A Father’s Day fraught with the precious and painful

The memory seems to find me when I need it most, drifting into my consciousness like a soft breeze, blessed balm for the flock of sorrows that would seek to roost there instead.

In it, I am about 9 years old, playing at my mom’s vanity table, my fingers rooting through the elegant shimmer of gold jewelry, sophisticated perfumes and bright red lipsticks, relishing the glamorous images of my mother they conjure, even as she sits nearby, my casual and amused supervisor. On my feet are a pair of her stiletto heels, and though I totter in them, I try to walk, laughing at my awkward gait and feigned finesse.

All these years later, my exuberance in that moment still feels palpable; the way it turned me toward the door, unguarded, as I heard my father’s footsteps is an electric hum that still reverberates. I remember the way our smiles reached for each other first, broad and open, and the collapse of something, indefinable, that thrust me into a blithe impulsiveness. Suddenly, I was kicking off my mom’s heels and running down the carpeted hallway, launching myself into arms that would scoop me up and cradle me close, as our laughter tickled each other’s ears and our brimming hearts offered a wordless acceptance, while we spun with a spray of sunlight on our skin.

Though I have hugged my father many times since and surely did before, that moment is indelible. The innocence and spontaneity of it, the transparency of our joy — they remind me that once all I knew was to love him, that his arms, so strong and tender, were capable of supporting me, of holding my dreams and my life, and that even though his job often took him away from home, I was a pocketed gem in his heart.

Today on Father’s Day, I am holding fast to that memory, unwinding it from the spool of too many tattered threads and pressing it, bright and reassuring, into the desperate palm of my hand. Because last week, I surrendered my hope. Though optimistic by nature, I couldn’t help but give up.

For years now, I have watched my father struggle — through a heart attack, through near-paralysis, through esophageal cancer, through a host of conditions that still afflict his body while stealing the peace from his mind. I have watched him trudge the past with a stubbornness that has stifled his future, have seen him hold onto people and things and places that clutter his perspective and strain his relationships, have heard his prayers, his pleas, his bewilderment as life remains relentlessly unkind — and true kindness beckons from spaces too dark to explore.

Surrounded by the detritus of his failings and barren dreams, he has avoided any healing that would require too close an introspection.

Yet, that is the direction my brother and I have been trying to steer him toward for years, believing if he could just let go of the past and forgive himself for the wrong turns that pockmark his history, the tides would somehow shift. Perhaps, with him being in St. Lucia and my brother and me here, it is easy for us to dole out advice and suggestions, to paint the picture of a less tormented life while loosely holding his pain. But we have both learned over the years of trying to fix and save and shoulder the burden of his suffering that ours is the only life we can change, the way we choose to relate to him — from love instead of frustration and anguish — the only salve we can spare. Still, we haven’t stopped believing that more and better are possible for a man who once was the epitome of charisma and confidence, ambition and vitality.

Last week, however, following a particularly distressing update, I realized this may be all I get, that my father may never be the one who’s there to support and inspire me and fulfill all those sentiments on the Father’s Day cards that always appear exclusive when I’m perusing the racks at the stores. Yes, he believes in me, is proud of me and loves me unstintingly. And when I visit him in St. Lucia, despite the brooding intensity and quick temper I discovered lurking beneath his magnetic personality not long after we moved to the U.S., our reunion is always an emotional one of fierce hugs and happy tears and me savoring the light in his eyes.

We both long for more, but building a bridge across a path that has remained an arduous one since he returned to St. Lucia in the mid-’90s, has often felt like trying to unclench a tightly curled fist to interlock our fingers or complete a puzzle with jagged, mismatched pieces. After my parents divorced, I thought my dad might remarry, even start a new family. I saw no reason why he couldn’t rebuild his life the way so many others do and seize another chance at happiness.

Now I wonder if he’s waded too deep into his suffering to ever find a way out. Earlier this year, he lost his sight in his left eye, which has understandably devastated him. When I learned last week that the right eye is in danger, too, and that he has been plagued with more frequent bouts of gastrointestinal pain than usual — compounded by a recent burglary in which he lost his computer and TV, among other things — it was the first time in all these years I allowed myself an honest, unflinching look at his reality.

I was forced to acknowledge the futility of my longing for the hero that would make me feel like “Daddy’s little girl” even as a woman, the father who could be that beacon of strength and courage, wisdom and faith, the one whose mere presence, even across the miles, could soothe life’s roiling and fears. Today, I can’t celebrate and honor that man.

But I can thank the one who I now see is heartbroken and lost, the one who so many years ago twirled me in a pool of light, who made us our meals and packed our lunches when my mom traveled for work, who always introduced us to colleagues and friends with unmasked pride and whose voice I can still hear cheering “We did it!” as I walked across the stage to receive my college degree. I can thank him for loving me, always, through the rifts and reconciliations, the disappointments and triumphs, through the gnarled scrape of an existence that could have robbed us even of this: my own love in return, pushing through a wilderness, parched and depleted but home to unshakeable roots.

– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times


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