Dear Dad // No. 30 Terrible Things Happened

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.
– Frederick Buechner

Note: Trigger warnings, dear friends. Read with care.

Dear Dad,

I’ve written you three times now, and never posted it here. I can’t. The words are there, and after all these years, I think they’d like to be free, but I’m too afraid for anyone to know them. Mom reads these too. I don’t want her to know. So, I never post them.

But time’s passing now and I think I’ve realized why I won’t post any of them, and why none of them feel quite right. If you’ll allow me to, Dad, I need to use this space to write another letter. A letter to someone else, to a secret I’ve never told anyone about. A letter to my past.

Forgive me.

-Ash

 

***

Dear You,

When I’m 20 years old, you write me an email. It’s been two years since we’ve spoken, since graduating high school and going separate ways. I’d never felt more relief than in that moment. Everyone tossing their caps upwards, the air filled with the swelling chorus of jubilant teenagers free of the torment of high school. We all entered adulthood in what felt like a sudden, aching half of a second. Everything awful that had transpired was in the past. We were adults. We could move on. Or at least, that’s how it felt.

I don’t remember saying goodbye to you. I only remember feeling free. What had happened between us was in the past. I could forget it, and I could forget you. That’s how one heals, isn’t it? Forget, I thought. And that’s what I tried to do.

But two years later, you emailed me.

I’m sorry. Can we be friends again?

***

I met you after my family moved to Columbia in the middle of freshman year. You were bookish and nerdy, quiet and reserved. You seemed to listen when people spoke, and I liked that. I liked that you and I could stand outside before the first bell and debate a topic we disagreed on and come back the next morning to chat about anime and novels because disagreement didn’t have to break our friendship. I liked that you were smart, in all honors classes, and you went to church twice a week and sang in the choir and went on mission trips. You were a Good Boy.

We didn’t start dating until junior year. We’d been friends for a while and I knew you well by then. We got Bo-Berry biscuits at Bojangles and went to the movies. You took me to church with you twice a week. I’d never been to church before. My family was religious, but because we traveled to art shows every weekend, we didn’t attend church. God doesn’t need a floor plan, the saying goes, and I suppose, because of the way we made a living, this applied to us.

So, you took me to church and we did our homework together and you treated me respectfully and kindly and I was happy. I was young and naïve and I’d been kissed, but not really anything else.

To this day it confuses me. How very, very wrong I was about you.

***

The first time it happened, I wasn’t expecting it. It was a very pretty day, with a beautiful blue sky. Why do I remember such a thing? I don’t know, but I do. I remember it was very pretty and clear and normal, and we were on our way to school. Only, we didn’t go to school.

You picked me up from home and we went to a parking lot. I was confused, but I trusted you, and you were a Good Boy, and maybe we just needed to talk about something important before we were surrounded by other students.

But we didn’t talk. In fact, this is what I remember most. More than the sky or the clouds or the emptiness of the parking lot around us. I remember the silence.

I struggled, but it didn’t matter.

I didn’t make a single sound.

***

Afterward, we drove to school and I walked through the halls with my pain etched on my skin. It connected my freckles like lines drawn between points on a map. Here was the first second, and the next, and the third. My dad once told me my freckles were constellations, and I had never been so proud. To walk the earth with the universe dancing on my skin. Now all I saw was a map of pain. How could no one see it as they passed me in the halls?

Where was my voice? I needed to scream.

***

I blamed myself. I excused you from your deeds, and I buried my voice so deeply inside that my howling pain devoured it.

***

It happened again.

***

I was afraid. How could I speak, with your temper the way it was—and where was your temper hiding all these years? How had I never noticed it before?

I couldn’t tell anyone. How could I look at my parents and speak this shame? How could I find the strength to hold the pain they’d feel next to mine when mine was already so overwhelming? How could I live with the disappointment I had brought to them?

I couldn’t. I couldn’t bear their pain and mine. I could only bear mine, and only just.

The sacrifice for holding this secret inside me was my voice.

***

It happened again. I shook my head back and forth—nononononononono—unable to speak the word aloud. But you only held your finger to your lips and whispered softly, gently, “Shhhhhhhh.”

I closed my eyes. I don’t remember any more.

***

It happened so many times I lost count. Never counted. Never wanted to know. It felt endless and endless and when you took me to church and we sat beside each other in the pew I wondered what God thought when your prayers appeared on his doorstep. I wondered how I was supposed to forgive you for this, and what God would think of me if I couldn’t.

***

When it finally ended a few months later and we broke up, I remember the relief, but it was nothing compared to how it felt to graduate high school and get away from you. I needed distance and space to feel safe.

Two years passed. And then, you emailed me.

I’m sorry. Can we be friends again?

***

You were a Good Boy. You were soft-spoken and polite and smart and angry and cruel and controlling and abusive and a thief.

You stole my innocence. My pride in myself. My confidence. My childhood. My body. My voice. You stole my life from me, and it’s taken me until now to realize everything you broke inside me.

***

Over the years, I thought about telling someone this. The only person I ever managed to tell was B, and he’s probably the only reason I’ve survived it. Every time I considered telling someone else, I thought about how society silences victims of assault.

The judge in the Stanford rape case said that society shouldn’t punish Mr. Turner too harshly. After all, he’s young, with his whole life ahead of him. Yes, the jury found him guilty, but think of how awful it would be to ruin this poor boy’s life with a tough sentence.

I wondered if, by protecting your life with my silence, I had ruined mine instead.

But mainly I worried when people looked at me it’s all they would see. A girl, now a woman, with a map of pain on her skin she couldn’t seem to wash clean. When I thought about telling my family, I thought of a saying I was raised with: Children are meant to be seen and not heard. If my endometriosis ever lets me have a child, I’ll tell them every night, Speak up, child. Your voice is meant to be heard. And if they’re afraid, I’ll say, Do you need to scream? Here, stand beside me. We’ll do it together. Ready? One, two, three—

AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.

***

I’m sorry. Can we be friends again? Can I take you to lunch?

I emailed you back.

Thank you, but no.

***

It’s not until recently that I realized I’d kept this pain so buried I’d never worked through it. It’s not until I felt the utter shock of an election cycle that talked about sexual assault day in and day out so casually, as if it was nothing—Let’s play that recording again, shall we? The one where he talks about grabbing anything he wants, just grab them! Play it again. It’s not causing someone to stand in the bathroom at work and hyperventilate—that I realized I had never gotten over what you did to me. What’s worse, I’ve never forgiven myself and, at the rate I’m going, it might take me the rest of my life to do so.

Do I forgive you? I think about that sometimes. I hear you have a daughter now. I think about her more than you. I wonder how she makes you feel about your past. I wonder if you take her to church and sit her beside you on the pew. I wonder if you pray for boys to be kind to her, for her to be brave enough to tell them “no” if she’s not ready for something. I wonder if you treat your wife well.

I wonder if I’ll run into you in the grocery store when I’m in Columbia visiting family and how I’ll react. If I’ll drop the gallon of milk in the middle of the aisle and sprint for the door as everyone looks at me as if I’ve lost my mind. If I’ll race to the car with my heart pounding in my ears and huddle in the seat with my head on the steering wheel and slip back to a different parking lot in my mind and lose my voice all over again.

I wonder how someone can break someone’s soul the way you broke mine and still be the one society wants to protect. No one will ever convince me we don’t prize our boys more than our girls.

***

Last weekend I went to my local Women’s March. There was a lot of talk about why some women didn’t attend a March, and I respect their reasons. I’d never marched for anything in my life, and I was a little scared to go. But I believed in much of what the March was about, and I needed to go for reasons entirely my own.

I was overwhelmed by the number of people there, and by the incredible feeling that permeated the grassy park: joy. How happy everyone was, smiling and laughing and singing. I expected angry screams, hoarse voices cutting through the air. I never expected the soft sound of a folk song to float around me. I didn’t know the words, so all I could do was listen.

Keep on singing proudly. Keep on moving proudly. Keep on moving forward. Never turning back.

As I walked around, reading signs and shirts, I noticed a man sitting quietly by himself, watching everything unfold. His arms rested on a sign that read, “Touching without consent is rape.”

I stopped in my tracks.

In hindsight, I think he might know what happened to me, based on what transpired next. I don’t know how long it was—one second, two, three—but I read his sign and I looked at him, and there was an understanding there. Maybe something happened to him years ago, and he, too, couldn’t find the strength to scream.

I wanted to hug him, this stranger I’d never seen before. Instead, I asked him if it would be okay for me to take his picture. He said yes, and I did. I walked away knowing I was meant to be there that day, and so was he.

When we marched, the sun abnormally warm atop our heads, I thought about you, about how what happened between us has shaped my feelings on certain things. About how I have known what it feels like to have someone else control my body, and how, no matter what my personal beliefs are, I’ll never take away another woman’s autonomy.

After a while, I tilted my chin to the sunlight, and lent my voice to the crowd.

***

It’s hard to put into words how often I think of you now. I used to go months without remembering. Months and months. Since the election, it’s daily, as if the place I’d once hidden you has broken and I can’t fit you back inside it. Sometimes I hear jokes alluding to grabbing things without permission—innocuous, playful, not meaning any harm. People don’t realize they’re normalizing assault with their jests, that hearing it makes me think of standing in the shower as a teenager, letting the steaming water pool around my feet, never feeling clean. People don’t realize how words cut open the past and sear it onto the present. I wish you would leave me alone. I wish you would stop tormenting me. I wish I could forget again.

I don’t forgive you, and I feel very guilty about that. I’d like to be able to end this by saying those words and meaning them, but I hold truth to be sacred, and I won’t lie to you.

I don’t forgive you. But this year, I’d like to try to forgive myself, and for the first time, that feels far more important.

 

womensmarchbirminghamal2017

Thank you, whoever you are. – Women’s March sister march in Birmingham, AL, 2017

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Dear Dad // No. 26: Slow Progressions of the Heart

Dear Dad,

Lately I find myself wondering about you. I can’t say why, but I feel you slipping. It’s little things, built upon one another as each day passes by in its slow progression.

Last night, I looked up your phone log to check the bill. My husband, B, and I pay your cell phone bill and mail you your groceries every month (thank God for the ability to do anything over the Internet). You’ve been complaining of a certain telemarketer recently, a man who calls and tries to convince you to buy airline tickets, to which you respond: “I don’t need an airplane! What would I do with an airplane?” As I glanced through the phone log, searching for the telemarketer’s number so that I could block it, I noticed our conversations recorded too. Six minutes here, ten minutes there…

As I scrolled over the page, I couldn’t help but feel how sad this was. It felt, even if it isn’t true, that our entire relationship had been boiled down to tiny increments of time that didn’t feel representative. Is that really how long we spoke? Only six minutes? Why did it feel like longer at the time?

Sometimes when we talk now, you don’t have much to say. You’re tired, and I can hear the wind in your voice, pulling at you from inside. It makes the back of my throat ache in that familiar way that happens when my emotions are about to get the better of me. On those days, I let you go sooner, not wanting to stress you. I hang up and wonder what you do after our call ends. If you sit in an empty apartment alone, or if you head to the coffee shop down the street for some company.

This is the image I have of you, Dad. The fact that you are alone consumes my thoughts of you. I picture you getting ready for bed at night in an empty apartment. I imagine you waking, tepid sunlight falling over your bed, and knowing that there isn’t another soul sharing your space with you.

I find your aloneness the most heartbreaking thing in the world. It crushes me. And yet, there is nothing I can do about it.

You speak often of how you would love to move in with J and C. You want nothing more than to see them again, and you tell me about this desire often. How much you miss your children. I listen to these things and try not to get emotional about it. I try to push the thoughts that plague me from my mind, and remind myself that my value is not predicated on anyone else but me. But inside I think: What about me? I’m your daughter too. Don’t you want to see me?

I cannot change your desire to live with J and C, and I wouldn’t want to. More than anything else, I want you to be happy. And if that happiness is not living with me, then I must work to accept that. In some ways, I wonder if this is how a parent feels when his or her child reaches adulthood and rushes out into the world. They aren’t the center of things. They’re on the sidelines, desperately waiting for their loved one to look back, wave, and say one more time, “I love you. I’m still here. I still want to be part of your life.”

You received an email recently from a woman who I didn’t know. I check your email for you and have for years now. (You don’t have a computer and don’t want one.) The email caught me by surprise. The subject read, For Signore C. Signore? Who has ever called you Signore? The letter was very brief, just a line or two, but the words were immensely intimate. Not in a romantic way, per se, but in a way that conveyed the thoughts of a conversation that had lingered in her mind long after you’d spoken with one another. Who is this woman? What did she mean by her words, so full of tenderness and hope? Her email felt like a secret I wasn’t supposed to know. I didn’t know whether to tell you about it, and admit that I’d read it, or let it go and pretend I’d never seen it. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I’d pressed my ear to a door and overheard something not meant for my ears.

And then, over the course of the next few days, I began to feel something else about the letter. Happy. After all this time, I’d been picturing you alone and empty. And maybe for a certain extent of your day you are alone, but the email is proof that at least for some portion, you aren’t. You have the company of this mysterious woman. Though I have no idea what your relationship is with her, it makes my chest swell with joy to think that you are not as alone as I had feared.

I cannot fix every problem, Dad. I cannot promise the telemarketer won’t call you back and try to sell a 79-year-old man with no money a set of plane tickets for a trip he doesn’t want to take. I cannot make J and C rent an apartment and move in with you. I cannot fit together all the pieces of our lives so that you never have to experience any pain or fear, and that fact breaks my heart.

Loving you right now feels like parenthood must feel. Like opening up the stitchings of my heart and holding myself open to the world, taking in the joyful and the painful in equal measure. It’s the little things that get to me, built upon one another as the day spans on, a slow progression of the head and the heart. But no matter how far away you roam—mentally, physically, all of the above—I will always be a short phone call away.

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. 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. 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