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January 2020
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A Snapshot

Snapshot of my Father, originally uploaded by elefanterosado.

The tears come at lunchtime. Unbidden. They come for a strange, almost unfathomable reason: you are sad to see him go.

It is all the same as usual: the pile of scrambled eggs, toast, and potatoes. The napkin tucked in at his neck over the sweater. His affable chatter with the waitress. Does she work here every day? No, only on Sundays. You can tell by her tone that they’ve had this same conversation before. That she is patiently explaining again as if to humor him.

His stomach presses out from his seat to the table. The spilled packet of sugar pools on the table and forms a white spot on his sweater. The ubiquitous New York Times lies in the corner of the table with a map of New England folded accordion-style across it.

Your sister arrives and slips into the bench seat next to you, looking smart in a fitted gray wool coat and matching scarf.

What are you getting? Breakfast or lunch?

Lunch, you say. The turkey sandwich.

Have what you want, he says.

When you go out for meals, it is always his treat. Strange for a man who has never offered you material assistance of any kind unless he was prodded to do so, and even then it was never quite enough. Like the time you were overseas pursuing your Masters and had to borrow from a friend to make ends meet, because he always sent you slightly less than you asked for. When you hated asking him at all. When you were there in the north of England on a full tuition scholarship and cursing yourself for not making more that summer, for not being completely self sufficient. That summer working in the back windowless room of a daily newspaper, folding, collating and breathing in ink and stale air for $4 an hour. And with all this monotony there was no place to escape, to drown out the horror of loss. Though you tried, day after day. Until the day you fled—for the first time ever without giving notice. Fled in the middle of a shift without shame or excuse—from the newsprint and the windowless prison and the geriatric boss who demanded you work faster. When you knew you were too heartsick to work at all. Knew that she wouldn’t make you either and that he wouldn’t care. As long as you bear your sadness in silence, he won’t care. So you sit on the beach day after day and stare into the foam-green sea.

The tears come and you look away, but not before your sister sees them.

What’s wrong? She asks.

These last few months have just been so hard, you answer.

But even that’s not the truth. Not exactly. It has been hard, although the moment you’ve been waiting for is at hand. The moment of completion. Of farewell. But now that it has arrived at last you’re not sure you want it. Not sure you’re ready. Now that it’s here you want to hand it back.

And yet.

This is the man who terrorized us as children. You have a responsibility to yourself, to your child. It isn’t your job to go clean up his mess, to haul out his stuff, to pack up his garbage. How many times can you do it? Get real!

And you know she is right. Her voice is the razor slashing through the dark, through all of the lies and half-truths and honest deceits you’ve woven to protect yourself.

You know too that you once hid in your upstairs closet while he raged downstairs. Squeezed your ears shut with your fingers while he railed. And wondered if the world would somehow turn itself upside down on its head, or spin around the sun at one hundred times its current speed. Wondered if your small self in this small closet inside this small room might finally disappear into that vast abyss of fear and fragile vulnerability once and for all.

So why do you feel only wave after wave of compassion, as well as a shapeless, murky finality? What end is it that you shrink from, after all? Your childhood or the end of the fear you’ve carried like a tightly bundled, swaddled package all these years? Are you afraid that without your fear  you won’t truly know him? Won’t truly know yourself?

Maybe you won’t. Or will you know anger? And if you do, should you hold onto it like a badge of honor, like a Roman shield protecting your heart from him? The same heart he has broken a thousand times over.

And as he stands stooped on his cane, hemming and hawing and reaching for excuses for why you should come to his motel room and help him pack, he flounders. Despite his booming voice and brilliant words, he’s unable to convey the truth. And you allow it to stay concealed, knowing better. Because while affection is allowed, the raw minutia of expressed emotion isn’t. Never has been.

He wants you there because you are his daughter and he loves you. Nothing more. But he can’t say it any more than you can.

And when you drive away saddened and broken, you don’t understand your own grief. You know only that it comes from the deepest place inside you. That he, more than any other human being, has been the one to shape your destiny.

As your deed is, so is your destiny.

What you have forgotten is that he has shaped hers too. And she will give a voice to the thing you can’t name. She will fill in the final piece of the puzzle. She will name the unnameable.

It’s a snapshot, she writes to you. But it doesn’t have to be the last one! If it is, we done good souer.

We done good.

And as you walk out into the crisp blue morning with a touch of sun burnishing the frozen sky you realize the truth that has no opposite. You know at last that you are a far finer person than you ever dreamed you could be.


Comment from michele
Time February 2, 2010 at 9:40 am

beautiful Mary….