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

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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

Dear Dad // No. 17

Dear Dad,

When we spoke on August 3, 2014, you broke my heart.

You were upset when I called. There was no laughter during this conversation. Only the same strain in your voice that became so familiar from my childhood. You told me a story I had never heard. It was hard to understand everything, because you lose words when you’re upset. But I tried to understand. And I knew it was true, because I had heard snippets of things growing up. Only now did you connect all the pieces.

When you were young, one of your family members (grandmother? aunt?) got sick. You were sent to stay at a Catholic boarding school in upstate New York. You spoke very little English, because your grandmother refused anything but Italian in the house while you were growing up. English at school, Italian at home. Words were always hard for you to keep straight, even before the stroke.

You were terrified. This was the word you used, over and over, to describe it to me. The children at the boarding school were all afraid of the monsters in a room in the hospital wing, the place the nuns sent you when you misbehaved. All of the children at this place were sent here by their families, and you didn’t understand why someone would send you away to a place like that. To be with other children who all were sent away by their families. To a place with monsters.

One day, you were put in the closet in the hospital wing. Where the monsters were, in the dark. And when you said this to me, I could picture it so, so clearly. Because I have been in the closet in the dark too.

It happened when I was young, maybe two or three years old. I went to daycare at a woman’s home each day while Mom worked. My strongest memory of the place is of all the children everywhere. Kids in all the rooms and out in the yard. The woman who ran it kept us divided by age, in rooms with toys and shut doors. Sometimes we were locked in the rooms for so long that kids would wet themselves. No one every wanted to do that, because we knew what it meant. It meant a trip to the closet with the lights off. I don’t remember why I was sent to the closet that day, but I remember the darkness. The sounds of the other children breathing beside me. The sliver of light that snuck in under the door. We sat in the dark and whispered to one another, watching the shadows move through the light, and waited on the woman to let us out.

It took Mom a while to figure out what I kept talking about. Like you, I didn’t have the words. When I finally found them, Mom understood. I never went back to that place.

You told me your story of the boarding school because the person you are living with now, your first wife, GC, doesn’t want you to live with her anymore. I always found it funny, in an interesting life-goes-full-circle kind of way, that GC volunteered for you to live with her once you were released from the hospital last November. You and GC had rebuilt a friendship over the past few years, brought together by your first grandchild. So when GC volunteered, it made sense. Because she’s retired, she could bring you to the many therapy sessions you needed. She lives where you live and where your doctors are located. She had the space and the time to give to you. It seemed like the perfect solution.

But something has changed all that now, Dad. You’ve found an old friend again, a monster that has been with you most of your life, whispering into your ear. You drink because it is a part of who you are. Even after the months of detox in the hospital and your doctor’s warnings, you will not deny this monster. It exists not in a closet or hospital wing, but deep inside, where it can wrap itself around your heart and burrow into your veins. Where it can take you down that road again, the one you had finally escaped.

When I spoke with GC last, she told me a story about you and your monster. She’d come home one day recently, and you were nowhere to be found. You don’t have a cell phone, so she could not call you. She waited, and waited, and waited. You finally returned home at 3 a.m. You were in a jovial mood. When she asked where you’d been, you told her the hospital. She was mortified, and asked why, to which you produced your discharge paperwork for her to read.

After a rousing night at a bar, you had begun the walk home, stumbling down the street. A passerby saw you and stopped. They were so concerned about you that they picked you up and dropped you off at the nearest hospital, where the doctor’s kept you for a bit while you gathered your senses again. Then you walked home, discharge paperwork in hand.

GC was beside herself. She asked why you thought it was so funny. You shrugged. “I don’t know why the person was so worried about me,” you told her. “I’m not even hurt.”

And that’s the crux of it, isn’t it, Dad? You can’t see the hurt, because it isn’t outside of you, a mark on your skin for you to see with your eyes. This hurt is inside, invisible, where it can pain you and everyone around you the most. This is why GC doesn’t want you to live with her anymore. Because she cannot take the stress you are causing her, the worry and fear and anger and arguments over you and the monster you will not give up.

I want so badly, Dad, to have you live with us. But this….The idea of moving you in with us scares me. I work full time, I run a business, and my husband, B, works long hours. You would be alone all day in our home. You cannot cook. You cannot read. You cannot write. You cannot dial a telephone. You could not call me for help. You would wander away in search of something to fill your aching void and soothe your monster, and where would I find you? All of this terrifies me. It keeps me from bringing you to me. And this, in turn, makes me cry.

When I asked you if you would like to live with me, months ago now, you said, “Are you near a bar?”

Sometimes there are things spoken that hurt more than we could ever anticipate, Dad. The answer is no, I do not live near a bar. I live in suburbia. Short of the YMCA and an elementary school, I do not live near enough for you to walk anywhere. And upon hearing this, you did not want to live with me. Me, who would take care of you. Me, who cries as I type this because deep down I cannot shake the feeling that you have rejected me somehow, because I do not live near a bar.

In my heart of hearts, I know that my home is not the right place for you. I am not home for 8 to 10 hours a day. You could not call me for help. You would be so, so lonely. I don’t want to subject you to that. But you have no retirement savings. You have no income other than your Social Security check once a month. You are not a veteran. You have everything against you. We have everything against us.

I don’t know how this will work out, Dad. GC has found an assisted living community that will accept your Social Security. You would have your own room, space to paint, a doctor and nurse on call, three hot meals a day. You could come and go as you pleased during the day. It seems like something good when you write it all down. But when we talk about it, you tell me the story of the boarding school in NY, and I am transported back to the closet as your voice hitches and you whisper about the darkness.

“I won’t go back there. I’ve been once.” Your mind  confuses the boarding school for assisted living as we talk, melding the two together. “I won’t go back. I’d rather live in a box on the street. How can I go to a place where people go to die?”

Oh, God, Dad, there is no answer to this. And so, the conversation ends. There are no solutions, no answers, no decisions. I try to hold it together until we hang up. Then I sit in my chair and cry as the memory of the closet swirls in my mind, and we are there together, trying to fight our way through your monsters, searching for the answers hidden in the darkness.

Love,

Ash