Lara Lillibridge – Winner, 2016 CNF Contest
From contest judge Charles D’Ambrosio: ​The essay must lap us about and draw its curtain across the world —so says Virginia Woolf, and if that’s true, then here we have it, the real deal: “Essay Notes on Attachment Disorder” makes its deft way in the world as draft and fragment, beautiful in its brokenness, and yet seems to suggest the entire life, the only life, for now. Of course it’s a life revised, framed within a hard-won wisdom that might, in another fragile hour, be revised further —an essay perfectly at home in its faltering. In my hour of reading —and rereading— every wandering sentence held me in its sway, and I hardly noticed my surrender. This essay draws the curtain, wonderfully.

Essay Notes on Attachment Disorder

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.

Consider:

  • 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.

Define:

  • 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.

Fact:
The small sorrows experienced by my children wound me more deeply than the large sorrows of my own childhood memories.
Further clarify:
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 smal