A Father's Tale
Tears make tracks down your cheeks as you sit there, huddled in the same overstuffed chair you loved as a child, arms hugging yourself as if you were holding your heart inside your chest. I shift from foot to foot, fingers entwined, seeing you as if in a time warp; as if you were still small. I stand helpless, wishing to speak, to impart some knowledge or wisdom but I have none. This time I have none. One gentle hand rests on your shoulder as I sit beside you and then I slip my arms around you, urging your head down to my chest. It is all I have, all I can offer.
My mind reels, swimming through a sea of memories. Some of those memories are of beaches in the sunshine while other recollections are of breakers crashing into the rocks as the storms tried to rend the land boulder by boulder. I like to dwell on the sunny ones, the bright ones, the calm ones; but doing so is to deny the dark side, the dark side of you, the gritty, harsh, and unforgivable parts of life.
That first time I held you, only moments after your birth, I felt your weak wriggling as you wondered what had happened, what could have been so unkind as to evict you from the warm, safe cocoon and force you out into the cold, cruel world where you must survive on your own. Your eyes look up at mine, those pale green eyes that held all the warmth of the sun and the gelid frost of a glacier. I was lost. That moment became the dividing line in my life; from that moment on, everything was reckoned by “before you” and “after you.” As I held you warm against my chest, wishing I could draw you so close that I could absorb you, I felt a sharp sense of envy for your mother. She was the one who held you inside of herself for nine months, the one whose heartbeat echoed your own and with whom you shared life in the most intimate way possible. I would never be able to know such closeness, and the knowledge was bitter to me as the green peaches I would steal off the trees in the late spring. My life began that special day in that antiseptic room with blue walls and the beeping machines. There was such trust in those eyes, as yet uncomprehending of who I was and what our life would be like. Somehow you knew, and your sweet, innocent gaze touched something so deep inside of me that I did not even know it was there, touched it and drew it out. I experienced feelings I did not know were even possible.
Your sobs have subsided a bit now, but your shoulders are still shaking as I hold you, the front of my shirt wet. I don’t care. I don’t even notice, merely accepting that it is part of my job, part of what I signed on for that day in the hospital room when I lost myself in your brand new eyes and whispered into your ear, promising you the moon and stars or anything else that would make you happy, bring joy to you.
The feel of your hand in mine was like magic, and even more so was the look in your emerald eyes. They danced with excitement, but the joy you felt was tempered by fear. This would be the biggest step of your young life, what you had so eagerly awaited for a long time. Your small voice matched the bounce in your step as you practically dragged me to the front door of the school, sure of where you were going from the visit the day before with your mother. Once you spun around just to make sure she was still behind you, but this was my day. Yesterday you came with her to meet your teacher and deliver the mountain of supplies, but today was mine. You had insisted, and it filled me with pride to be the one holding your hand that morning. I felt your steps slow down as we approached the door, and then you came to a full stop and inhaled deeply. I knelt while you put your small hands on my shoulders and looked from me to the double doors a few feet away. They would be a big part of your life for so many years to come, but this was the first. This one was unforgettable, this one was for the ages. I glanced up at your mother, her eyes echoing the pride I felt, misted in the glare of the morning sun, but this day was for you and for me. I saw your chin quiver once and you bit your lip, then bravely leaned forward and kissed my cheek. “I need to go in alone, Daddy. I can do this.”
I didn’t even try to hold back the emotion that leaked from my own eyes as you stood up straight and flipped your nearly blonde hair over your shoulder and headed into the door without even one more glance back. In that moment, every new thing you tried came rushing back to me; the first time you rolled over, the first time you crawled, oh, how pleased you were with yourself that day! There was also the time you insisted that I take the training wheels off your bike. “I can do this, Daddy. I have to do it.” Your voice was filled with a confidence that belied the uncertainty in your eyes, but you faced it like a warrior. A smiling woman stood at the door of the school as you approached, a woman you would grow to know and love in future years, but you barely noticed her as you confidently strode through the door and down the hall to the room where your teacher awaited you and the other children.
That teacher would be the first, besides myself, to notice your creative flair, your innate feel for line and color as well as your love for written words. Light, but you loved stories. Night time was mine. It always amused me that you would try to stretch your bedtime by asking for more stories. I soon ran out of books even though you had your favorites that you wanted to hear again and again. At first, the books were enough to feed your thirst for tales, but after a while you began to ask for more. You wanted to know about me, about what life was like for me when I was a child, so I dredged up memories that seemed mundane to me but to which you clung like a life raft in the billows.
Those tales didn’t last forever. I eventually could recall no more of what my young years were like and the boyish adventures I had, so I was forced to make up new stories. The more I told, the wilder became the tales, and the more you clung to every word, insisting on more details, insisting that the characters become more beautiful and heroic, that the villains become more evil. I know now that it was you who made me a writer. In your childish innocence, you unlocked the door on my imagination and forced me to create, to paint pictures for you with my words. I owe you so much. So very much. These thoughts forced their way out of my eyes as I watched you disappear into your classroom , then stood and reached for your mother. Somehow she knew what was going on in my soul, and silently linked an arm through mine as we turned back to the car.
Now, I hold you as your world crumbles; silent yet speaking volumes that only you could hear, only you could understand. It was not yet the time for words, but I know they would come. I know that you will tell me when you were ready, so I hold you, letting my warmth comfort you while you shiver as if all the heat of your heart had been sucked out into the endless abyss between galaxies. I will wait. The most intense moments pass and I rise to brew tea, a sudden whim making me pour it into the little cup with purple flowers that you used for your imaginary parties when you were about four years old. Yes, it is still here, enshrined on the same low shelf where you left it so long ago. A slight smile bent the corners of your mouth and you look up, your unspoken thanks fully understood as I sipped from my own mug and sit on the couch beside you.
Color is returning to your cheeks as I reach for tissues and gently daub the salty tracks. I hate seeing you cry, hate that your heart has been broken. Every time it has happened, I have felt the same wild urge to rend, but destroy the one who has dared to harm my little girl. Sadness grips me as I realize that it has all been a lie, all an illusion. I could never protect you from anything. I don’t have the power, and I never did. You still fell off your bike and skinned your knees, you still got rejected by girls that you thought were friends, and boys still broke your heart when they turned away, their eyes caught by another girl. No, it is bitter to admit to myself, but I never could protect you.
School plays came and went and I was there for them, cheering and clapping as you walked out dressed like a tree or a pilgrim. The days before had always been filled with anxiety and nerves, “Daddy, what if I forget what to do? What if I forget the steps? That one was the time you had to dance on stage with a boy for the first time. I think you were seven, and all I could do was watch you practice, reassuring you that you would do well and promising that if anyone laughed I would make them walk the plank of our pirate ship. You always smiled at that, but I could not protect you.
Your doubts surfaced strongly when you became a teen, and our relationship grew awkward. Suddenly self-conscious around me, you drew closer to your mother. It was time for me to be patient and cheer from a bit further away. I never left, though, and never stopped telling you how precious you are, how valuable. It was all I could do. I could not protect you from the increasingly bitter gales that blew through your life. You had grown up and now sailed deeper waters further from shore and the safety of harbor. I was at the same time proud and terrified. I was proud that even as you grew you did not lose that adventurous, “I can do this” spirit that you had as a young child. I was proud that you would face your fears, confident that if it turned out that you couldn’t do it, I would be nearby to help. I was terrified because the things you tried now carried much higher stakes than skinned knees. The waves you now dared could overwhelm you, even slay you, rend your very soul, and I now understood that I could not protect you.
Tonight you sit silently for a long time, and I see your thoughts swirling behind your eyes, feel the turmoil within you. I always know, have always known even though I never pushed, never pried nor forced you to tell. I knew you would do so when the time was right for you. The rawness of the first moments have passed now and you can breathe again, so I smile at you, wordlessly letting you know that you are safe. Inhaling deeply, you set your cup on the end table beside the couch, folding your hands as if in prayer. My heart turns over, knowing that you are ready to tell your tale, and I suddenly am overwhelmed with my own doubts. Am I ready for this? Am I ready to hear? I don’t know. I feel like a fraud sitting here as you look at me with confidence shining out of your eyes. I am a fraud. I’m not your superhero. I am not a superhero at all. All I can do is listen.
The tale hurts us both, but you bravely tell it, and I listen, my heart breaking yet again over what has harmed you. I hide the anger I feel, stuff down the old urge to dust off the dented, rusty armor and saddle up my sway-backed nag to rush forth in your defense. Instead I pull you close once again, feeling the relief in your body as a palpable thing, and for the thousandth time in your life, I mumble soft words of understanding. I could not protect you this time either, and I die a little more for the fraud I continue to live. I have never been able to do that for you. I don't have a sword or a lance. There is no snorting, stamping charger on which I can ride out to do battle for you. This time, like all the other times, all I can do is say, “I love you, baby, and I’m here. Always.”
You kiss my cheek and respond, “I know, Daddy. I have always known.”
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