Happy 50th Birthday, Dad.
I’ve been thinking about you a lot and I decided a celebration was in order for this year, my 28th and what would have been your 50th. I’m not sure what day it actually is but I know it’s sometime in the next few days – I figured you’d cut me some slack as this is the first birthday we’ve ever celebrated together and it’s a big one. I went looking for your birth certificate to confirm before I left, but I packed it incredibly deep in my storage space with the rest of your things, mixed up in my things, not to be sorted through for another 4 months. It’s sort of symbolic, don’t you think?
I have been looking at the few photos I have of you and they inspire such conflicting emotions. I’m not sure whether or not I want to hug you because I desperately miss you or punch you for being such a goddamned idiot. You were 27 and I can’t blame you for not having your shit together – my friends and I hardly do right now – but it’s true and I thought we should be honest with each other. If not now, then when? I’ve spent my entire life remembering you as someone 22 years my senior and when I turned 28, there came this biting realization that I had outlived you, as well as my memory of you. I’m always going to be 5 when I think of you but it’s a strange juxtaposition when it comes from a 30, 40, and 50 year old brain. I don’t think I’m actually in touch with how old I am or how old I might look, as time froze in my self-perception the day you died. It’s sad to think I was supposed to lose you 23 years from today instead of 23 years ago.
When I was a teenager, I used to think that speaking matter-of-factly about your death (only when asked) was the way I could convince everyone of how brave I was. When I moved out on my own, I thought keeping your things and my memory of you in a box was the best way to move forward, to not be defined by tragedy, and to not face or perpetuate the same destructive behavior. But I woke up one day and realized I am more defined by this thing I haven’t dealt with than I would have been if I had just let myself be angry or grieve. So I’m letting you out of the box you have so unwillingly resided in for the last 20 years and I’m welcoming you back into my life. As a gift for your 50th, I’m giving you space in my thoughts, on my walls, my blog, and I want to introduce you to my friends. Some only know you in fable, but they don’t really know you. And I’m not sure I do either but I do know you don’t belong in a box. I haven’t been fair to you for so long.
What I do know about you are the traits you gave me. I got my eyes, my forehead, and my smile lines from you. I wish I had gotten your green eyes but mom’s blue ones are pretty great too. I also wish I had your skin – you could always get a tan in 10 minutes flat – but you chose to give that to my sister. You made it up to me by giving me your penchant for multi-tasking and the ability to be good at so many different things like you were. I mean, we both have never mastered anything but that’s hardly the point, is it? I’m a Gemini and you’re a Cancer but we are so interchangeable. We both have the same desire for home, though it feels elusive, and we both have a compulsion for throwing ourselves over the edge. The only difference is that you ultimately succeeded and I only ever let myself peer over.
I definitely got my athleticism from you. I don’t know if I ever thanked you properly for teaching me how to throw a ball. It has saved me countless times from being chosen last for teams during recess. When the boys realized I could run and kick also, I moved up the totem pole to 2nd or 3rd pick. I was always taller than them too, but I can’t give you credit for that. I think I’m taller than you ever were. You’d be happy to know I still have the mitt you gave me though it’s admittedly small and doesn’t get used much. I will never forget watching you make me a Rachel-sized golf club out of one of your own clubs. You didn’t skimp on any details. It was perfect, right down to the pink golf ball that went with it. Even though you taught me the ways of the tomboy, you always knew deep down I liked being a girl. And here I am, years later, fighting it out amongst the boys in a skirt and heels. In all fairness, I learned a lot of that from mom and Nana. Mom really had to step it up after you left and, well, you know Nana – a glass-ceiling-cracker, that one.
I remember that time you took me shooting. I remember the rifle and how you helped me aim, saving me from the violent jolts after we pulled the trigger. I remember watching you shoot that pistol, the kickback bringing your arms almost behind your head. But you were graceful and always a had a good eye. I’m a pretty good marksman myself these days, only now my gun is a camera. I think I swore off guns after the fateful night. I have come to realize that swearing them off shouldn’t be done out of fear or lack of knowledge, but respect for their power. In that sense, I think it’s time to take them up again if only to properly lay them to rest.
Do you remember that hug I asked you for back in December of ’87? I will never forget the exact phrasing of what followed. You said, “Not now. Daddy doesn’t feel well.” I said, “Okay. I understand” even though I didn’t and I still don’t. I still do that, feigning emotional complacency when I’m actually being ripped to shreds inside. Putting on the brave face when I want to cry like a 5 year old. I suppose if we both had known what was to follow that night, we might have done something different, pushing through and digging deep for that hug. I think it might have even saved us both.
The ways in which I miss you can’t be counted, but they always reveal themselves in the strangest of places, in the most intimate of settings. I kiss boys now instead of racing them but that shouldn’t be a surprise to you – it was bound to happen some time. Truth be told, I kind of don’t know how to relate to boys unless I’m racing them or kissing them. Is there some middle ground in there? I also can’t wrap my brain around father-daughter relationships but I think I’ll always feel some twinge of jealousy that I only got to be Daddy’s Little Girl for about 5 years before I was made to grow up. 5 going on 25; it’s always been that way. The closer I get to conventional hallmarks like marriage, the more I feel the loss of you. Who is going to walk me down the aisle? And who could ever deign to fill those impossibly large shoes? I suppose when you left, so did any chance of convention or normalcy. I don’t have a conventional job or conventional friends or what is considered a “normal” lifestyle. But what is normal anyway, and why have I spent so much energy in the struggle between normalcy and what I have always known? This year is about finding what is normal for me – I thought you might be happy to know you inspired much of this quest.
I used to feel an immense sense of isolation, feeling like my life was different than everyone else’s. When my world suddenly got bigger after high school, I sensed there might be a way to find a connection to other humans in what has always been a lonely quest – moving beyond my own personal tragedy and demons and cultivating a happy life. I thought long and hard about writing a letter to you on my blog, wondering if others may think it overly-indulgent or exhibitionistic. But it’s precisely that wondering that has prevented me from ever introducing my dusty, old skeletons to the light of day and being exactly who I am supposed to be (whoever that is). So I said ‘fuck it.’ It’s therapeutic to think that anyone reading this might be able to relate, instead of assuming that no one could ever understand, bearing the weight of the world on my shoulders. By not sharing, I feel I’m contributing to the stigmatization of the overt fact that life can be really fucking ugly – I hear you’re not supposed to talk about these kinds of things. It’s tacky. But in this sharing, we relate. In relating, we make beauty and these tragedies get transformed into something more positive. From ashes something else is able to rise.
So, dad. Wave hello to everyone. All these faces and hands have cared for me over the years in your absence; dealt with my inexplicable moods, wanderings, and musings; and have unconditionally loved me when I was never sure I could return the favor. But I realize now I am capable of returning the favor and even more so if I keep you, dad, close by. I am still your daughter after all, for better or for worse, in this life and into the next. So, maybe we should go celebrate our weird, individual fuckedupedness together. I hope you like soccer because that seems to be the only thing happening here in Berlin right now. Oh! But there’s a lot of really good cake.