Songs of My Father

I first met my father when I was six months old. There is a picture of him holding me for the first time in the doorway of my grandmother’s house. A military issued desert hat, the color of sand and rock, rests on his back, the string pressed against his weather worn neck. I sit precariously on his tanned arm, a pudgy wary-eyed baby, while he grins into the camera. He had just returned from a year in Saudi Arabia. 

    This picture defines my childhood. There are others like it: yearly photographs that capture his returns to our family; evidence that we were each growing up and apart during his long absences. In these, his grin seems to fade and his eyes grow more distant as the photo-series progresses, while I become less cautious. I cling to his khaki uniform tightly, sure that if I love him enough, he will choose to stay home. Today I know the names for those innocent desires: AWOL; Mutiny. Then my reality was this: orders were received, gear checked, bags packed, boots shined, and hair trimmed. My father put his jeans and t-shirts away in the back of his closet where his clothes would sag with the weight of the briny humid air. There was nothing to do then except wait. 

Days after my father was gone, I’d stand with other swollen eyed children, friends whose fathers left with mine, in the school gym to sing patriot songs: the Marines Hymn, This Land is Your Land, and America the Beautiful.  As our voices rose, I felt the great sweeping elation of our unity, our collective anger and pride and fear bubbling up and out of us, loud enough, we hoped, for our fathers to hear us from their tents in the sand. When the last off-key voice quieted, there was only the sound of our ragged breathing, our beating hearts. 

 

I am a parent of a daughter now, a petite seven year old with a gregarious and inquisitive nature. Madison was one when I left her father, Brian, forcing her to become a child of a poorly functioning fractured parent home. In the first few weeks of our separation, her father and I worked out a makeshift custody agreement. He would get her every other weekend as well as one evening of the week; the total number of days he saw her in a month came out to around six. He didn’t ask for more time, and then, I was happy for it. I had purposefully never stopped to count the number of days I’d seen my own father, perhaps because I was afraid to reduce our relationship to a number that small. I had hoped Madison would grow up accustomed to seeing her father a handful of times a month. If she could grow up with this arrangement, it might seem normal to her, and she would never question the immediacy of his love.  

It has been six years and she cries when she cannot see him. A few months ago, after calling him and getting his voicemail, her voice thickened with grief, and she cried fat tears. She missed him. She was angry at him. He never answered her calls. Why? It is not the amount of time that has passed that bothers her; at least I don’t think so. Time is merely the physical remnant of the absence of her father. The absence of her father looks like a driveway that stays empty, the smell of gasoline and fresh cut grass missing from her clothes, the phone that remains silent. Madison knows it is supposed to be different. Is this subconscious understanding some co-evolutionary trait? At the most basic biological level, parents and their children exist symbiotically and inter-dependently. But this deconstructed explanation removes the dull ache of parental absence. It reduces the situation to a stream of facts. Small girls care nothing for facts. The Portuguese call it saudade: the feelings that remain after a person is gone, someone who may or may not be coming back. There is no word for it in English. When you say it, it sounds like a sob, like the way grief feels. She is filled with the ache of uncertainty: will she see her father again?

    

My father’s departures were the images of him kneeling next to me, the sky grey with early fog, the air cool, and me shivering inside my jacket. The hug of him all starch and kiwi and salt water: the smell of formality. He was saying goodbye and I was glaring at the ugly ship behind him, grey and imposing. I wanted to bury myself into the scratchy uniform on his chest until I felt delirious from the fumes oozing from his jacket. And then we would walk away, my mother, sister and me, back to the car without him. As the weeks bled into months, his scent dissipated from the house. I distinctly remember kicking the wall next to my bed when I was four or five and my father had left. I howled, the hurt inside so great I thought it might crush me, turn me inside out. The pain of my bare feet meeting the walls matched how I felt inside. We called his absence, away on ship. It meant eight to ten months of my mother, sister, and me, alone. It meant packing cardboard boxes full of homemade Rice Krispy treats, packs of gum, playing cards, letters, socks, magazines, chapstick, and cookies. It meant a fierce desire to hide myself in the box. 

I tell some of these stories to Brian. I don’t want you and Madison to have the same relationship that my dad and I do. He instantly panics at the thought of being compared to my father. Of course we won’t have a relationship like yours, he reassures me. I promise I’ll be there for Madison more. And he will. For a few weeks he’s present and available and pours out his love for her. She notices the extra attention, and she notices the way it ebbs and then stops. She is presented with the potential of a better relationship and then present when it fades away. She cries, I wish my dad lived with us, like other girls in my class. I want to believe that I wish he hadn’t put forth the extra effort at all. But that is a lie I’ve told myself for years.

 

Once, before my parents divorced, my father stayed home with me while I was sick. This memory, hazed with fever and time, prevents me from remembering why it was my father and not my mother who stayed. I was sick and still I was eager at the prospect of spending uninterrupted hours with my father. His presence was a commodity we, my mother, sister, and I, fought for. I lay on the cool sheets of my bed, faced the big blank wall, and shivered. Our house was ugly, I’d heard my grandmother say so, but I loved it. I loved the cool tile under my feet, and the big windows that commanded a view of the ocean. Our house often boasted a slew of invaders; troops of maggots and slugs advanced toward the threshold of our slider door at night. In the morning my mother would open the door, -- she loved the smell of salt-water moving in currents throughout the house, -- and cry out in disgust when she accidently tramped on the slimly battlefield. 

The day I was sick, skin taut and prickly against the cool air, the wall next to my bed lit up like a TV screen. I blinked my eyes hard, but the images stayed. Cartoon characters bounced around on my wall, each inside its own little box. At first I was thrilled. I tried to focus on a single TV screen, but found that I couldn’t. I was taking in all the images at once, and I felt like I did when I floated on my back in the ocean: body weightless, my heavy head filled with salt water. I called out to my father, rolled over, and threw up violently onto the floor. 

He rushed in, dressed in jeans and a shirt. His blue Levis were a shock to me. I rarely saw him without his uniform on. I don’t think my father was good at taking care of me that day. I’m sure he cleaned up the mess I’d made, and probably called my mother to ask her what to do. He seemed frustrated and helpless, wiping up chunky regurgitated bits of cheerios and curdled milk, with large handfuls of paper towels. What I remember though, is that after he cleaned me up and I was back in bed, he sat beside me in his crisp blue jeans. And he did not look like my father and maybe that was the fever rendering him foreign, but when he sat down beside me he still smelled like Kiwi, like my father, the Marine, and sleep found me.   

     

A memory: we were going to the beach. I was riding in the backseat of daddy’s car, and my legs were sticky against the black seat; each time I moved my skin pulled away like a band aid being ripped off. Daddy rolled down his window. Ocean air hit my face, my hair was in my eyes but I was grinning, mouth open tasting the salty ocean air, the way it burned going down.

At the beach I would beg him to carry me across the hot sand. I knew I was too big to be carried, but I was going to make up for all the times he hadn’t been here, smelling like Kiwi and starch. I would beg to be carried and when he said yes I would rest my head on his shoulder, feel his skin on mine, how small I was next to him, and I would say in my head, do not forget this, do not forget this. 

We were going to the beach without my baby sister or mommy. This meant that daddy was mine, that I was his, that right then, wind rushing up my nose, the blue line of the ocean coming closer, I could pretend he loved me the most. 

He did carry me across the hot sand. I didn’t try to hide my smile. His face scrunched up but he didn’t complain about his feet, the way I knew they were burning as he raced towards the shore. It was enough to be held. 

We got to the shore and I jumped from his arms and raced through the layers of foam and seaweed until I was stomach deep in cold salty water. I dove under and felt the water numbing my thoughts, filling my ears with the deep pounding quiet. 

When I looked for Daddy he was laying out the gold and red blanket, the one with the Marine emblem on it. It’s the blanket my sister and I hid under when he was gone and we were afraid and scared and lonely. It seemed wrong to bring it to the beach but I didn’t say that. Instead I waved until he saw me. 

“Come play with me,” I shouted.  I watched him shiver as he entered the water. “Take me to the big waves,” I commanded. I didn’t actually like the big waves, they scared me. The force and noise and quickness, they rolled up with speed and I was afraid of drowning each time. But when daddy held me it was safe. I could wrap my legs tight around his body; laugh at the big waves that couldn’t knock him down. 

He picked me up, shivered as my wet skin clung to his and walked further into the deep. It was enough to be held. He ran with me through the water. When I got cold carried me back to the blanket and wrapped me in a towel. My legs stuck out like broken pelican wings. He opened an orange soda for me, dug a hole beside the blanket, and placed my soda in the cup holder he fashioned in the sand.  

“Daddy, what would happen if bad guys came here,” I asked. 

“Bad guys won’t come here,” he stated, so precise I almost believed him.

“But what if they do?”

“Then the Marines will protect you.” 

“But what if you’re away on ship?”

“Then I would leave and come back. I would run and rescue you and your sister and mommy.” I was placated by his lie, and returned my attention to the soda. 

We were back in the car, driving home to mommy and sister. My skin was warm and tingled like goosebumps; my hair was drying crunchy from the ocean. I was tired but I didn’t close my eyes because I didn’t want to forget daddy’s arms around me, squinting in the sun, hot sand, sand on our soda cans, splashing in the ocean, the roar and crash of waves as I hummed a song I learned at school.

 

My mother once described to me a time when she and my father were stuck on the freeway together: typical Californian traffic. They were wedged in between thousands of other cars, all sputtering and humming on the hot asphalt. And there I was with your dad, she told me, hours alone together with nowhere to go. It was wonderful

 

    My father saw me for two hours every year from the time I was ten until the time I was eighteen. A formal custody agreement gave him three months annually. I spent summers with my mom’s parents, and it was there that he’d stride through my grandmother’s back door, an image that returned every year, always looking a little older, a little more harried. (On at least two uncharacteristic occasions, I stayed with him for a full week. His house was bright and too clean. Countertops empty of crumbs. The sink gleamed with newness; I doubt it ever held a dirty coffee cup. Bare white walls threw back the silence. The visits were marked by trips to movies, a place where our silences could be filled with the problems of archetypal characters whose plot lines were cleaner than ours. Let’s go swimming, my father would announce, and my sister and I would clamber to get our suits on. When we arrived at the pool we watched our father swim laps: a pale fish slicing through water. By the time he was finished, he was too tired to swim with us.) 

It was the same every year. I leapt into his arms, despite months I’d spent planning to act indifferent to his arrival. Then he drove my sister and me to Claim Jumpers or Denny’s. We ordered, and filled awkward silences with stories that began with “remember when,” since we had so few new stories to talk about. My father always inevitably said the same four things: “I’m proud of you,” “you know the value of a dollar,” “I’m praying for you,” and, “You know I love you.” The words fell onto the empty table in front of us, splattered there like the menus we’d already looked at. He stared at us awkwardly, unsure of himself.      

I didn’t think my father knew who I was. I was a girl who measured her worth by how many boys led her into quiet corners to grip her back with their sweaty hands, and breathe hard into her neck. My father, unaware, praised me for my resourceful and level head. He claimed that God loved me, and in this love I might find the peace my earthly father couldn’t give. But my father prayed to the God of Abraham, who bound his son with rope, a blade held over pale neck. I prayed to the man who pulled children into his lap to tell stories, and taught them how to love. 

So we ate our salads, our pancakes, our ice cream, and he drove us back to my grandmother’s house. Then he hugged me goodbye, repeated the lines of the role he played, and was gone. Over the next year he would send me a few emails, and some hand written letters, and I would rebel at the idea that our relationship was defined by the amount of money my father spent on postage stamps. His phone calls were brief, three to four minutes where he told me he was praying for me. His letters were always cryptic, always signed, I’m proud of you. You know I love you, Dad.  

 

My father came to my high school graduation. The day he arrived, he, my sister, and I sat around a sticky table eating burritos. My father began speaking in the only way he knew how, until my sister and I stopped him. Dad, we said, if all you’re going to do is say the things you always say, then you should leave now. We want to have real conversations with you. We want to know you, our father, not the man who commands men

He sat there shocked. I think we were shocked too. To have taken a stand and said the things that had been on our minds for the last ten years. 

For the next three days he told us stories. He made us laugh. We hadn’t known he was so funny. Or that he was a trouble maker in high school, that he’d plastered bologna on someone’s car in the midday sun and it had fried there to the paint. We didn’t know he liked the Food Network Channel. We didn’t know he was capable of that with us. When we knew, we wanted more.     

 

When I was twenty, Madison, Brian, and I visited my step-sister, Alexis,–my father’s second wife’s daughter–, at her home in Southern California. We drove through Camp Pendleton’s brown gates, past bored looking armed guards, and they lazily waved our vehicle forward. Alexis’s military issued house was, like my childhood house had been, within a few miles of the ocean. Standing on her patio, the sun on my back, briny air whipping hair into my face, the years away melted and unearthed the image of my father and me, at the beach, my small hand in his.  

In her house, the air-conditioner hummed and ticked, and the tiles were cold and sticky on my bare feet. I introduced her to my one year old daughter and her father, my boyfriend. Later Alexis pulled me into the kitchen to ask if I was really happy with Brian. I shrugged. I knew even then that he and I weren’t going to make it. It seemed instead a matter of how long we might ride it out for, our relationship a turbulent wave that had peaked and was sputtering and slowing as it reached the shore. Leaning there against my step-sister’s kitchen counter, just a few miles from my own childhood home, I felt strangely impartial to the prospect of our eventual dissolution. 

Alexis was throwing a birthday party for her daughter the next day and asked if we wanted to come. She mentioned my father would be there and then seemed shocked I hadn’t known. Her own relationship with my father had always seemed more complete than my own–she once told me she didn’t understand why he didn’t return my calls. I called him then. 

“What are you doing tomorrow?” I blurted out as he answered, his “hello” as precise as his service in the military had been. 

“Oh geez,” he hemmed and hawed, “well I’m actually in California right now, we’re still trying to sell the house, and I’m going to a birthday party for Kaelynn.”

“Dad, we’re here right now visiting. We should get together. You can meet your granddaughter.” The ocean rumbled in my ear. 

“Oh well I’ll have to see if we have any other plans and get back to you, I’m not sure what we have going on.”

“Ya, no worries,” I forced myself to say. I said goodbye and hung up the phone. 

 

From the time of my parent’s divorce when I was five, my relationship with my father had been as wild as the ocean’s currents. If I looked far out across the span of our relationship, everything seemed glassy and smooth. It was only when I paused for breath with longing,–for a dad who wanted to know what books I was reading and who’d I’d gone to homecoming with and what my favorite color was and how I imagined a different life with him and how I hated that he sent money for my birthday every year because it felt like a bribe, a buy-out for a father who wasn’t ever there–, that I noticed the way dirty foam bubbled on a shore littered with trash. As a teenager I would often call him during the months I knew he was home. Two or three minutes into the conversation he would say he was busy and could he call me back soon? Then months would pass before I called him again. He was still in the service and moved around every few years. Despite this, he and his wife frequently visited her daughter in California. He had visited me twice in the eight years since I’d lived in Washington. The last time he came I was pregnant. It was his first time meeting my boyfriend. He seems like a good guy, my dad remarked to me after visiting with him for only a few hours. It’s weird, my mom had said, how similar your dad and Brian are.

Months after our last phone call, when he was too busy to see me, he texted me to ask for my address; he wanted to send a Christmas card and gift to his granddaughter. My address had changed since I’d separated from Brian. I asked him not to send us anything, anymore.

 

When Madison was two she threw a tantrum so violent, kicking walls and screeching in my face, that I became livid, then silent. When she was calm enough, she sat in my mother’s lap and sobbed. I sat in the chair next to them, arms crossed, hands clenched. 

“Why are you upset,” my mom soothed. At first, Madison refused to answer, instead issuing a series of aggravated grunts. My mom persisted. 

Madison finally bleated, “I just really miss my Daddy,” and the torrent of tears that had mostly subsided, began again. 

    I hid my face in my hands and wept. In that moment I lost track of who I was. Was I my daughter, sitting in her mother’s lap, or my mother herself? Or were we collectively the female version of the trinity, all existing within each other’s pain? 

 

When my daughter cries for her father, I am incapable of detaching myself from her grief. Not because I am her mother but because when she, with swollen eyes, tells me that her throat hurts from her sadness and curls on her side to face the wall, I am once again that same child, weeping for my father. I’ll say, when I was little my dad was gone all the time, and, I haven’t seen him in eight years, so she won’t feel so alone in her suffering. 

My mother used to beg my father to see my sister and me. She’d cry, threaten, bargain, and plead, whatever she thought it might take so he would take us for more than a few hours a year. When I was angry at his absence and needed to find fault with someone, my mother was always closest. Why can’t I live with him, I’d yell at her. And always, unflinching, though she later admitted the great pain these statements caused her, she’d tell me simply, he’s allowed to have you for three months out of the year. She never said, but he doesn’t

So I do the same. I call Brian and I beg. I plead. I want to document Madison’s tears, record and send them to him and say, see, see how she aches? I want his tears to match her own, until he says, yes, yes, I can see her needs, and I can meet them now, now that I know. But I don’t. 

How do we measure our fathers’ love: In the amount of money he spends on postage; the brief phone calls filled with the static of thousands of miles of distance; hugs that feel formal and forced; emails that are cryptic or go completely unanswered? In the beginning it was easy for me to find fault with Brian. Now, I understand that people can become accustomed to anything. Because we have had our current unofficial custody agreement for so long, I believe Brian is complacent in the schedule. It works for him. When Madison asks him why she can’t see him more, he says that he’s busy at work, or he’s already made plans. He promises to see her later. Later is never now. For years I never considered what it must feel like to have to ask to see his child. Perhaps the pain of feeling like he wasn’t allowed to be the primary parent anymore, because he had to ask for what was rightly his, was greater than the pain of not seeing her for days on end. Perhaps he felt as though he had been typecast by me: one day he was the father playing airplane with his daughter, stopping for breaks of cheerios and cups of milk; the next day he was the baby daddy, allowed to see his daughter every other weekend, his horde of male friends infecting him with every baby mama drama horror story they could think of.  Perhaps the situation itself,–he is not the primary parent–, is the reason he stays away. In which case, I am equally and painfully at fault. 

My father too, had his own reasons for his absence. He was away for a year at a time, home for only a few months, and then gone again. It wasn’t a choice, he’d tell me over phone calls. I know your mom is taking really good care of you girls, he’d say. I’m sending you some money; look for it in the mail. I don’t want money, I want you, I’d tell him, to which there was never a response. 

By the time she was three, Madison could call her father unassisted. She’d wait patiently for him to answer. Except that he rarely did. She is seven now. “I want to call my dad,” she’ll state, “I know he probably won’t answer, I’ll leave him a message.”

Madison makes more phone calls to her father than I ever did to mine.  

Brian and I still don’t have a custody agreement. I think, when we separated around the time of our daughters’ first birthday, we were both too afraid to go to court. We liked the idea that we were mature enough to figure out visitation rights without the ruling of a judge. So on the weekends when she goes to her dad’s house, I’ll sit to my bowl of oatmeal at breakfast, and I’ll pray that God nourishes the food to my body, keeps my loved ones safe, and helps strengthen the relationship between my daughter and her father, amen. 

On Sunday night she trudges through the door, usually with frizzled, unbrushed hair, clothes she has been wearing since the day before, and tells me that the only thing she ate that day was cookies and a pickle for breakfast. I ignore the hair, the clothes, the food, and I ask her if she had fun. Her father will have just pulled out of the driveway, and she will turn to me with red eyes about to spill over and say, “My dad didn’t spend any time with me.” 

“Well what did you do,” I’ll ask as I pull her into my lap.  

“He played video games and I played by myself,” she’ll bury her face into my shoulder. “He said he had work to do on his computer and he ignored me. He took me to grandma and grandpa’s house and I spent the night there, without him.” 

In those moments I struggle to remain only her mother: stable and emotionally capable of helping her separate her feelings. What I want to do is shrink, grow smaller, until my body closely resembles hers, and I can take her hand in mine and tell her that I’m angry at my father too: we are sisters in our pain. 

Madison’s relationship with her dad is not always turbulent, and it is unfair of me to paint it so. I try to help my daughter concentrate on the good. When she has an exceedingly great time with him,–when they have read books, built ships out of Legos, and watched shows together–, we talk about it in detail. When she is able to spend extra time with him, she waits, half anxious and excited by the door until his silver sedan pulls into the driveway. “He’s here, he’s here,” she shouts, throwing on her coat and running outside to leap into his arms. Her excitement is painfully beautiful. I ache for the possibility of her continued joy. I worry that my insistence that they have a better relationship has more to do with me than it does with her. Because I do not want my daughter to grow up angry and unwanted, I push at her father to be there more. But perhaps the gestures I use to push him towards his daughter are only pushing him away.

 

Five years after my visit to California, when my father had chosen something else,–a wife and step-daughter–, over me, my grandmother, my mother’s mother, called me to talk about love. I do not remember who brought up the conversation. But I do remember these exact words. 

“You cannot give up on your father.”

“Why,” I begged her, sobbing into the phone. “Why do I have to be the one to try so hard? Why do I always have to call him, why doesn’t he ever return my calls, why doesn’t he want to see me more? Why can’t we have a different relationship?”

“Briana, I can’t answer that. But I know that when you get to the end of your life you will regret the opportunity you might have had.”

“Grandma, it hurts to love him. It hurts to have him in my life.” 

“Of course it does. Love is pain.”

    The wounds I’d pretended were healing had only festered over time. My anger and love and pain bubbled beneath the surface of a deteriorating skin. I knew enough about medicine to know that I’d have to cut the wound open again in order to clean it. I trapped my frustration onto a page and sent it to him. I want something different from you, I wrote. I want you to be the dad who’s there, the one who wants to know what I do for fun, the one who shares jokes with me, and takes me to lunch, the one who doesn’t have to say he loves me. He responded with his own misunderstandings. He blamed me for shutting him out. I blamed him for pushing me away. We didn’t see that we were fighting for the same thing. 

    Eventually, after several angry emails and the dwindling possibility of our relationship moving forward, I wrote, you had the opportunity to see me and you didn’t. Why didn’t you love me enough to be there? I specifically referenced the time in California, when we’d been less than fifty miles from each other, but I realize now that I was asking the question for a lifetime of absence. 

    I can’t remember what his response was, but I can remember that he didn’t blame the military, my mother, or me. He apologized, not as a captain of the Marines, or the ex-husband of a mother doing a good job, but as my father. And there seemed to be a shuddering intake of breath issue from both of us, in this admission. 

 

    When I emailed him a few years ago, my father had told that we might never have the relationship I wanted; it just wasn’t what he could give. He asked if he could call me and I had said no, that I felt less vulnerable on the safety of the page. And that was true until the day, years later, I’d found out I was having a miscarriage. After his career in the Marines he had become a nurse, a healer of wounds. I was broken and empty and I called him to say, I’m bleeding, and I hurt. He talked to me for an hour: as a nurse, as a friend, and as my father. 

I call my father more often now.    

    “What’s up,” he’ll ask. 

I need to speak to a nurse, I’ll tell him. 

“Shoot.” 

And then he’ll listen while I explain the symptoms. He interjects to specify: pain in the abdomen or the belly button, temperature over 101? I can see him nodding on the other end of the line before he begins to give me his advice. We use medicine as code to talk about other things,–he says, my knees are shot, I can’t run marathons anymore, I had to find new hobbies, I’m lonely, and I say, Madison complains of stomach problems, is something actually wrong, should I take her to the doctor, am I a good mother?  

Recently I called him on behalf of Madison. On the other end of the line, his voice sounded deep with fatigue. After explaining her symptoms he told me to take her to the ER. It was almost midnight. Call me back and let me know what happens, ok, he’d said. In the car on the way to the hospital, Madison, shaking in the back seat asked, “is my dad coming?” I’d called him after I got off the phone with my own father. Her dad wouldn’t come. He said he had to work the next day and besides, the hospital was too far away. I told her he wasn’t. She began to cry. 

“Why?” 

“Because sometimes people don’t make the right choices.” 

“When he does these things I don’t think he loves me,” she shivered as she sobbed.

I couldn’t respond.  At the hospital, her father sent me text after text, asking if we’d been seen or not, and how was Madison doing. I asked Madison if she wanted to call her father. 

“No, it’s not the same as seeing him,” she grumbled from her hospital bed. I nodded. I knew. 

On the phone my father had closed our conversation with a familiar hymn. 

“You know I love you and I’m always prayin for you.”

I know, dad, I know, I’d whispered. 

And I did. 

I hoped that someday my daughter would know it too.