My grandmother inherited one million dollars during the Depression. She built a forty-seven-room house on ten acres of wooded beachfront property on Puget Sound. The groundskeeper lived in a cabin at the edge of her land. There were maids’ quarters with a separate kitchen and bath. The nanny only spoke to the children in French. My grandfather was a doctor, just like my father would become, and their house had an exam room with a separate entrance for when he needed to see someone in his off-hours. My father spent his whole life knowing that he would inherit a fortune. When my grandmother died, my father inherited only a silver tea service and a few antique wooden boats.
- All of my friends thought that I was a liar when I said my father owned a plane and a boat, because both of my pairs of jeans had holes in the knees and my shoelaces were tied in knots.
- My father was a double specialist: pediatrics and gastroenterology.
- He did not save one penny of his earnings, and he cashed in my brother’s and my trust fund to pay off his personal debts when we were in college.
- At age seventy-nine, my father now lives in a small apartment and can only afford the gas money to go into town once a week.
When I was sixteen, I visited my father for a week in February and his cat ran away. My father’s cat ran away, and he put his arms around me and sobbed, shoulders heaving, snot unwiped from his face. He sobbed until my shoulder was wet. It is the only time I remember watching my father cry. I wished at the time that I hadn’t felt disgusted. When I was sixteen, I visited my father and his cat ran away and he cried and I asked him why he hadn’t become a veterinarian instead of a pediatrician. “I could never hurt an animal,” he said. “I love animals too much to hurt them.”
The red pebbly skin on my father’s neck looks vulnerable and makes me feel somehow protective of him. I think I should knit him a scarf, but I do not know how to knit, and I could not sustain my affection long enough to complete the project. I do not know how to love or stop loving my father.
- attachment: a bond that transcends distance and time, a deep connection.
- disorder: untidy, messy, a state of confusion.
- missing: not present, gone, empty.
When I was ten, I was waiting for my father to finish his rounds at the hospital. When I was ten, I was wearing a boys’ shirt, light blue velour with a white placket and collar. It had been my brother’s, and even though it was soft and even though my mother said that you couldn’t tell it was a boy’s shirt, I knew. I had big glasses, the plastic frames were golden brown on the outside edge, fading to clear by the nose. They were practical and identical to my mom’s glasses. I wished they were red, and I wished that I was wearing a girl’s shirt.
“Come see this baby,” my father called to me. “It’s the most beautiful baby I have ever seen.”
I went into the hospital room and looked at the baby. It seemed nice.
I asked, thinking I was teasing, “Aren’t you supposed to say I was the most beautiful baby you’ve ever seen?”
“You looked just like every other baby—kinda doughy. This baby, though, is really beautiful. Look how fine his (her?) features are.”
On the ride home, I asked my father, “What color were my eyes when I was born?”
I knew the answer: my eyes were big and brown, and my mother told me that she saw my eyes in the delivery room mirror before I had fully emerged from her womb. She had told me over and over how my big brown eyes met hers when I was only halfway into this world. I had been told my whole life that my eyes were my best feature. I had my father’s eyes, but my mother’s coloring.
My dad answered, “The same grayish-blue as most newborns.”
I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised that as his last child, my birth went hazy. As a pediatrician, he’s seen hundreds of babies. He fathered four biological children and step-parented another sixteen children through his seven marriages. Children are fungible; I should understand that. All kids need love; it would be petty to be jealous. I need to insert here that I am very petty when it comes to sharing my father with other people’s children.
Revise to include:
How my heart exploded when my children were born. Explode as in rupture, convulse, or burst. How I still love to watch them when they sleep, though they are big and awkward and have bad breath sometimes and never comb their hair.
The small sorrows experienced by my children wound me more deeply than the large sorrows of my own childhood memories.
The love that I feel for my children makes my father’s actions inexplicable to me.
My father called today, and I sent it to voicemail. Recorded words like I love you, like you’re so wonderful, with added emphasis and devoid of feeling. I hit delete and didn’t call him back. His strained voice infused guilt directly into my veins, but it was not enough to make me answer the next time he called.
My father had a sailboat, and we sailed all summer. The deck was teak, weathered gray. We scampered—little sea squirrels—in the cockpit and over the top of the cabin while the boat heeled steeply under sail. I held the tiller between my legs as I straddled the cockpit. I was too small to see over the windscreen otherwise. My father built us dinghies, and we rowed races in deserted coves with seals and otters and puffins. We did not see people for days, and our radio never worked. Once, there was a storm, and we had to sail all night, but I was not afraid because my father was invincible. I was a prepubescent ten-year-old with big teeth and unbrushed hair. We harvested mussels off of the jagged rocks and ate them with butter. My father taught me to sew and bought me a wooden flute so that I could play songs to whales from the foredeck. My father played the autoharp and sang A
uralee as the boat bobbed up and down, and he taught my brother and me to play, too, our voices and notes floating over the waves slapping the sides of the boat. He made us sit and listen while he read Jack London stories to us in the pale, dusky evening of an Alaskan summer, even though we were too old to be read to any more. There were porpoises and sea lions and bald eagles, killer whales—now called orcas—and big blue whales. The summer sun picked diamonds out of the jade green water and the raw blue topaz glaciers calved icebergs. My brother and I perched on the bowsprit as our father navigated the ice floe, responsible for spotting submerged icebergs lurking below the surface.
How do you sing a love song to a father you’ve hardened your heart against in order to survive him? Over and over, years and years of wanting, hoping, ending in silence, ending in no, ending in not enough.
- My father moved 4,171 miles away when I was three years old.
- From when I was four until I was sixteen, my brother and I spent a month or more of each summer, and two weeks every winter, in Alaska with our father. I spent both the visits and the time in-between visits in a constant state of yearning, as in unrequited, as in dejected.
When I was fourteen, I lived with my father for five months. The night before Thanksgiving, I went to my first sleepover since moving to Alaska. When I got home, I discovered that my father had left for the church potluck without me. He had left me a note. You are grounded off the phone for two weeks. You need to write a two-page paper on acceptable behavior for not coming home on time. He had forgotten to tell me what time to be home, and at my mother’s house, we never ate Thanksgiving dinner before noon. It hadn’t occurred to me that he would leave the house at 10:00 a.m., or that he would leave me behind. He took the phone with him, so I couldn’t call my mother or siblings or grandparents to say Happy Thanksgiving. I don’t remember what I did besides writing him a few paragraphs on acceptable behavior and a few pages on what I thought of him as a father. I must have eaten something, but it wasn’t turkey.
When I was fourteen and lived with my father, he spent every night at his girlfriend’s house. He came home every morning and made me peanut butter on toast for breakfast, sat on my bed, and watched me get dressed. When I was fourteen, I did not want to be naked in front of my father, but he was a doctor, and I shouldn’t be so sensitive; bodies were just bodies to him. He invited my nineteen-year-old boyfriend to spend a few nights with me while he was out of town. I did not know how to say in front of these two men that I hadn’t decided if I liked this boyfriend enough to have sex with him. I was fourteen when my father gave me a twelve pack of condoms for Christmas and said, “Knowing you, these will be gone in a week.” I have so many stories from these five months I lived with my father, but they all sound the same.
My father’s eyes are large and cold blue, like the sky seen through an icicle. He seems to blink less than other human beings. He gives his full attention to whomever he is speaking with, but there is something cold and alien in his gaze.
Note for further speculation:
- He is a scientist, and we are fascinating specimens. He is investigating, not relating.
- Investigate as in probe, inspect, and scrutinize. Feel the pressure swell into entrapment as the coverslip is set on the microscope slide, watch the unblinking eye examine you minutely and ask you interesting questions.
- Can an unblinking gaze be simultaneously friendly and sinister?
My father could do anything. He could build boats, sew open wounds shut, fly planes, wire a lamp, sail a boat on the open ocean. He could not love people, though he could say the words easily enough.
My father says:
- He was diagnosed with attachment disorder.
- He was the product of a rape of his mother by her husband.
- His mother wanted to drown him when he was born a boy.
- His father died of alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver. (My grandfather died of Parkinson’s.)
- My mother left him for a woman. (My mother did not become a lesbian until several years after she divorced him for his infidelity.)
- My father says that it is not a lie if it makes the story better.
- My father is my only source for his diagnosis.
When I was nineteen, I got four new step-siblings. The youngest were eight and ten, and the eldest were the same ages as my brother and me and out of the house already. They are the only stepchildren of whom I am not jealous. Their father died, so it was tolerable that they encroached on mine.
Of course that sentence is a lie—the one about jealousy—but it looks good on the page. My father taught them to ride bikes and went to their school concerts and took them to Hawaii, Mexico, and Europe. He bought them clothes and drove them to sleepovers and taught them to drive and bought them cars. He paid for their weddings and college degrees. Of course, we all knew that Dad didn’t want to do any of those things—he is only ever as good as the wife he married. The current wife, we’ll call her Seven, made him send me postcards when he went out of town with her children. He had never sent me postcards before.
- diagnosis, as in opinion, as in interpretation.
- culpability, as in blameworthiness, as in condemnation. Ponder whether it is nullified by the doctor’s opinion, and if it matters whether the diagnostician is a medical doctor or merely a counselor. If one cannot feel empathy, can one feel remorse?
Answer the following:
Is it wrong to withhold love from a father who is incapable from birth of feeling empathy and forming attachments? What if he is old
and lonely and cannot remember things clearly anymore? What if it is certain that giving in to this love will damage you again and
again? The wretched yearning that you felt as a child still lives inside you, whether you hit ignore when he calls or not. The seal that
you have made to contain it is not airtight.
A joke my father told me when I was ten years old:
“The Russian Ambassador and the African Ambassador were friends. One day, the African Ambassador went to Russia to visit.
‘This is our favorite game here; it’s called Russian roulette,’ the Russian Ambassador said. ‘What you do is put one bullet in the chamber of the gun, spin the chamber, put the gun to your head and pull the trigger.’ The African Ambassador thought this was a very good game, and they played it several times. The next month, the Russian Ambassador went to Africa to visit the African Ambassador.
‘This is our version of African Roulette,’ the African Ambassador said. ‘Any of these six African women will give you a blow job,’ he explained.
‘But what’s the risk?’ the Russian ambassador asked. ‘Where’s the roulette?’
‘One of them is a cannibal.’”
I had to ask what a blow job was. When he told me, I flushed scarlet and ran away.
achment disorder is marked by a lack of empathy. A competent doctor must hurt in order to heal, the hands remaining steady despite the screams caused by the remedy. Once, I watched him stretch a twelve-year-old boy’s esophagus, the boy crying and vomiting as my father methodically forced weighted rubber rods down his throat until they came back bloody. He wasn’t cruel; it had to be done. “Don’t worry,” my dad explained, “I gave him an amnesiac drug. He won’t remember any of this.” I, however, could not forget. I have twisted and sobbed under his hands as his scalpel removed my splinters, begging him to stop, my older sister pleading for him to give me a break.
What if you rise above sympathy and there is no greater compassion, but only empty curiosity?
The sound you make when you try to erase a sentence with a worn-out pencil eraser, the metal cylinder scratching across the paper,
and how that sound feels in your veins and your teeth.
Full text of the story garnered through phone calls with my cousin, sister, and eventually my father:
I have two half-sisters from my father’s second marriage: Juli and Sebrina. I am from his third. Juli is eight years older than I am. Sebrina was two years older than Juli. Sebrina died of brain cancer before I was born.
My remaining sister has just one memory of Sebrina, the one who died. She remembers two girls sitting in a little red wagon. She reached back to hold her big sister’s hand—small hands sticky-warm, heads together, giggling. After Sebrina died, my then-two-year-old living sister would escape into the streets at night, looking for her missing sibling.
Sebrina could not have anyone over to play. My sister scratched her face until it bled because the morphine made her nose itch. The neighborhood kids came over in hopes of watching her die.
My father said that Sebrina couldn’t swallow very well, with the cancer and the chemo and the morphine. She could only drink through a straw. Her pediatrician gave Dad a blank death certificate to fill in whenever he needed to. My father said that was technically illegal, but it was a professional courtesy given to doctors.
Sebrina slept in bed between her parents. Her mother took sleeping pills. Sebrina asked for a glass of milk in the middle of the night. Our father brought her milk, but did not give her the required straw. He sat next to Sebrina in the middle of the night and watched her drown. He had tried everything he could, so he just let her go.
My sister’s body was donated to the local medical school. My sister had been the youngest patient to receive chemotherapy in the state of Washington. My father said, “They would call us when they were done with this bit or that, and ask if we wanted her back piecemeal. So we didn’t bother to claim her body.”
There was no body, so there was no grave. There was no grave, so there was no headstone. My father chose a photograph instead of an epitaph, oversized and matted in blue velvet. He said that he kept Sebrina’s picture on his office wall, so that parents of terminally ill children would trust him to understand. I think he meant this as a sign of compassion. I don’t think he realized that it sounded like a business plan. My four-year-old sister had a charming smile and hair like that of a downy chick. As a child, I looked at the picture on the wall and wished that I thought she was beautiful, but I couldn’t get past her lack of hair.
My remaining sister baked cupcakes one year on Sebrina’s birthday. She gave me a photo of Sebrina before she had cancer, when she still had blond curls. I keep it in my china cabinet with other fragile things. I do not bake for ghosts, but I type words on pages; words like futile, words like unlamented grief, words like intangible sister.
Simplify to the following:
My sister drowned drinking a glass of milk. My sister drowned drinking milk, and my father looked on. My sister was going to die anyway. There was no law that allowed mercy killing. My father was a doctor. My father had a blank death certificate. My father had morphine. My sister drowned in a glass of milk, and my father watched while his wife was sleeping.
When I was eight and my sister, Juli, was sixteen, our father left us alone in the woods for a week to manage his campground. There was no electricity, there was no running water, there was no telephone. There was no car in case of emergency, although there was a canoe my sister could row to a nearby hunting lodge. When I was eight and my sister was sixteen, two drunk campers came to our campsite and wouldn’t leave. They were tall, bearded men, unwashed from living in the bush country. They thought that my sister was very pretty. When I was eight and my sister was sixteen, our father left us in the woods alone without a telephone, and we had to lock ourselves in our cabin until the leering men went away. My sister told me, “If I tell you to run, go out the window as quietly as you can and climb in the window of the cabin next door. I’ll meet you there. Don’t look back or wait for me in the woods, just run as quietly as you can.” My sister is fully grown now and still only four-feet-nine-inches tall. I don’t know how she was so brave that night. She says it was because she had already lost one sister, and she wasn’t going to lose another one.
When I was thirty-four and divorced, my father bought tools for my new house. He built a railing in the attic to keep my children from falling over the edge. He gave me a yellow tape measure with a built-in laser level that he had borrowed from his wife’s sister. He was supposed to return it, but he said that I needed it more. She had gotten divorced the previous month and was struggling with money and home repairs and all the same things that I was. He chose me over his sister-in-law and gave me her tape measure. I will resist the urge to meditate on the measure of a father. Some metaphors are too easy to have substance. I still have that tape measure. That was the same year he spent Christmas with his stepchildren in a scenic little cabin an hour from my sister’s house. He didn’t tell my sister that he was in town. His wife and replacement family don’t like her very much.
A limerick, taught to me by my father when I was nine:
tried dynamite for a thrill.
They found her vagina in North Carolina
and bits of her tits in Brazil.
When I was twenty, my father gave me away at my first wedding. My father insisted on wearing a different color bowtie and cummerbund than the rest of the wedding party. I begged him to pay the fifteen dollars to rent the matching tie, but he refused. My father insisted on wearing buttons in the shape of penguins down his white shirt. I begged him to take them off, but he refused. My father told me, “Slowly, slowly,” as we started to walk down the aisle, and he looked at me with his big, light blue, unblinking, somewhat psychotic eyes, and I realized that I should have insisted that I take this walk with my mother and not my father. I looked at his reddened, dry hand on my elbow and felt nothing at all. Don’t worry—the marriage didn’t last. I got married again and revised my choices the second time around.
taped a photo of my shirtless father to my refrigerator door. His shaven, sagging chest repulsed me. I left the picture there until I moved away five years later.
I could neither stand to look at it, nor betray him by removing it.
- betray, as in forsake,
- betray, as in delude.
- Fact: I deluded my father by leaving it there, because I could not forsake him by throwing it away.
At the end of every childhood summer, my father threw a birthday party for me and invited every child we knew peripherally, because we had no real friends. We played limbo. There was a map and a treasure hunt. He bought me roller skates one year, but boys’ blue skates instead of girls’ white ones. At the end of every summer, we went home with a scrapbook my father made with captioned photographs and all of our drawings and every letter we had written to our mother that he had never mailed home.
Sketch for the reader:
A six-year-old writing home with left-handed penmanship, yellow lined paper with cross-outs and erasures so determined they wore a
hole through the paper. My mother checking the mailbox every day we were gone and coming away with empty hands.
When I was nearly forty, my father came to visit and bought me a simple charcoal grill. He sat on the stairs of my front porch and looked at the diagram for the grill, then looked at the screw in his hand, then looked at the diagram, and then set down the screw. Then he picked up the screw and looked at the diagram again. I remembered watching him perform surgeries. I remembered watching him build boats. Plenty of times I had handed him tools while he fixed our diesel engine as we bobbed on the open sea. When I was nearly forty, I watched my father pick up a screwdriver in one hand and a screw in the other and look at the diagram over and over as if it were a Dead Sea Scroll. His hands shook. My boyfriend sat down beside him and picked up the screwdriver because Paul could see that this man who used to save people’s lives could no longer assemble a simple grill, and he didn’t know how to say so. My father looked at Paul with chagrined gratitude. My father’s knuckles were big and red, and the backs of his hands had ropy, thick blue veins. Later that day, he asked me to make him a peanut butter sandwich. I realized that he had forgotten how.
There was something weird that happened in a bathtub with my father when I was small. I remember him asking, “Where’s the penis?” I don’t remember anything else. Perhaps the question was only an anatomy lesson. Perhaps I remember nothing else because nothing followed. I worry that if I try to remember too hard, I will fill in details with my imagination and no longer know what is true.
- My father and his wife, Margaret, had sex while my brother and I were in the room. Afterwards, we snuggled in bed with them. We were all naked.
- My father walked around completely nude, and I could describe his blue-headed penis as easily as I could describe his bearded face.
- There was a bare-chested mermaid on his cribbage board, and a mug shaped like a breast where you drank out of the nipple.
- But my father never touched me.
- covert as in hidden, as in camouflaged, as in shame.
- abuse as in misdeed, as in perversion, as in wrong.
- secret as in ambiguous, as in furtive, as in all the things you did not tell your mother.
My father was the smartest man I knew. My father was a renowned physician in Alaska. My father was everyone’s favorite dinner party guest because he was so attentively charming. My father lost privileges at Genesee Hospital after he had an affair with the mother of one of his special-needs patients, who then tried to commit suicide when my father tired of her. My father was a school nurse after he retired. My father wore a Dr. Seuss hat to school every day. My father was fired for looking at the students too closely, holding their hands too long.
When I was three, my brother and I spent every-other-weekend at our father’s house, before he moved to Alaska. When I was three, he locked us in the bedroom at night and left us an empty mayonnaise jar to pee in. When I was three, I did not know how to squat over a jar to empty my bladder, and urine ran down my legs as I pounded on the door and begged my father to let me go to the bathroom.
Revise to include:
You never feel anything when you see your father until the moment he walks away and it is too late to run after him crying, “Daddy,
Daddy, come back.” And in that moment, you remember the feel of his scratchy wool coat under your cheek, and you remember
when he twirled you around in circles, and still your mouth remains closed as you turn away and drive back home.