Friday, July 29, 2016

Forgiveness


"To err is human, to forgive divine." --Alexander Pope


My dad tells me he is an evangelical preacher. He has his own congregation, mostly Filipinos, and he is now married to a woman from the Philippines. Her name is Rose. Rose is wearing a floral-print dress and has what looks like a fresh haircut. She smiles a lot and speaks in broken English.

I haven't seen my dad in a while. He lives five hours south of where I live, but that is not the only distance between us. The greater distance is an emotional one. My father began abusing drugs when I was seven, and after my parents divorced, when I was nine, I only saw him a handful of times. Sometimes--too often--he didn't show up at all when we were supposed to meet. When he wasn't homeless, he moved around a lot. One of the studio apartments of his that I spent the night in was overrun by cockroaches. I could feel their spindly legs skittering across my neck as I tried to sleep. While away at college, in my late teens and early twenties, my childhood sorrow mutated into an impervious disaffection, almost a nonchalance, that was easier for me to manage.

I was twenty-three, newly married, with my first job, and I'd agreed, after some thought, to meet him for dinner at an Applebee's. He was in town for some religious conference--I wasn't really listening. It soon became clear that he wanted to show me that he had turned his life around and that he was experiencing some modicum of success. As he spoke, though, and grinned his crooked-toothed grin, a familiar rage began to flare up. I noticed that he didn't ask me any questions about myself. I snorted, thinking, "Where did this man get the audacity to call himself a man of god? To put himself in a position of authority, of superiority? Where was his humility?" 

I remembered the time when I was fifteen that he'd called. He was still struggling with his addiction at the time. I'd wanted to test him, so I'd said, "Don't you remember when you used to put me on your shoulders and run around with me, and I'd squeal in delight, repeating 'I'm a flying monkey!'?" I was looking for an apology. I was looking for him to acknowledge how he'd failed me, but all I'd gotten back was a weak, "Yeah, I remember. What do you want me to say, Shan?" Well, I wasn't going to spell it out for him.

So now, in this Applebee's, despite myself, I couldn't resist the urge to test him again, to slip into that familiar outrage. Perhaps he really had changed. Perhaps he was ashamed that he hadn't lived up to his financial responsibility while I was growing up. Maybe he could guess at all of the things he'd missed--the Sun-In and perm and mixed tapes and prank phone calls and raft wars and too-short skirts and school dances and sunburns and volleyball tournaments and self-destruction. I missed out on fatherly remonstrations. I was denied a mentor.

"So now that you're all, like, religious, do you think I am going to hell when I die because I don't believe in god?"

His smile grew stiff, manic. "Yes. That's right."

"So to be clear, I am going to hell and you're not? Despite..." and here I swept my hand over the table as if all of my little hurts and disappointments lay among the napkins and dirty plates "...everything?"

He nodded, looking as though he were unsure where this was going or how long it would last, hoping with every fiber of his being that it would end soon. 

He had failed my test.

Over the next several years, I didn't see him often. I only visited occasionally when I traveled south to visit my mom, and even then, the visits, for me, were just obligatory 10-minute pit stops.

I got a call one night when I was twenty-eight. Rose was on the line, and she was asking me to please drive down to see my father. He was in the hospital, having a triple bypass, and he was asking for me. My husband and I left immediately. 

When I got to his bedside before the surgery, he reached for my hand. It was the most tender he'd been toward me since I was a child. His hand was cold and dry, and his eyes were watery. He was afraid. I tried to be as reassuring as I could. 

As I sat in the waiting room, counting down the hours until his surgery was over, I grew short of breath, increasingly anxious. I hadn't told him I loved him; in fact, until the moment he was wheeled into the operating room, I hadn't even allowed myself to feel any real affection for him. But now, confronted with the possibility that he might die, I knew that I did love him. Just the fact that he wanted me there at a time when he knew his health was in danger spoke volumes. It may not have been the apology that I was looking for, but it was clear how important I was to him. So even though it was a dream that didn't die easily, maybe I needed to accept that it might not be something he was capable of giving, at least not in that way. It occurred to me that maybe he was scared of me. Maybe apologizing to me in the way that I wanted him to would mean confronting his shame, and my disappointment in him. And that's a tall order.

Once I had my daughters, my dad was thrilled. He visits them as often as he can, always bearing too many gifts: clothes, toys, coloring books, candy. Violet shows off, which, for her, means rolling around on the floor, making strange animal-like noises, and parading around in the different outfits he bought her. Harper always asks Rose to take pictures of her on her iPhone, and then immediately asks to see them. My dad grins from ear to ear watching their antics and asks for a hug before he leaves. 

Family has never been as important as it is to me now. That's one of the many things having my children has taught me.  So even though I feel justified in being angry at my father, and even though I think it's understandable that our relationship has been strained, I've learned that it's a mistake to think that you are going to live up to the life that you've imagined for yourself, or, by extension, that you can live up to the parent you imagined you would be. I also can see now that my father has a backstory that led him down a destructive path for many years, and that, as has been said, people wound each other in the same ways in which they were wounded.

My father can't take back the past, and he may never be able to apologize in the traditional sense, but he can be present now. He can develop a healthy relationship with my children. He has taught me that I need to meet people where they are in life and acknowledge the person he has become. And maybe, if we're lucky, he'll pass along some of that resilience. At long last, I've come to the conclusion that showing me that he has changed his ways is apology enough.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Graduation Day






The closer I got to my high school graduation, the more I began to take off my clothes. 

I don't mean I took them off in front of a boy, desperately hoping to please him, desperate for validation, self-conscious, daring myself to show my body to another person even if I hated it myself, acting out something I'd seen on TV or acting out of pressure or the fear of losing someone. 

At first, it was spontaneous. Once, my friend Meredith, who lived down the street from me, and I were rollerblading through a nearby neighborhood. (It was the '90s.) It was May, and the heat was already oppressive. My T-shirt was saturated with sweat.

"I wish I could take off my shirt," Meredith said. "It's not fair that we can't. Boys can get some relief, and we get nothing."

I nodded my head in agreement and shrugged. It was unfair, yes, but that was just the way it was.

Meredith reached out and touched my damp forearm. "Wait a minute. What if we did? I mean, there's no one around, and who cares anyway, right? Soon we won't even live here."

A wicked smile played across my lips. Finally, a touch of wonder to what had otherwise become my drab, predictable universe. "Yes." And like that, we wriggled out of our shirts and balled them up in our fists. We threw our heads back and laughed at our own brazenness; the air felt charged. 

Sometimes I was alone. I'd started driving out to the beach after dark to stare at the moon and squint through the diaphanous light from the nearby street lamps, past the soft curve of sand, out into the riotous swell of the ocean and black night. In front of me were shadows. I'd sit on the hood of my car and take off my shirt, letting the temperate breeze wash over me. In just three months, I'd be away at college. 

I was saying good-bye. 

I was saying hello.

For my high school graduation I chose to wear a sleeveless, beige dress with imperceptible belt loops and a stiff belt the same color. I wore stockings and nude kitten heels. I wore a cap and gown at the ceremony, like everyone else, but I was excited to reveal my outfit at the small party my mom had thrown for me. Really it was more of a gathering, just me and three senior friends drinking soda and eating pizza. 

At seventeen I hadn't realized how misguided the outfit was. The dress and heels were something a career woman would wear, to an interview or meeting or lunch with a client. I should have worn a flouncy, flirtatious skirt or my most comfortable jeans. But instead, subconsciously, I'd chosen to dress for the future, even though, in reality, I had no idea what that might look like.

Once my mother went to bed, I devised a plan. My friends and I would take off our clothes, each put on one of my mother's coats, go to the end of my block, then toss off our coats and run down the street naked. 

At first my friends scoffed at my idea, but before long, I'd convinced them and they'd become giddy with excitement. 

Fortunately, even though we lived in Florida, my mom had held on to a few decades-old coats that she kept in the downstairs closet. One was a denim ankle-length coat with fat navy buttons and a sash around the waist. Another was a brown rain jacket with a hood that hit my friend Jackie just above the knee. My friend Lauren chose the pale-yellow trench coat that brushed her mid-calf. That left just me without a coat, so I offered to take off my belt, shoes, stockings, and underwear in advance, and just heave the dress over my head when it was time.

We crept out my front door, giggling, shushing each other and telling each other to "be quiet," and made our way to the stop sign perpendicular to my street. It wasn't late, but it was very dark and still. The plan was to run naked a full block down the street, past the church and a couple of other neighborhoods, and then run back to the stop sign to throw back on our clothes.

I held still for a moment, my dress still on, looking out into that authoritative blackness. I thought about how confident my friends were, how they all seemed so sure that they could design their futures, and how I, no matter how intensely I looked, still couldn't see what was ahead of me. I was nervous to run naked down the street, yet I felt this persistent urge to tear into that immersive blackness, to tear through it. I would know the end when I got there.

I started counting: one, two ... We gave each other furtive glances, but when I said three, we flung off our clothes and took off like a shot, gulping for air, one of us squealing, our silky sheets of hair flying behind us.

We made it back to the stop sign without incident. I was panting, exhilarated. The shapeless night had been a worthy audience for my nakedness, both literal and figurative. I had been wholly unselfconscious, uninhibited, perfect. I had shed that laughable dress, never to be worn again, leaving it behind for good. I had loosened myself from where I stood and rushed into what was in front of me, even though I couldn't fully see it. 

And even though I didn't know it then, I had given myself a gift. I had given myself an insight: It didn't matter how I chose to dress or act based on other people's expectations or even my own expectations of myself. Underneath all that, there would always be a certain purity, as real as the body I was born with, that could be hidden away but never denied. The distinction between actual and artifice can be hard to make as a teenager, but knowing that the real me was a constant, not something that could be changed as easily as a dress, was comforting in a way. As I was about to move away from home and attend college, I knew that the learning curve might be steep and that I'd make mistakes along the way, but I also knew that I'd always be the same girl I've always been and that I could trust myself to recover from missteps and land right where I needed to be. It's funny sometimes how striving to have an adolescent adventure can instead lead you to do something you'd never planned on doing -- growing up.