When I was two, my dad made my believe I could fly.
In one of my earliest memories, I am soaring above my parents and my sister. My arms and legs are outstretched, and there is nothing holding me up. I am flying, weightless, looking down on the family I spent so much time looking up to. I feel free, I feel adored, I feel special. After all, in this memory, I can fly.
I learned the truth as I got older and gained wisdom but lost magic. I wasn't really flying. My father was holding me up with one strong, invisible hand around my tiny toddler waist. One of my favorite pictures of my father shows him holding my sister up in a similar way when she was an infant. As a parent, it terrifies me a little. But there is a look of absolute joy on both their faces.
My mother caught me staring at this picture when we were sorting through the family album after my father died.
"He loved to hold you girls up that way," she said. "It scared me to death, but you both laughed and laughed when he did it."
Of course we did. It was a great illusion. We never felt like we were being held, we just felt...aloft.
"Hold me up, Daddy," I used to say. "Make me fly!"
"You're getting too big now," he'd say. There's a very brief period in our lives when our parents are able to hold us above their heads.
The years passed, and as they did, my relationship with my father changed. At best, we ignored each other. At worst, we engaged in verbal wars that included name calling and cruel accusations. Some children of alcoholics play the role of mediator and try to make peace in the family; I was not that child. I instigated arguments as much as possible, thinking some day I would get through. I didn't. By the time I left for college, I gave up. I did not respect my father, he did not respect me. He did not support me when I was in plays, musicals, or in my very brief tenure as a student athlete. He showed up to my high-school graduation and watched as I gave a speech to my classmates, but I didn't truly feel his presence. I had spent a good chunk of my life seeking his approval, but had grown convinced it would never come. I chose to go away to school in part to have as little to do with my dad for the next 4 years as possible.
The summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college found me working harder than I ever had in my life. Dad had just enough seniority and just enough overtime in the year prior that our family income had crept out of poverty level and into solid lower-middle-class territory. My financial aid package reflected this, and it was uncertain whether or not I could afford to stay. I had to come up with a startling amount of money that summer if I were to return to Centre College the next year. So I worked two jobs: one filling orders for The Nature Company and lifting heavy boxes over my head, one standing in a walk-in refrigerator in the Kroger produce department cutting up lettuce for the salad bar and lifting heavy boxes over my head. I worked at least 60 hours a week, often going right from a blazing hot warehouse to a freezing cold storage room. I was constantly dirty and hungry and my feet were always tired. On the other hand, my shoulders have never looked so fabulously sculpted.
I did not see my parents much that summer. What little free time I had I spent with my boyfriend. Dad was sober that summer, but I had learned that sobriety was short-lived and I tried not to get used to it. I did this by avoiding him as much as possible.
My last day of work, when I had met my summer earning quota as best I could, my father stopped me on the way out the door.
"Today your last day?"
"Yeah. One more shift at Kroger and then that's it. I'm meeting Jason after so I'll be home late."
"Listen," he said. And I stopped, thinking I was going to get one of his morality lectures about running around with boys late at night, even if said boy was probably the guy I was going to marry.
"I want you to know that I know you worked real hard this summer. To make sure you could go back to school. And I'm proud of you for that."
His voice quivered at the end, and he had tears in his eyes. He was sober, and the sentiment was genuine. My father was proud of me.
And all of a sudden, I felt like I could fly.
I've held on to that moment in the years since. After Dad died and we had said everything to each other that needed to be said, I would still revisit those words and know how wrong I had been about my father's feelings for me growing up. My father was hard to please, and knowing that I made him proud makes me proud. In dark moments where I feel like there's not much in this world I'm good at doing, I remember.
So last week when my own daughter and I had a bad day, I seized the moment. She had been forgetful and unfocused, failing to turn in a couple of homework assignments and running late for school, for guitar, for swimming. She had not made me happy, and I had let her know. Like my father, I am not so easy to please.
One morning, I took her face in my hands and looked into her eyes.
"Listen. You are smart. You are beautiful. You are talented. And you make me proud every day."
From the look on her face, I knew. She's way too big now for me to lift up.
But I just made her fly.