My seventy-four year old dad called last week, just as I arrived at Texas Children's Hospital. He called not because he'd learned that my sixteen month old granddaughter had had a seizure, a child he's never met. He called because I hadn't written him in a while.
I haven't seen him either, not since 1998.
I still owe him that letter, which I'll get to after this writing exercise. There's not a whole lot to say to him, except that my granddaughter is okay, that her name is London, that her seizure was febrile. When I told him what happened to her over the phone last week he seemed disinterested, as thought he was watching the clock. I mentioned that I planned to visit this summer with my younger children, to spend a week so I could see everyone, including him. I heard the faintest disbelieving grunt on the line. I've said this before.
I might tell him in my letter that my husband and I will break ground soon for our house, that we've finally selected the exterior color: HGTV's White Duck. Or that my son will be leaving his school for autistic children and mainstreaming in a Catholic school. Or that my skin biopsy came back benign. But I don't think these things would really interest him.
I recently typed up all the letters my family has ever written to me, to archive them. I needed to preserve the span of over forty years, remember who we were then, what life looked like when Nixon was president, when the Beatles were traipsing through Strawberry Fields, when Remco was a household name. We're not the same people now. It's not the same world. Some of us died long ago.
I feel closer to my father when I read through his letters. All the pieces make more of a whole, or at least a bottom and couple of sides. But I still don't want to see him, despite that at some point I may succumb to an overwhelming sense of guilt. He might be on his death bed, or worse, in a coffin.
Now I want to stop typing. It's a depth I don't want to dredge up. Better stay close to the surface, like waving to a neighbor you've never really met. And that's terrible on so many levels.
I have reached out to my father before, reminded him of good times, assured him that just because Mom died doesn't mean it had been the wrong decision to divorce her ten years earlier. She and her addictions would have brought him down with her.
I've asked him hard questions about our family, for details I was too young to remember. But I've never asked him the other, equally important questions, like why he ultimately gave me to his sister to raise, or what happened the night he came home at 3 am with stitches in his forehead. I've never asked about the unfamiliar corner house where he once parked his car all night, the house my mother and I watched until I finally fell asleep in her lap. I never knew for certain what she suspected. I'm still afraid to ask my father anything hard about our personal history, to shatter the delicate glass slipper, wave through the shimmering ruse, destroy the possibility of magically becoming what a father and daughter should be. Real.
Like my mother I'm ridiculously addicted, to hope.
A psychiatrist once told me, regarding my father, that sometimes we have to let go of people, even when they're family. I'm still trying to decide whether that's what I want, but first I have to decide why I'm afraid to face him. I thought I knew last year when I abandoned an attempt to visit him. I got as close as Fort Worth, Texas, to the tiny house in Polytechnic Heights where I grew up. But I couldn't move beyond it, to my father's house in Burleson where he lives alone after three failed marriages. I then decided it was his long ago cruelty to my siblings and mother that justified my discomfort. Why should I honor this man, our tenuous relationship, when he deeply hurt the people I love, no apologies? But now I'm not so sure.
Opinions differ, my sister saying one thing, my father another. I'm stuck in the middle; the two don't speak anymore. But I'm haunted by what I do know, the night I saw him beat my sister, the afternoon he struck my thirteen year old brother in the face with a white-knuckled fist. I remember the day not long after when he lunged at my brother, chased him out of the house for saying he wanted to move out and live with our mother. My brother lived in the streets for the next nineteen years, and died there.
My mother and brother can't corroborate any story. I'm left with only pieces.
So I go with my gut, remain on my side of the ruse, continue writing to my father about the present, but never about us. I don't want to face him, in words or physicality. I don't want to risk finding out that confronting my fears might result in nothing but an awkward moment, empty talk, hollow sounds masking raw wounds. He would disappoint me. I can't accept his destroying the fantasy we've built out of thin pieces of ourselves, out of paper and minutiae. I can only live with disappointing myself, with facing him too late.
The letters are insulation, and a substitute for the father/daughter relationship that is most likely impossible. I just need to know that this is enough, for both of us.
In the past I invited him to see me several times, but his excuse was always that he didn't "travel much." I remember these words when I go through his letters, the post cards from the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas. He couldn't travel 257 miles, 3 hours and 53 minutes to walk me down the aisle in 2003. He declined when I invited him to see my last two children when they were born. He just couldn't.
And now, neither can I.