Saturday, November 16, 2013

When I Fall

I've been thinking a lot about fathers and daughters.

It started when the kid tackled her dad last night as soon as he walked in the door from work. Before he could even put all of his stuff down, she grabbed him from behind and wrapped her arms around his waist in a ferocious and genuine display of affection. It was such a moment of pure adoration that I had to turn away; my heart hurt to see it.

I'd always heard about the special bond between fathers and daughters, but didn't really get to experience it myself. At least, not while I was a child. Just when my father and I began to truly know and appreciate each other, and just when we began to see the world from the other's point of view, I lost him.

In the years after I lost him, and especially after I lost my mom, I had moments of revisionist history where I could only see the good in my parents. Ask me about them, and they had suddenly ascended into sainthood.

But I also had moments of intense anger where I blamed them for how screwed up, to put it delicately, my sister and I are in our own distinct and colorful ways. They were both severely dysfunctional people who didn't always put forth a great deal of effort to live normal lives, and a lot of that crazy rubbed off on their children.

It doesn't help that my father was really two different people, and my memories are colored either "good" or "bad" depending on whether it involved "Sober Dad" or "Drunk Dad." I'd like to think that had "Sober Dad" been the only one I'd known, our story would have ended very differently. And more peppered with stories of me tackling him as soon as he got home from work.

I believe this is how it would have been. I do. Because no matter what, my dad was ready to catch me when I fell.

One night when I was very young, not even in school yet, I was awakened by a horrifying nightmare. A cartoon bear had appeared in the window above my bed, and as I struggled against the awareness that it was just a dream, I saw its massive claw break through the wall and reach to pull me out of my cozy bed.

I screamed a scream that my mother remembered and talked about for years. A scream that made her knees weak in the tub of warm water she was soaking in and made her not immediately able to stand up to see what was killing me.

Still screaming, I tore back my covers and took off out of my room and down the hall so quickly that my dad hadn't even gotten out of the living room yet. I found him in front of the couch, crouched, both arms open. It was the position you assume when you are about to catch something vaguely the size of a small human. I didn't stop until I was safe in his arms.

"Someone in the window!" I said. I have no idea why I said that. It had been a something, not a someone. And I had dreamed it. And it was wearing a hat.

My father's protective instincts and adrenaline in full force, he so aggressively took off out of the front door in search of the assumed peeping Tom that he ripped the nail clean off of his left middle finger. By the time he searched the yard, my mother had removed herself from the bathtub and learned that it was not so much a person I saw as Smoky the Bear.

We laughed about it later. Not at the time. But later.

My mother would always remember how Dad tried so hard to protect us that he painfully injured himself. I would always remember the pose he struck--part Johnny Bench, part firefighter catching a kitten falling from a tree.

I would see the pose one more time. This time I was an adult, living at home (but not for much longer; Jason had put a ring on it), finishing up my first year of teaching. I was experiencing a bout of the worst insomnia of my life and had taken a dose of melatonin given to me by my future mother-in-law. It was a Sunday night, and as we always did that year on Sunday nights, my parents and I were watching a rerun of Cheers. I felt a tickle on my bare leg and looked down to see a rather large, black, hairy spider on my leg.

I screamed loudly. And stood up and shook all my limbs in the most frenzied Hoky-Poky of my life.

And as soon as I starting shaking, my father got up off the couch, crouched, and held out his arms to me.

After the pandemonium had passed, after the spider was searched and destroyed and a Silkwood shower taken to remove all the spider cooties, I had to ask my dad a question.

"Why did you get up and hold your arms out when I screamed? What did you think was wrong?"

He puffed on his cigarette for a long moment. "You had just taken one of those sleeping pills, and you've never taken one before. I thought you were having a reaction. A seizure or something." Another puff. "I thought I might need to catch you."

That was the last time my father physically caught me. But he saved my ass from hitting the ground in other ways. When I was in grad school and my car needed a new transmission. When a long lapse between pay periods while Jason was still in school and I was working at EKU threatened to keep us from buying groceries during the holidays. When I was going through cancer treatment and taking unpaid days off from work.

And every time he wrote me one of those checks, turning the money over without a lecture or reproach, knowing that I would be good to my word and pay him back, I saw the same picture in my brain--my dad, arms out, keeping me from hitting the ground.

For that is at the heart of every decent father-daughter relationship. And what makes them so special. Even with his faults, I knew, deep down, that my father would always catch me. It's what the good ones do. And as much as 50% of the time, he was one of the good ones.

(That sounds sad and self-pitying, but it's not. I work in education. Some kids' dads don't even break into the double digits.)

All this to say that I understand why my daughter adores her father. Why she throws her arms around him so unabashedly.

A mother's job is to raise her daughter up as high as she can go.

A father's job is stand beneath, crouched, arms outstretched, waiting. Just in case.

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