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. 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