I have nothing now but praise for my life. I’m not unhappy. I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more…What I dread is the isolation. … There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready. ― Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are
I tell stories while my father drives. Even after all of these years, all this time, he navigates roads and we show off our scars and tell our war stories, binding ourselves to all the history — almost to a point where we’d sometimes smother ourselves with it. Open up old wounds and get lost in the wreckage. We’re runaways like that, one foot on the floor and one in the air, poised to run. All because of you, dear mother. All the years that we endured you. Call it a force of habit, because on the days when you’d thunder in and make a mess of the place — all plumes of smoke, ash and peach pie on the floor and beer cans under the bed — or the nights when you wouldn’t come home at all, my dad would collect the keys and we’d make a break for it.
From the strip of fast food joints on Merrick Road to the stalwart diners on Sunrise Highway that gleamed bright, we’d knit ourselves to fluorescent lights and the promise of a warm meal. For four years we lived in this magical world where we’d curtain ourselves off from the world and talk about my mother. Would she get better. Would she quit the coke. Would she be the magnificent woman we once remembered her to be. As I grew angrier at a woman who promised to change but never would, my father was eternally hopeful. He was a man who craved peace. He was a man looking for a great, sweeping love. And it broke my heart to leave him alone in that house with her, but he told me to shut it. Going to college was my way out. Come fall I left, and he chose to live among the remains of a woman he once thought he knew. Maybe he loved her or perhaps he was a martyr, I’m not sure he’ll ever tell.
The day I left for college, my father hugged me tight and said, run.
Years later he told me that I started to resemble my mother with the passing of each day. The black hair, pale skin and our affection for anesthetics. We’re a breed of difficult women and I could see how the possibility of my greatness was being ruined by the fact that I couldn’t escape the monstrous shadow that was her. Back then we told stories to fill the silences. We’d crank the gramophone that our mouths and kept going. At one point, I paused, tended to my hurt like a harvest, cultivating fields of damaged things that would never bloom. Meanwhile, my father kept on going.
Who could imagine that the tide would turn. That I’d come home all whitewashed, austere and gleaming clean, and he would be the walking wound? When you bottle the hurt of all the ones you love, it’s bound to puncture skin. He was bound to bleed. Me, my mother — we were the lesions, and he waited for her to leave and for me to get better, so it would be his time to hurt. And in my most selfish moment I abandoned him, and I was too damn proud to admit that I was a large part of the reason we spent four years not telling stories.
In children’s stories, after the calm, the storm, there’s always the resolution: a world, a life, tied up neat with a bow. All the children clap, wide-eyed, thinking the world will always be like this, solved. But we have to allow them this fiction, even for a little while, because we can’t be responsible for taking away the magic. We don’t want to be the one who turns off all the lights and locks all the doors. I never thought that the story of my father and me would resemble such beautiful fiction, since much of my life is an unfinished, abandoned canvas. Yet, we found our way back to one another, all bandaged up, filled with forgiveness.
After four years, I visited my father in Long Island, and although we’re older and much has changed, we found ourselves in a car, driving, telling stories. At one point during the day I paused, pointed to a collection of boardwalk beams festooned with white, hard, and sometimes coral shells, and asked, Are those barnacles? To which my father replied, yes, and then he gestured to all the cockles that had scattered in the sand, and said, You don’t want any of of that. They live off of others. And I shook and I sputtered and got all manic and he didn’t understand because we’d lost all that time, and before he dismissed this as yet another dark thing that Felicia loves, I thanked him. I’d been writing about barnacles all this time but I’d never experienced them with him. I never got to tell him that I’ve been thinking about the concept of attachment — how we bind to grow stronger and how others cleave to weaken.
You made this real for me, I said. And he smiled, laughed and walked to the car. I watched him in those moments, how he walked with a limp because his joints have started to stiffen, but he walked with such pride and dignity. All these years I was the wild, angry one, running off and creating and smashing worlds to bits, and he always the quiet one. And all this time I couldn’t see that he was noble. Noble to forgive me without saying a world. Noble to lean over a boardwalk and talk about barnacles. Noble to fold me into his heart all over again.
Whenever I was wild or lost, my father’s love was the thing that always brought me back.
And [he] sailed back over a year
and in and out of weeks
and through a day
and into the night of his very own room
where he found his supper waiting for him
and it was still hot