and back yards we’d ever seen. You could have fit at least two San Diego houses on it, we guessed. Inside, the oven was in the wall—and green—and the stove was electric. In California, everyone had their water delivered each week in big plastic jugs, but here they just drank out of the tap, so there wasn’t a water container in the kitchen anymore. The living room walls had wood paneling, and while the house had sat empty some kids had broken in and carved a crude cartoon of a man smoking a joint into the wood. There were four bedrooms, which made us feel like kings. You took one bedroom for your studio. J, C and I all wanted our own rooms for the first times (before that we were constantly swapping who shared with whom), so I got a room and J got a room. My room was bigger, but there was a small hole in the hardwood floor that went straight to the outside. We turned the dining room into a bedroom for C by blocking it off from the family room (which Mom used as her studio) with Mom’s matt board bins. Of course you could still see over the top of the bins, but we used our imaginations.

I never did understand how C slept with her room like that. The door led right into the kitchen, where you and Mom spent all your time. Even across the house and down the hall, your arguments woke me. But somehow C always slept right through.

I want to tell you that we were happy in Columbia, Dad, but I don’t know that we ever were. The first day Mom drove me to school to enroll me at my new high school, we stepped out of Uncle F’s borrowed Mercedes just as the buses were pulling away. Mom and I paused as they passed and just as the last one curled away from us, a boy opened the window and called out at the top of his lungs, “CUNTS!”

Mom and I froze.

“Well,” Mom said after a beat.

We’ll never know if the boy was directing his commentary to us or someone else (or, I suppose, it could have been a cry to the general universe at large). Either way, this came to represent the entirety of my experience at my new high school. The guidance counselors chaffed at Mom’s request for me to use the same last name I’d had at my last high school—your last name—even though it wasn’t my legal name. Mom put on her usual sales pitch, but it failed. From hence forth, I was no longer Ashley C. I was Ashley W.

There were other problems, too, like what to do with my history credit. South Carolina taught all their freshman South Carolina history their first year of high school, while I had been taking World History in California. That wasn’t taught in SC until sophomore year. Then there was math. What to do about my math class, which they weren’t sure translated to a class they had. After much deliberation, it was decided that I would be a year ahead in history and a year behind in math. Just like that, Ashley C was gone.

We tried to settle in, Dad. You painted every day, Mom took the borrowed Mercedes to work in the morning and returned at night. C, J and I rode the bus to and from school for the first times in our lives. At school, I tried to remember to write my name as Ashley W instead of Ashley C, and the more I wrote it the more I wondered about it. On the weekends we went to Uncle F’s house and went out on the lake in his boat, which wasn’t the same as the ocean but was nice all the same. We tried for a while, Dad. But then, the threads came apart.

Looking back on it, I don’t think it was one thing. I think it was many things, many, many things, all pulling us apart at once. I’ll start with myself.

I don’t think any of us were prepared for how lonely it would be, away from everything we knew. Or maybe it was just you and me and Mom. I don’t remember C and J having such trouble adapting like the three of us did.

C’s adorable smile and bubbly, outgoing personality helped her gather friends like clouds, opening her arms to the sky and hugging them to her chest. And J’s natural humor buoyed him into the popular of the popular in no time at all. But me. I didn’t know what to do with myself. At school the kids asked me why I wasn’t tall or tan or anything like the girls they thought California produced. Why the heck was my chest so flat? Had I had a nose job? What celebrities had I met? Why did I say “guys” no matter the gender of the group? Did I know I was a Yankee even though I was from California? Everyone not from the South was a Yankee I was told, fiercely, when I debated this fact with someone in my English class. Suddenly I had taken on an entire persona I hadn’t been prepared for.

I took to spending my lunches in the library, where I wasn’t technically allowed to eat, so I hid my sandwich in my lap and tore off bites when the librarian wasn’t watching me out of the corner of her eye. I sped through my Biology textbook that way, reading far ahead of the class and circling back to the chapters the class was studying just to remind myself of the material before the test. I set the curve that year. Some kids even argued in front of the teacher about which one of them should have the right to be my lab partner. Everyone thought it was because I was good at Bio, when really it was because I was too shy to talk to anyone and holed myself up in the library rather than risk saying “barbecue” when everyone was talking about grilling burgers.

At home, Mom and I started arguing over everything. Little things, big things. I didn’t know how to find the words, and the bravery, to tell you how lonely I was. Instead I balled it all inside and let it come out in little gasps, little teenage bursts that caught Mom by surprise. You responded by doubling your strictness on me, thinking all I needed was to be reminded of my place to stop my sudden rebellion. You mandated that I would be the one to get C and J up in the mornings and get them ready for school. I’d help C get dressed and make sure J showered. I made their breakfasts and lunches and then cleaned up the kitchen from the previous night’s cooking and drinking. When all of this was done and C and J were ready, I’d wake you up and you’d dress and drive them to the elementary school.

You and Mom fought constantly over the rules you put on me. But you were adamant that I was older, and therefore, I needed the responsibility. C and J were younger. That was that. It was entirely fair that J and C should have no rules, no curfews or chores, because of their age. It was hard not to feel like I was in the wrong when I complained about it, because you really and truly saw it this way. You were not being unfair, as Mom argued you were over and over again. By giving me the responsibilities, you were being fair, because of my age. How could we not see that? you said.

And yet, whenever I walked away, I heard Mom whisper to you, in the dark of the kitchen. Whisper that maybe it was because I wasn’t yours. Maybe you gave me all of these chores and nothing to your two other children because I was that dirty word we never spoke. The word we pretended didn’t exist, except when I wrote my new name. I was a stepchild. And not even a real stepchild, because you had never formally adopted me. I was the fatherless child.

Over time, I found my own way to cope with the stress of our new life. With the silence at school and the screaming fights you and Mom had each night (often over me and your strictness toward me) as you drained bottle after bottle into your glasses. Because every morning, as I stood in front of the metal sink, brimming with a kitchen’s worth of dishes, I found relief in a bottle too. My reward to myself after finishing all those dishes and rinsing the suds clean was in every one of the wine bottles and beer cans you and Mom had left half-empty on the counter. As C and J ate their breakfasts at the counter behind me, I tipped each bottle up into the air and let the remaining alcohol glug out the top, straight down the drain. One after another after another after another. Every single morning.

I can still feel it today, the relief that welled within me as I watched the red wine swirl down into the dark of the drain. I knew you would be furious. I knew Mom would be furious. And I didn’t care.

This went on for a while. Some mornings there were fewer bottles than others. Some mornings there was very little to pour out, just a little sediment in the bottom of the bottle, a little foam from the beer cans. But other mornings it was bottle after bottle, some only a glass or two removed from being full. It didn’t matter. Unless you or Mom had remembered to put the cork back in them, down they went. Down, down, down, filling me up, up, up with every one.

It was Mom who finally exploded about it. Her job hadn’t lasted long, and we’d been doing art shows again, renting a van on the weekends and driving to places like Savannah, Georgia, and St. Simon’s Island. Our relationship had slowly deteriorated, swirled down the drain with our dual unhappiness. I didn’t know how to tell her how lonely and homesick I was, and she didn’t know how to interpret her daughter’s growing inwardness. Somewhere along the way Mom had discovered gin and tonics and menopause, and the two of us broke like a piece of fragile fine china on a concrete floor. The morning she burst into the kitchen, the tail of her robe flying like a cape behind her, was surprising not only for the way she entered—like a tornado about to upend the place—but because after our move Mom started sleeping in every day to recover from the late nights you and her always had. We never saw her until we got home from school. So the morning she burst into the kitchen, already shouting as the door swung open, caught every one of us by true surprise.

We had it out that morning, Dad. You, me, Mom. The three of us just screamed and screamed. And yet, all of that screaming happened, and I don’t think any of us understood each other any more than we had before.

The alcohol was the first straw, Dad, but the night I babysat for Uncle F is what broke us.

It was late in the school year when it happened. Uncle F and Aunt L are both violinists and were playing in the orchestra for The Nutcracker, I believe. It was a school night, and I had a test the next day. I stayed at their house and watched my two little cousins, and at some point, midnight, twelve-thirty-ish, Uncle F dropped me off at home. He apologized for keeping me out so late, and paid me, and that’s when you came storming out of the house through the open garage door.

For some reason I remember the stars. It was so clear that night, so clear and the sky so black. Black as ink overturned out of a bottle, spotted with flecks of stars. I’d never seen you move that way—so, so fast—storming out of the house and straight into Uncle F’s face. I had my books in my hands and my backpack on my shoulder, and I tried to get between you two and tell you that it was okay, that I was okay, but still you screamed at him—

“How dare you bring my daughter home at this hour! How dare you—”

You were upset over me. For me. About me. But not at me. I remember shoving myself between you and Uncle F, shocked by your ferocity to the point that I couldn’t find my breath, and yet also a tiny bit touched. You’d called me your daughter. You were concerned for me. It was sweet. And then you threatened to break Uncle F’s legs.

It wasn’t a threat you meant. Anyone who knew you also knew that this was a catchphrase of sorts, a joke from your childhood growing up in an Italian family with members of the mob. This was old Italian slang bubbling up in you. And I knew you didn’t mean it, but I worried Uncle F wouldn’t understand.

Somewhere in there the neighbors had woken. Lights turned on as you and Uncle F stood nose to nose and shouted at one another. I tried to worm my way between you again, and you said, “Move, Ash,” and you swiped your arm and then I blinked and I was on the ground.

The grit from the driveway stuck to my palms, like bits of coarse-ground cornmeal almost. I looked up at you and wondered if you really would hit Uncle F. Wondered what had happened to make me hit the ground like I had. Had I tripped? Had you pushed me? I remember your arm, and your words, and the slurring of your voice from the alcohol on your breath, and then just the ground, without any in between.

You and Uncle F never fought, physically at least. Uncle F drove away, and so began years and years of utter silence between our families. Uncle F took the borrowed Mercedes back, and we started walking everywhere we needed to go. We emptied our backpacks whenever we went to the grocery store, so that we could fill them up with food for the walk home. We didn’t go back to Uncle F’s lake or take the two-hour drive to the beach. We constricted ourselves to that white brick house and yard. We didn’t need those trees or a tiny car with seat belts to do that. We did it to ourselves.

One day, a furniture catalog for Ethan Allen showed up in the mailbox. It had been delivered to the wrong house, but I took it inside straight to my room. I’d never seen anything like it. I sat on my bed and flipped slowly through the glossy pages one by one. Is this really what people’s houses looked like inside? All these carefully arranged pieces of furniture? Rooms with paneling minus the joint-smoking carvings in the walls? Hardwoods without holes? Couches that weren’t picked up from a pile someone had discarded next to their mailbox, their histories unknown? Mom loved converting other people’s trash into her treasure, but all I ever saw was our poverty. I never could get over it.

The back cover was a single photograph of a chair. Just a chair, nothing more. A purple, plush armchair with smooth, rounded edges and tufted back. I fell in love in an instant. I’d never seen such a gorgeous creation in my entire life. Somehow I convinced myself that a chair like that would mean that life was okay. That we were normal and our house was normal and everything that happened within our walls was normal. Because to have a chair like that in your house, you’d have to be normal. You’d have to be something that looked entirely different than what we were.

I still have that catalog, tucked away somewhere in a box in the attic. I don’t look at it, but I know it’s there. In a way, that’s just like this time in our lives. We don’t talk about it, but it’s there all the same. The day after your fight with Uncle F, you and Mom called me into the kitchen and you told me that you hadn’t pushed me that night. I must have fallen. You would never push me, you said. You loved me.

I listened to you talk, with Mom hovering so close by, and I thought about what had happened that night under that impenetrably dark sky. I don’t know, still to this day, whether you pushed me that night or not. And honestly, Dad, you were so drunk that I don’t know if you would have known either. But I know that you meant what you said the next day. You loved me, and you would never, knowingly, hurt me.

I have spent an immeasurable amount of time since that day trying to remember what exactly happened in the moment that I went from standing between you to lying on the ground. I want to remember it, like I remember everything else about that night. But I can’t. Whatever happened is gone, buried somewhere deep and inaccessible. I have wondered what it would change if I remembered the event in its entirety. Now the question is null and void, because you don’t remember this event at all. It’s been washed clean by the stroke, and with it, I’ve been given a permission of sorts to make the night whatever I need it to be, for myself.

So this is what I’ve decided, Dad.

I have decided that this was a dark night. It was a night in which things happened that I don’t fully understand. A night in which we changed the course of our lives in Columbia. It was a night in which you hurt me in the same breath that you admitted truths you otherwise wouldn’t speak. And in doing so, you gave me something to cling to.

When I think about these years now, Dad, I want so badly to reach my hands down into this clay we call our lives and pluck out all the bits of brokenness that stab and scratch us. I want to mold us into something with smooth, rounded edges. Something with soft colors and a voice that has no cause for screaming. Something that loves without need for forgiveness. Something that looks entirely different than what we are.

But this isn’t possible. I know this now. You must love all the roughness, all the tears and wrinkles and abnormalities, the muddled history that you don’t understand or even know, because this is what makes us who we are. And even though I knew that then, Dad, I didn’t want to hear it. I wanted to stare at the gentle curve of that purple chair, let slip the confusion in my mind over nights and mornings I didn’t understand, and dream.

Love,

Ash

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Dear Dad // No. 24

Dear Dad,

It’s cold here now, and where you are too. The air shivers and frost coats the kale sprouting from a pot in my backyard. Another year has begun, and when we talk, you are happy.

This time last year, you had trouble remembering my name. Each time I called I reintroduced myself, and you said, “Oh, yes, Ashley. Yes.” Your voice was soft with disuse. Now you sound just as I remember you, as if the stroke never happened. You are moving on, while the rest of us remember.

I picked up a book recently without realizing the subject matter, only that it was published by an editor whose opinion I value. In the opening pages, the main character, an older man, has a stroke and wakes with no memories of his previous life. I almost put it down. I did, in fact, put the book down in my lap and stared at it for a long while, wondering if I wanted to keep reading. But the writing was very good, and having lived this with you, I was curious how the author had portrayed this journey.

At one point the man says that his memory is like a faucet. There are days when the trickle of knowledge is swift, bursting through some invisible barrier like water from a broken dam. And there are days when it’s slow, just a drop or two. I thought this was very apt. Some days you remember we had two dogs and lived in California and a whole host of factual information. Other days you ask me if I’m married and have children and you speak my name slowly, coaxing only abstract impressions forward through an unseen veil.

I want to ask you things while there is still time. Yet lately, you want to do all the talking. When I call (or you call me!), our conversations consist mostly of me listening to you rush through your words so quickly I have trouble discerning them. It’s as if you’ve been storing it up for a winter day, and now that day is here and out it rushes, before the tap freezes up. I let you talk without interruption, partially because I like to hear you so excited and partially because I must be an incredibly active listener to ferret out what you’re trying to convey. The conversation concludes without my saying much at all. You end up slightly winded, your words fumbling as your brain grows tired. I tell you I love you and you say, “Oh, I love you too, dear. Take care, take care.”

I’ve been struggling with what to tell you next in these stories we’re sharing. Do I tell you about how we left California and never returned? How much everything changed after we left? About how the I-Ching warned us not to and we did it anyway, defying it for the first and only time that I can remember? I think I’m struggling because I’ve liked revisiting California in my mind. Because I’m not yet ready to be done with the sunshine and warmth. The rhythm that our lives took on when we settled into our second home there, on a cul-de-sac not far from my middle school.

I could tell you about how your younger brother, F, and his wife, R, took us to Disneyland once, giving you and Mom a very rare day to yourselves. C and J were young; I was in eighth grade. I felt like I was five again. We spent the whole day going from ride to ride, eating whatever we wanted. It was so utterly indulgent, the spectacle of it all. J and I rode Space Mountain together, and I can still remember the feeling of his little body pressed against mine as the ride roared through the darkness. We were both hovering on the edge of sheer terror and delight, screaming and laughing in the same breath. I think at one point J yelped to me that we were going to float away, right into those neon lights swirling in the air around us. It was heady and fantastical.

I could tell you of the time you took C, J and me to a park. We never went to parks; we went to the beach or the pool a family friend had in his neighborhood and gave us the key to. I remember that it was beautiful outside, and that the park was filled with trees so tall I could barely see the tops when I craned back my head. There was a long brick wall that ran around the circumference, and in a moment of daring, I climbed atop it and pretended I was a tightrope walker. One foot in front of the other, arms out wide. You called to me that I should get down, as if you were giving me a suggestion. “You keep doing that,” you called out, “and you’re gonna fall.” You didn’t order me to get down; you just conveyed what would happen if I didn’t. So I kept going. And I fell. I nursed my skinned knee all the way back to the house, but it was your “I told you so” that bothered me the most.

I could tell you of the time you slept on the bottom bunk instead of C, who must have been sick and sleeping with Mom (I can’t remember, and my childhood diary omits this detail). The bunk beds C and I shared had cardboard under the mattresses, a fact I never once questioned until my husband, B, pointed it out when we were in high school. He couldn’t believe C, J and I had spent our entire lives sleeping on mattresses supported by single sheets of cardboard resting on a center wooden slat. C and I shrugged. What else would beds be made of? Besides, the cardboard had its advantages. We liked to lie together on the bottom bunk and rest our feet on it, to test how high we could raise the mattress above by straightening our knees and pressing upward with all our might.

Over the years, the cardboard became soft, and it crinkled when I moved. The night you slept with me was so warm I couldn’t get comfortable. I kept flopping from side to side, not thinking anything about the mattress and the cardboard until you shrieked, “Jeez Louise, Ash! Stay still already.”

A few hours later, you woke to find me standing atop my chest-of-drawers, turning all my dolls backward on the shelves on the walls. I hated to have them stare at me at night, unblinking eyes piercing through the darkness. The dolls found me in my dreams, and always in horrible, violent ways. Cutting and stabbing and chasing me. So whenever I woke from one of these dreams, I climbed down the bunk bed and turned the dolls to face the other way. C never woke whenever I did this, but you did, that night.

You told Mom sometime later that I’d been sleepwalking, which she filled out on my paperwork for a weeklong sleep-away camp I attended that year. The camp counselor announced unceremoniously (and exceptionally loudly, in my opinion) in front of the entire population of girls in my class that I could not sleep on the top bunk because my parents had marked on my forms that I was a habitual sleepwalker. Every eye in that bungalow turned on me in the same moment. I stood with my bare feet on the chilly cement floor as my mind rushed back to my bedroom and the night you’d found me perched atop the furniture, and the entire sequence of events played out in my mind: me flopping on the mattress, you yelling for me be still, me climbing down from the top bunk to rid myself of those horrendous eyes, your report to Mom and the fateful conclusion that your eldest daughter must spend her nights reorganizing her dolls while the rest of the world slumbered.

What could be worse? Being branded a sleepwalker and publicly denied access to the top bunk, or admitting in front of a room full of popular girls whose friendship I desired more than a lifetime’s supply of mint chocolate chip ice cream that I, Ashley of Two Last Names, was afraid of dolls with beady glass eyes?

I spent the rest of middle school with a reputation as a habitual sleepwalker, all because of the night you and I shared a room together.

Now, all these years later, I laugh at this story. I think of the dolls and the sound of the cardboard groaning and your voice as you called up to me from below. How ironic it was that I should be known at school as the girl who couldn’t sleep on the top bunk only to go home at night and climb up the wooden slats to my little perch above the world.

I didn’t want to leave California, Dad, and neither did you. You threw your pennies and read your I-Ching passage, and we all knew what you thought of the plan. Moving east wasn’t what you wanted to do, but you did it, when the time came. The art shows were drying up, slowly but surely. Life was shifting, as it always does when we’re too busy looking the other way.

This move happened differently than before. We rented out half the space in an 18-wheeler truck and had it delivered to the house, where it clogged up the entire driveway and stuck out into the cul-de-sac more than was polite. It took us days to jigsaw puzzle our belongings into it. We packed it ourselves, with the occasional help of a neighbor. Finally we got everything in, right up to the line we weren’t allowed to cross. Another family had rented out the other half of the truck. Their stuff would be delivered before ours; they weren’t moving as far away as we were.

Mom and her brother, F, arranged for our plane tickets, which I think F bought for us if I remember correctly. He had offered Mom a job working at his business in Columbia, SC, and that’s why we were leaving San Diego as far as I understood it. The need for a steady paycheck had finally won out. We sold our van, the one without back seats, to a Hispanic man. When I asked you what he was going to do without back seats, you told me you didn’t know and it didn’t really matter. It wasn’t our van anymore.

On the day it was determined that I should withdraw from school, you dropped me off at the office a little while after classes had started. I can’t remember why it was determined that I would check myself out of school or why you or Mom didn’t need to be there with me. But whatever the reason, this was the mission I’d been deposited at my school one morning to fulfill. I would’ve been in PE at that time normally. I was fourteen years old, closing in on fifteen. I was in the ninth grade, my first year of high school. It was the end of October. We’d lived in San Diego for a little over two years this time around, give or take. Just long enough to get settled again.

The receptionist at the front office gave me a form and told me I’d have to walk around to all my classes and have my teachers sign it. I pressed it to my chest and asked if there was any other way, could they sign it some other time? Walking into every one of my classrooms during hours in which I was clearly not supposed to be present in that class was just about the most horrendous thing I could imagine. But the receptionist told me that this was what had to happen. So I did it.

It happened the same way each time. I pulled open the door and every eye looked up in unison, the teacher’s voice hanging mid-sentence, her thought interrupted by my sudden, unexplained, appearance. Some of the classes were occupied by older students, though it made little difference. Everyone watched with rapt, torturous attention as I hurried, head down, cheeks red as the scorching surface of the sun, past their desks to where the teacher stood. The room fell achingly silent as I handed her the single sheet of paper and explained in the quietest voice I could muster that my family was moving and could she please sign this paper so that the school could release my records when I re-enrolled somewhere else? I felt sure that my classmates were listening and heard every word, and even surer that they were not the least bit surprised. A good portion of my previous middle school in LA thought I was currently living in Oregon. Half of these students knew me from our first round of life in San Diego, half from the present. I was the girl who came and went. Now I was going again.

Humiliation complete, I left, bursting into the still morning air and gasping down breath after breath before walking to the next classroom to do it all again. All the time I wondered if this was how these things were normally done. If you and Mom were busy doing this at C and J’s elementary school too. If we were all simultaneously withdrawing ourselves from the lives we’d built since returning from LA.

I went to my art class last. By then I’d learned, after seven previous classrooms, that it was marginally easier to do this when I knew the classroom would be filled with students in my own grade level. At least I knew the kids who’d be staring at me. But this class was a year older, sophomores. Not upperclassmen, but older and wiser than my freshman self. A quiet art classroom is not a normal occurrence, in my experience, but when I opened that door and stepped into the room, an instantaneous hush fell over the entire place. I did what I’d come to do, head bowed so low my chin cut into my chest, and headed for the door.

That’s when I heard it. A little giggle, embarrassed almost. I looked up. One of my hands held the paper I’d just completed, setting me free from schooling in the state of California, and the other gripped the doorknob. Two boys were laughing, watching me. I recognized one of them immediately. He was our neighbor from our first house in San Diego, a boy a year older than me. He and I had spent summers riding our bikes in never-ending circles around the cul-de-sac because I wasn’t allowed to bike up and down the main street. We walked to the 7Eleven for red Slurpees and watched Blue Angels fighter jets do drills through the hot summer sky. I hadn’t seen him in ages. As our eyes met, he blushed and slapped the chest of the boy next to him.

“This guy,” he said. “This guy thinks you’re pretty.”

My eyes slid over to the boy he’d slapped. I’d never seen him before. He had kind eyes though, and brown hair, and wore a letter jacket. That’s all I could tell from the half-second glance I allowed myself before the heat of everyone’s gazes tore through me. An entire classroom now waited to see what I’d say to such a public pronouncement from a boy I clearly didn’t know.

And as I looked at this boy, I felt a kind of sadness wash through me, like I was saying goodbye to a future I’d never get to experience. Perhaps this would have never happened. Perhaps this boy and I wouldn’t have ever met if I’d never been in this room on this morning, un-enrolling myself from a school I’d grown fond of. But perhaps it would have. As our eyes met over the heads of the other students, I saw what might have been: the proms and the dances, the football games and trips to Dog Run beach together. To first dates I didn’t feel quite ready to go on, but was curious about nonetheless. To having a boy acknowledge me for the first time in my life, only to have to say goodbye to him in the same breath in which we’d met. Perhaps all of this, and perhaps none too.

I blinked and clasped the door, pushed it open, and smiled at him. And as I walked down the hall, I heard the whoops and hollers of the boys (“She smiled! She smiled!”) and I wondered if he would try to find out who I was, only to learn that I was already gone.

Signatures procured, I went back to the office and dialed home. I leaned against the counter as I waited for you to answer so I could tell you I was done dismantling the pieces of my life I’d so diligently assembled over the past few years. My old Spanish teacher walked past, did a double take when he saw me, and stopped to inquire why I was standing in the office at such an hour. Was I okay?

I explained that I was withdrawing myself from school because my family was moving, to which he nodded a few times, with genuine understanding in his eyes, and said “Good luck” as he shook my hand. I watched him walk away, confused about this. Did we need luck? Is that why we were moving again, to somewhere so far away and that I couldn’t picture? Maybe that’s what we were always searching for and why we couldn’t find it. Maybe luck only finds you when you stop chasing it, and we were forever, forever chasing.

You picked me up at the front of the school right where you’d dropped me off, and we left together, just as we’d arrived. A few days later, we left California for good. All told, we lived there for six years. It was the longest I ever lived in a single state in my entire childhood. In fact, it would take me until I was 29 to break that record.

California seems like ages ago now, distanced by time and space. It was a tough life. We didn’t have a lot. We lived show to show, week to week, painting sale to painting sale. We hit our heads and cried and fought and screamed so loud it’s a wonder we didn’t wake the neighbors (or maybe we did). We sold your work to Rodney Dangerfield and the VP of Disney and some people who had something to do with a movie called Total Recall that I was too young to care about. We danced in the living room when the Hollywood Studio Gallery bought some of your paintings and put them on set designs for shows like Murder, She Wrote and Brotherly Love and Sister, Sister. I took you to school with me and you showed slides of your work to my class, and I watched you flip through the projections one at a time as you droned on in your prized professorial voice about art history facts too archaic for my classmates to care, and still I burst with pride because, look, look at how smart my dad is! Look at what he does with his hands and his eyes and his mind! He makes these beautiful things, and then we sell them, and that alone is how we live in this world. Through your talent and Mom’s tenacity, we survived for years in this place that was bathed in perpetual sunshine. It didn’t matter how many times we picked up and left or who dismantled what. When it came down to it, we did it all together, as a family. We were forever chasing something we couldn’t find—luck, recognition, prosperity, adventure, love—and now it was time to chase it somewhere new.

So now, I’m left wondering how to encapsulate a place that I know I’ve built up inside my head over the years. I’ve opened the tap and let it sometimes trickle and sometimes flow, and I worry that somewhere in there I’ve forgotten things. I worry that there are so many Perhapses that I’ve left out, so many moments you deserve to know and that my forgetfulness is denying you. I can only promise that if I have done this, I’ll come back to them again. We can visit this place together as often as we like, and we can think about the good things and the interesting things and all the Perhapses that Might Have Been. We’ll give new meaning to old memories, and new meaning to old words. We’ll open the tap and let the past flow forth. And when it slows to just a trickle, we’ll let it be, knowing that soon there will be new goodness flowing forth, new Perhapses to discover, and more memories to share anew.

Love,

Ash

Dear Dad // No. 23

Dear Dad,

I’ll admit right away that I didn’t think you’d call. But you did. You always defy my expectations, and for the most part I am always happy that you do.

I was sitting on the floor of our living room, catching a few minutes break from cooking Thanksgiving dinner as an episode of Modern Family played on the TV, when my phone buzzed. I took it from my pocket and looked at the screen. DAD, it read. I let out a little gasp of joy and proclaimed to the room, “It’s my dad!” before jumping to my feet and heading to another room.

You were so excited that you barely let me speak. You went on and on about how thrilled you were to have a telephone again, how your friends had taught you how to call me using the speed dial setting I’d preprogrammed into the phone, how wonderful it was and what a help I’d been. I finally asked where you were, to which you said without hesitation, “Oh I’m at the bar.”

“Oh, okay,” I said. What else was there? I was immediately saddened that it was Thanksgiving Day and there you were in a bar (and of course I pictured some sad, forlorn character from a movie, sitting under dim lights as wafts of cigarette smoke float through rays of sunlight pouring through dusty windows). But then I became torn. Had you not been at the bar, you wouldn’t have enlisted the help you needed to call me.

And so on that day, Dad, I was thankful for once that you were “at the bar.”

You called me again on Saturday, just to chat. It took four tries before you realized you were actually dialing me and that I was actually there, but then you got the hang of it. You’d called to ask me if we’d ever had a dog.

“Yes, yes!” I practically shrieked. Not only were you calling me, but you remembered something too? Could this holiday actually be this special? And so it was that I spent a half hour or so on Saturday, November 29, 2014, telling you about Hope.

She came to us when I was in the eighth grade and we lived in our second house in San Diego, the one with the sunny kitchen and no living room. I’d begged for a dog for ages, often sneaking away from our booth at art shows to spend my breaks with a potter who traveled with her splendidly large Great Pyrenese, a dog who looked more like a walking oversized cotton ball than anything else. Up until this point we’d always been a cat family—cats and fish. You liked to keep aquariums, which you believed one should do in their most natural state, which really meant that you cleaned it only after the water grew so murky you couldn’t see anything. You’d taped a razor blade to the end of a scrap of wood, and once the tank got to its greenest, murkiest point, you’d scrape the razor blade down the side of the glass, peeling off sheets of slime that disappeared into the water filter. It always felt a little like you were unearthing something new, as if we’d traded our old aquarium for a new one—oh, look! Fish!

But as much as I begged for a dog, we never got one. They were expensive and took more work to care for than our cats. But then one day I came home from school and there she was, a beautiful red head sitting in our kitchen. I remember that it was gorgeous outside that day, and C, J and I took a tennis ball and went out front into the cul-de-sac and threw the ball for her. She never wanted to give it back to us, so each time she returned we had to wrestle it from her mouth, which somehow only made us love her even more. She was a 90-pound Golden Retriever named Hope, and she was just what we needed.

At night we fought over who she would sleep with. C and J shared a room at this point, C on the bottom bunk and J on the top. They’d beg you to make Hope stay in their room, and you’d command her to lie down with C in her bed. Like the good dog that she was, Hope obliged. And after a few minutes, when you’d walked back to the kitchen to sip your wine and entertain Mom with your singing and philosophical musings while she cooked, Hope would hop out of C’s bed and make her way down the hall to my room instead. She’d curl up beside me atop the comforter and shimmy her velvety head onto my pillow. I’d press my forehead into her fur and breathe in the smell of her—soft and warm and comforting, with a tinge of earthiness. Then I’d roll onto my back and watch the moon crest through the night sky as Hope snored softly beside me.

And so it was that Hope became my dog. She was our family dog, of course, but there was something about the two of us. We gave each other our hearts, through and through. There was an understanding between us, a tugging closer of souls who recognize something within each other that they’d been searching for, like I’d imagined falling in love felt like. Hope waited for me at the front door every day, so that when I turned the corner as I walked home from school, I could see her there, behind the screen door. At night I took her for walks around the neighborhood, often after dark, often the tiniest bit scared because I hated the dark and the way it never failed to make me think of my dreams, the dark kitchen and the hole I always fell down.

You even remembered the second dog we adopted, a black-and-white shih tzu named Oreo a family friend gave us one day when I was in high school. Oreo wasn’t house-trained—or anything trained, really—and we hadn’t had to train Hope at all. She’d come to us with that part of dog ownership already completed. But we didn’t really end up training Oreo; Hope did it for us. And Oreo became Mom’s dog, the one who she snuggled with at night on her side of the bed. I used to whisper all my secrets to Hope, knowing she would never tell, and I wondered sometimes if Mom did the same to Oreo. Mom and I both found what we needed in those two dogs. Love and devotion and companionship, no matter what happened. These dogs didn’t know about Disneyland or wine or gin and tonics and beer. They only knew the soft bends of our pillows and the way we held them when we needed to feel the warmth of something we loved near our hearts.

You and I only talked about the good things about Hope and Oreo, Dad. You mentioned at the end of the conversation, briefly, that they’d died, and then you moved on. It had never been that easy for me though. Hope’s death was one of the hardest moments of my life. The way the cancer came, fast and sudden, eating clean through her wrist bone on her front right paw, so that when the vet flipped on the light to show me the X-ray I burst into horrible sobs right there in the office. There was nothing there, Dad. Just an absence where there should have been bone connecting her leg to her paw. On the day that it ended, I couldn’t get Hope to walk through the door into the vet’s office. I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that she knew what she was there for. The fact that she refused to walk through the door made my heart shatter. She wasn’t ready, but her body was. I was sobbing already and couldn’t get her to move, and so you came back out and helped me carry her in. There were some people there, paying for something at the register, and their eyes filled with pity when they saw her, which only broke my heart even further. I didn’t want people to see my glorious dog this way. I wanted them to see how beautiful she once was, red hair rippling as she ran, the soft velvet of her ears and her smile when she’d found a long-lost tennis ball.

When the vet came into the room, she asked if I was ready. “No, yes, no,” I said. One is never ready for things like that. One knows it’s the right thing to do, that your beloved pet is in constant, excruciating pain that she tries to hide from you, but one cannot make this decision with any ease. I’d prayed for two weeks that she would fade away, comfortable and calm, in her sleep. But that didn’t happen, and here we were, making a decision we didn’t want to make.

When she fell to sleep, just as the vet said she would, I burst into renewed tears and reached to touch her, but stopped. Her body was there, but it was lifeless, and there was something intensely missing about it.

“Where did she go?” I asked aloud without thinking.

“Oh, Ash,” Mom sobbed, wrapping her arms around me.

I cried for a long time, there in front of her. You left the room. I don’t think you could see me like that. My then-boyfriend (now husband), B, buried Hope at his parents house at the foot of the woods, wrapped in her favorite Little Mermaid sleeping bag, which was once my sleeping bag. I had gifted it to her when we adopted her, because she loved it so. She used to carry it around the house, moving it from room to room with her. There is a little plaque at her grave, a gift from B’s parents. It says Hope on it, and a little bird adorns the edge.

To this day, I haven’t forgiven myself for Hope’s death. It’s as if there should’ve been more I could’ve done to save her. Anything I could’ve done to save her. When I was young, I’d told myself that this moment wouldn’t happen, that Hope would “live forever” because that’s what she had to do, for me. I needed her to do that, and that day at the vet’s office, she tried to fulfill that wish for me. She tried to resist, to live forever. And yet, life doesn’t work like that.

There are some statements we make because it feels like pronouncing them into the air, out loud, wills them into Truth. Where there was nothing before, there are now our words, creating the reality we seek.

Things will get better.

The universe will provide.

It is only one night.

He loves me the same as he loves them.

This is my name too.

Hope will live forever.

But we didn’t talk about these things on the phone that day. We talked only of the good. Of the drives we took to the beach, finally joining the other beach walkers with their dogs. Hope racing down the hard, wet sand, her red hair shining in the sunlight, and the other dogs racing with her. They ran into the surf and bounded through the waves. We built sand castles that she walked through, knocking over the turrets and licking our faces, salty with sea water, as we protested. We lay on the floor in the back of the van as we drove home, her fur drying in spindly curls until we got home and gave her a bath with the hose in the front yard, still in our bathing suits.

We talked of how she used to open her presents at Christmas, tearing the wrapping paper off with her teeth. Of how she once opened one of C’s presents by accident, she was so excited to receive her gift. How she and Oreo would lay on the floor together and lick each others faces before snuggling together, the best of friends. We talked of what good dogs we’d had, because it was so very true. And on that wonderful Thanksgiving Day, we shared memories together once again, and gave thanks to a cell phone, spanning the long miles between us, and tugging them closer together for one special afternoon. We gave thanks, to each other and to memories, the thing that we share together.

Perhaps this is how things live forever, Dad. You, me, Mom, C, and J. Hope and Oreo. This is how we live on, even past our times, through the sharing of memories with words. Pronouncing them into the air, out loud, and willing them into Truth. Where there was nothing before, there are now our words, living forever onward, pulling us from the fragile wisps of memory into something real.

Love,

Ash

Dear Dad // No. 22

Dear Dad,

Three weeks ago, you moved out. Found yourself an apartment and moved your meager belongings into it, leaving GC behind. When I called her home, she informed me that you were gone. You have no phone, and thus, I have no way to reach you. We have not talked for three weeks.

I’d be lying if I said this doesn’t terrify me. That you being on your own isn’t a frightening thought, and that I’m not waiting for the time that my phone buzzes and I don’t recognize the number and it’s what I fear on the other end of the line. I feel this reality bearing down on me like a train I am powerless to stop. One day, I’m going to be fatherless, and I don’t know how to be that girl.

But I also try so, so, so hard to respect this decision you have made. You do not remember how to read, you don’t remember how to write, and you cannot cook for yourself. These are all skills that I believe are essential to living successfully on your own. And yet, you set off to do such a thing anyway.

Is this bravery, Dad? Stupidity? Stubbornness? Is it all of this in one? I don’t know what it is, but I know that your decision was not mine to make. You told me recently that you only have so much time left, and you want to spend it doing what you were put on God’s earth to do: You want to paint. You want to grow as an artist. And you are brave enough to do this no matter what it requires of you. As you constantly told me during my childhood, God would provide. No need to worry.

But still I did. I always worried. I never lost that ability, even as you continue to show me how fearless you are.

For some reason, I find myself fretting over your food situation most of all. What will you eat? Maybe it’s because Thanksgiving is right around the corner, maybe it’s because some of my earliest memories are of our dinnertime traditions, but these thoughts occupy my mind. I want to ask if you remember them, but then there is no phone to call. So just I think about it, and imagine telling you.

When I was very young, and it was just you and me and Mom, you and I ate dinner together. I suppose Mom was at her waitressing job; I can’t remember. But you and I would sit next to the fireplace with our plates on the mantle and eat together. If I finished everything, we’d split a York peppermint patty. I was wild about peppermints, especially Yorks. This was all the motivation I needed to clear my plate.

I don’t remember the tradition continuing once J came along. It was a fleeting thing that was only ours. I’ve been tempted lately to mail you a big box of Yorks with nothing else in it. I imagined you opening it and the memory of these dinners bursting back to life inside you. But then I don’t. I think I’m afraid that you’ll open the box and nothing will happen, and how would I survive such a thing?

When I was older and we became a family of five, dinners were different. Mom often cooked two meals, one for the kids and one for the adults. J was exceedingly picky, something Mom blamed on you because at the time J was introduced to solid foods, Mom worked two jobs and you were in charge at home. You fed J what you knew how to make: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (creamy peanut butter and grape jelly only), spaghetti (red sauce, no meat), chicken nuggets, and pizza. Until J was in middle school, he survived solely off of these meals alone, without exaggeration. C grew up eating much of the same, simply out of habit and ease. I was the odd one. Not as young as my siblings yet not an adult, I flitted between the “grow-up” dinners Mom would make for you and the “kid” dinners she made for C and J, depending on which meal had more abundance. Some nights I pitied C and J for missing out on Mom’s white sauce pasta or three-bean soup. Other nights I burned with jealousy, stuck eating a meal I had no interest in because there wasn’t enough of the “kid” meal to feed three.

We never ate together either, except for holidays. Most nights, C, J and I took our plates into the living room (or later, when we didn’t have a living room, into the master bedroom, where the TV was) so that we could entertain ourselves with reruns of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air while we ate. Unless we were helping assemble work for the coming art show, we weren’t supposed to be in the kitchen, under Mom’s feet and interrupting your philosophical musings with our “peanut gallery” comments. Children were meant to be seen, not heard.

I guess it’s no surprise that by the time I reached high school I ate out with my friends as much as possible. Sitting in the red booths of a Bojangles’ with my friends around me, I found what I didn’t have at home. We passed plates of fries and blueberry biscuits from person to person, laughing and joking and teasing. None of us had any money; we were high schoolers. And yet, that didn’t stop us from pooling our funds, helping one another find another dollar and afford a meal. Looking back on it, we were all running. Running from something or to something. We pieced it together in the time we had, found a sense of camaraderie and home that we didn’t have in quite the same way within the four walls where we rested our heads. To put it simply, we broke bread together.

You hated when I ate out. You lectured me as soon as I walked through the door, asking me what I’d eaten and telling me how bad it was for me. You didn’t believe in eating out. Food fed the soul, and you couldn’t do that if you weren’t making the food yourself. In fact, it wasn’t until I left for college that you and Mom started taking C and J out to dinner some nights. Before that, I could count the number of times we’d been to a restaurant as a family on one hand.

All of this makes me wonder what you will do now, Dad. What will you eat? Will you give up your prejudice against restaurant food in order to survive? Is living on your own worth such a thing, that you would change how you have felt about something for as long as I have known you?

Or perhaps you simply don’t remember. Perhaps this opinion you’d long held is gone now, and you’re starting fresh. Perhaps you have found the bravery to do this, to move out on your own and live how you want to live, not in spite of these contradictions but because, to you, they no longer exist. Your mind has lost them, one more thing swirling in the abyss.

So now, I carry them along with me, in my thoughts of you. I fret over your situation the same way I fretted over each of our moves. My old habit was to lie in bed at night and conjure stories of people breaking into the house in search of something. I imagined as many scenarios as I could, and then I solved them. What if the robbers came in through the kitchen door? How would we get out? Would there be enough time to race down the hall to C’s room and back to your and Mom’s room, grabbing J on the way? Where could we hide if we couldn’t reach the back door? In the attic! The bad guys would never find us in the attic, I always thought. Every time we moved, this is how I spent the first night at our new house. I kept myself up for hours, scheming and imagining and working it all out, developing escape plans that I committed to memory, preparing for when some unknown Bad struck. Someone had to be prepared, I thought. Someone needed to think about all the things that I didn’t think anyone else thought about. So I did.

And yet here I am now, unable to devise an escape plan for your current situation. It’s not mine to create. This is your journey, and I can’t write it for you. I cannot seek out the hidden doors and fling them open, spilling light onto the encroaching darkness. I can only fill a cardboard box with things I think you need (a cell phone, Dad, is at the top of that list, preprogrammed with our phone numbers on it). I will mail it to GC and hope that she gives it to you. I will wait with as much patience as I can manage for you to call me, and only then will I be able to fret a little less. It won’t be easy, but it will have to do.

After all, this is part of love too. Acceptance of a decision that is not mine to make, and is not made in the way I would make it. I must find it within myself to live without an escape plan, without knowing how this will turn out, without knowing what in the world you will eat. I can only send you this package and hope that you receive it. Hope that when you open it, you will call me, and I can say hello and listen as you say, “Oh, hello, Ash,” as the sound of  my voice pulls your newly formed memory of who I am from the crevice where I live inside you. I can only ask what you need on this journey you’ve embarked upon, and open my hands to help.

Love,

Ash

Dear Dad // No. 21

Rally sons of Notre Dame: Sing her glory and sound her fame,
Raise her Gold and Blue
And cheer with voices true:
Rah, rah, for Notre Dame
We will fight in ev-ry game,
Strong of heart and true to her name
We will ne’er forget her
And will cheer her ever
Loyal to Notre Dame.

Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame,
Wake up the echoes cheering her name.
Send the volley cheer on high,
Shake down the thunder from the sky.
What though the odds be great or small,
Old Notre Dame will win over all,
While her loyal sons are marching
Onward to victory.

Dear Dad,

You remember something! One year and 80 days after your stroke erased every memory you had, you finally remember something with certainty. And that something is the last thing I would’ve ever expected.

You remember college football. And not just college football. You remember Notre Dame. You remember that you have cheered for the Irish since you were a child, your deeply Catholic Italian family latching onto the prestige of a Catholic institution as it tried to set down roots on American soil. (Your grandmother was a first-generation immigrant fresh off the boat from Naples, a feisty woman who once tossed a potful of boiling pasta water out the window of her Bronx apartment onto the passing head of a Portuguese man who’d been sleeping around on her sister. As the shocked, scalded man leaned back and stared at the heavens, your grandmother leaned forward, straight out the window, and shouted down every Italian curse word in existence. Smartly, the man high-tailed it down the sidewalk and never returned.)

You remember who the quarterback is, though pronouncing his name befuddles you. You remember that Lou Holtz was once the coach, and that he used to grab players who towered over him and yank them down level with his beady eyes, hidden behind thick glasses, to scream at them before slapping their behinds and sending them back onto the field to “win one for the Gipper.” You know that the school has been involved in academic scandal, something that filled you with surprise and shame and confusion. You remember the song…

Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame, wake up the echoes cheering her name…

But you do not remember you and me and football. You do not remember that for the longest time it was all that we shared. That I adopted your love of that school, and that together we would remember the song every week when I called to tell you what channel to tune your television to for the game. You depended on me for this, to tell you the channel and figure out the time, because you were ever confused by shifty time zones.

After your stroke, I couldn’t watch anymore. My husband, B, tuned in for me. He would find me upstairs in the bedroom after the game, and tell me how it went. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I just couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t find it within myself to cheer for them when you were 15 hours away, lying in a hospital bed on a respirator, fighting for your life. I wanted them to win, but I couldn’t watch. Their win was your win, their loss, your loss, and there just wasn’t room in my heart for all of that winning and losing and fighting.

But this season is different. You’re here, and you’re cheering, and so I cheer again too now. We talk on Fridays about how we think we’ll do on Saturday (it’s always “we,” Dad, even though we aren’t the ones donning those gold-painted helmets). When we lost to Florida State a few weeks ago, I called you to commiserate.

“We played so well, Dad,” I said. “We were really in it until the very end.”

“Yeah, but we lost,” you replied. “We still lost.”

You were really sad about that one, Dad. And it kind of surprised me, how much the loss meant to you. I wasn’t with you when you watched it, but I could tell from the sound of your voice that you’d needed that win, wanted it, and cheered for it.

Wake up the echoes cheering her name…

I would be lying if I said that it didn’t make me sad that you don’t remember that we watched games together. That we cheered and commiserated the Irish together. But more than anything, I’m happy that you have something back. And so I watch again, and I cheer again, and I find myself wanting every win a little more than I did in the past. Before, I wanted it for the win. Now I want it for you.

I used to think that one day we’d get to visit the campus together. I was going to buy Mom a house and take you to a game. Those were my goals. Then I grew up and realized that every ounce of cash I have leftover after bills goes to student loans, and those dreams drifted into the haze of adulthood. I don’t know if we’ll ever see campus, Dad, but I know that every Saturday we travel there together in one small way, shrinking the hundreds of miles that separate us until we meet under the outstretched arms of Touchdown Jesus and look up at the scoreboard together. We stomp our feet on the stands and sing into the crisp fall air, and we cheer so loud…

Send the volley cheer on high…

And that is the great thing about college football. It has given you and me something to cheer for again.

Every time we chat now, we talk about our Irish, and in our talking, we wake the echoes of your mind just a little more, golden layer by golden layer. We cheer together for the future and never forget the past, strong of heart and true to our name. The journey may be long and we must fight for every inch that we earn, but onward we’ll march. Onward to victory.

I’ll see you on Saturday, Dad.

Love you,

Ash

Dear Dad // No. 20

Dear Dad,

The last time we spoke, it didn’t go well. I asked how you were and you launched into a diatribe about how horrible everything was, about how you’d been to see an apartment on your own. It was four floors up with no elevator and the only bathroom was on the bottom floor. The hall didn’t have any lights, so at night you’d have to walk up and down four flights in the dark. It wasn’t great, but you told the guy you’d take it. Then the super came out, took one look at you, and refused.

“I can’t let an old man walk up four flights of stairs in the dark,” he said, as if you weren’t standing right there.

You were furious. Still furious the next day, when I called you. What right did they have to decide what was suitable for you? you asked. It was an affront to your dignity, the fact that they didn’t think you could do fine on your own. What did they know about it? Then you said something I never expected.

“Might as well die.”

You didn’t hear the breath I sucked in. “Dad, don’t say that.”

“What? There’s nothing left. What do I have left to do? Just to die. That’s all.”

They don’t tell you in school what you should say in situations like that, Dad. They don’t teach you what to say to help those you love when they feel this way. I was so stunned I didn’t know how to respond.

The only real lesson I remember learning about death, before I’d experienced loss for myself when my grandmothers passed away in college, was something you told me when I was in middle school. One of the teachers at school passed away suddenly, and a lot of the kids struggled with it. I didn’t know the teacher personally, but some of my friends did, and when they cried at recess, an aching I couldn’t soothe filled me, helplessness knotted with sympathy and frustration at my inability to think of the words they needed to hear.

When I told you about this, you did something I hadn’t expected. You gave me the words. So the next time my friends teared up at recess, I knew what to say, and I told them what you had told me: Look into the sky. Do you see the way the sunlight streams through the clouds in those long beams? Do you know what that means? It means that someone’s soul has been accepted into Heaven.

I think of this, Dad, as I drive down the road and the sky breaks open above me, spilling its sunbeams across the hills. I wonder if you have done what you said on the phone. If yours is the soul being accepted. If you are gone and the sky is telling me so before anyone has had time to dial my number.

There is nothing I can tell you to make you accept that you need help living now, Dad. I’ve tried, and you don’t want to speak to me about it. In this way, you are still the same as you have always been. You think what you think and know what you know, and everyone else is wrong. Plain and simple. I struggle now to find the words that you need, Dad. You don’t have them for me this time. I’m on my own. I watch the light slip through the clouds as I drive and I try to think of what I should say to you when I call.

I want to tell you that life is so hard sometimes. That it gives us struggles we don’t want when we don’t feel ready for them. That even when we have lived a full life, we are not immune to life’s challenges, and that isn’t fair. But it is the way of things, all the same. I want to tell you that this is part of what makes life beautiful. That we struggle together and in that toiling something magical happens. That we find the good in the hardship and in each other, and that makes everything worthwhile.

But I’m afraid you won’t want to hear any of this, Dad. You’re in your rut, and sometimes all someone wants is to wallow for a little bit. To feel sorry for himself and have a good pout and let his tea go cold even though he knows deep down he should go on and drink it. Sometimes we all need a moment like that. To acknowledge the pain head-on.

But there’s a step after that, Dad. That isn’t the end, and you can’t think that it is. There is so much left to do, so much more than dying. You might not know what it is yet, but that’s okay. In time, you will. I know it feels like the clouds are thick and nothing can get through, but that isn’t true. There’s light behind the layers of life’s struggles, and soon enough, it’s going to break free.

Love,
Ash

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