Sunday, June 16, 2013

Secret Lesson

In honor of Father's Day, and my father, who I lost to cancer when he was only fifty-one, I wrote this essay. I wrote it back in 1999, two years after his passing.

This is for anyone who has a complicated relationship with their dad.


SECRET LESSON                                                      

My attic is not empty, on the contrary it is full of my past, boxes and crates full of my past. I keep a lot of ridiculously important things. No one else understands the importance of saving the pebble I nervously played with during my first “real” kiss. That meaningful piece of stone lives with my cream polyester eighth grade graduation dress and my Yoda pencil box. My crunchy soph hop corsage and my It’s a GIRL cigar from when I was born. My box of eight teeth I had pulled before my braces went on in 1978 and my braid I proudly wore as the ever popular “tail” in the 80s, still braided, and looking like all it needs is a little superglue and a neck to call home again. Odd I know, but I can’t seem to part with what I mistily call “my life’s memorabilia”.

My husband simply calls it junk.

The reason I have the peculiar desire to save all of life’s trinkets can be blamed on my father. As a little girl I vividly remember playing with my father’s memorabilia. I naively thought of it as “daddy’s stuff”. The miniature camera, the small worn out box filled with boy scout pins and patches, and the little guy made out of a roll of lifesavers. They were my father’s memories, his treasures tucked neatly into his night table drawer.

Being little also meant that my daddy still communicated with me, on my level, by being silly and playing “pile on the tickle monster”. My three sisters and I would pile every loose table cloth, bed covering, and towel on top of him. You name it, if it wasn’t in the safety of a closet or a drawer it was fair game for the pile. He would lay perfectly still on the living room floor, buried under the Mt. Everest of piles. Slowly he would emerge, unleashing the ferocious tickle creature. We screamed and carried on as the beast from the pile used his paws of laughter on each of us. That was my daddy, and I loved him.

As my body hit puberty, rebelling against me, growing unfamiliar oddities all over it, I secretly played with my father’s night table treasures, spreading them out on his bedroom carpet enjoying their oldness. I would try to imagine my father playing with his tiny camera, wondering what kind of pictures he took as a child. Those thoughts always left me feeling safe.

It would be nice and flowery to tell you that we had the perfect father/daughter relationship, but the reality was that we did not. Puberty afforded me a training bra and opinions. My father shut down.

I no longer squealed “Daddy’s home!” while running and doing a perfect 10.0 spring board jump into his arms. My teenage voice would nonchalantly mutter, “Hi, Dad” sometimes an hour after he’d been home. He no longer connected emotionally with me. My choice of conversation was either an argument or a stale verbal exchange like, “Where are my scissors?!” or “Unpack the dishwasher please.” My mom would always say, “He does love you in his own weird way.” Those words of intended encouragement confused my teenage mind. The confusion led to frustration and I began to construct the brick wall – the one that separated my father and me.

I blamed him for the father he wasn’t. I wanted to spend hours talking to him about who I was and what my dreams were. I wanted his advice, from a guy’s point of view, to help me as I skipped through the landmines of adolescence. I wanted tight hugs to reassure me and silence my self doubts. I wanted compliments forcing me to feel beautiful even with my frizzy hair and braces. I wanted the dad from Sixteen Candles.

As I grew into an adult I needed more, I wanted phone calls filled with deep connecting discussion and short little “just checking on you” calls too. I wanted invitations to visit and go places with him. Basically, I wanted all that he wasn’t. However, strangely enough, I think that silent teenage ritual of inspecting his night table treasures fulfilled one of my needs, the need to be connected to him and I unknowingly followed in his footsteps.

I still vividly remember saving my first piece of personal history. My thirteen year old hand, excited with sweat, clutched the one end of a neon green light stick as my red headed freckle faced dream boy held onto the other. We clumsily skated round and round Skate Odyssey to Springsteen’s Hungry Heart. How in the world could I have tossed that glowing wand from my passionately romantic “couples skate”? That was only the beginning of my collection. I began to gather and store, slowly amassing, slowly living, slowly growing up.

In retrospect there was nothing slow about growing up, my childhood quickly escaped me, my life pushed forward. I went to college. Fell in love, hard, and married the best guy alive. We were moving into our first house and my husband threatened to “go through” my boxes of memorabilia to help me get rid of the junk. I sweetly informed him that I would “go through” my boxes and crates, secretly never expecting to do anything but go through them.

Spreading out my life onto the bedroom floor I reluctantly made one painful decision after another. Should I keep the label from my first beer with the words, “drank with Sue while mom and dad were away” scrawled on the back by my ninth grade hand, or the Empire Strikes Back movie ticket stub from my twenty seventh time? These were tough questions.

My mounds gradually evolved into “husband approved” piles. I have to admit, some of the things I tossed were just objects – I couldn’t even remember what they were, who they came from or why I had saved them. However, I still cringed as they were lovingly placed in the tall kitchen garbage bag. It was like throwing out one of your ears just because it got in the way of your new headband - crazy and unnecessary. I began to wonder if my dad ever had to go through this living hell, this ungodly torture, this emotional tidal wave, this rip your heart out and stomp on it with high heels kind of pain, this, this, this overwhelming feeling of loss. I wondered if he had had to make choices and consolidate his life into two neat boxes.

Soon after the move my life took a turn. The kind of , “Dukes of Hazzard” turn where the car has two wheels firmly on the ground while the other two wheels are dangerously up in the air. Sickness, birth and death all arrived simultaneously. Oh the joys of life. The birth of my first child and my father’s diagnosis of cancer occurred within two weeks of each other. I shed tears of joy, tears of fear, tears of anger, tears of happiness. Tears.

Close to the end, my father gave me his night table treasures, one of them being my birth announcement cigar. He fought for eight grueling months and slowly lost the battle on October 25, 1997. These events forced me to take a deep look at my father. What had I learned from him? What I realized was that I had spent years being angry with my dad for all that he wasn’t, this of course blinded me to all that he was.

He was a sentimental man who took countless photographs and movies of my family, because he wanted to.  He was a man who could fix, build, design and repair anything, a true gift. He loved to read Steven King or Tom Clancy and he passed that love onto me. He was a man who did love me but didn’t know how to love me. He was a man whose deep feelings lived in what he saved. He was a man who moved slowly through his life weighing his choices with precision.

Everything in today’s world is so fast, so use it now and get rid of it, disposable this, disposable that. I long for the days when memories lived in the safety of a night table drawer or the warmth of an attic. Do we even have attics today? Is it so wrong to keep the junk that makes up our past? Doesn’t it keep us all connected to who we once were and what our dreams were as children? These things are the proof we need that we were cool, we did dance, and make out, and have a mohawk, and aspire to be an archaeologist who sings opera in here spare time.

Unknowingly, I learned that life’s trinkets are for the keeping, from a man I did love. My father taught me to save the sweet little things for the future when life gets challenging. His miniature camera no longer took photographs, its job was promoted to touchable memory, a memory forced to take up space and be – not just live in the fragile mind. By saving my birth announcement cigar he saved a living snapshot for himself, to pull out and enjoy whenever he needed it.

You know what, Dad – I do the same exact thing.

My father walking me down the aisle.