The only time my father calls me is to remind me of something having to do with my mother. Usually it's either Mother's Day
or her birthday that cause my father to reach out to me. He has usually done what needed to be done gently. When I was in high school
and as far back as I can remember
being car-pooled, I always had to get up an hour earlier than most kids. I lived in Maryland
and the closest private school my parents could afford was a small Christian
school in Laurel, Delaware
. Every morning he'd crack open my door and whisper, "Honey, it's time to get up now." He'd seldom have to come to my bed; he'd just stand at the door with his head stuck in, the blue of the local news on the TV
in the living room framed like a halo around his figure. It was still dark.
He'd have to do it a second time on most mornings, and still he did it gently. I can't remember why it was my mother never did it, but she never got up as early as my dad. He was a fireman in Baltimore in the 60's during riots where, as my dad put it, "The niggers were burning down their own homes." My dad could smell a match lit and extinguished in the attic from all the way in the back bedroom. Catching me in my first back alley cigarette took less than one sniff.
I got a message on my machine last Saturday from my dad, asking me to call him sometime that day. His voice sounded stern but rent with a nervous laugh he had developed from having to dance around subjects I had tired of discussing, like my future, my job, when and if I would ever consider moving back home. I am their baby, the last of a long litter strewn over two failed marriages and one successful one. I am the one that makes them proud, even though they never had the time or ability to really get to know me.
In those first minutes so many possibilities flew into my head. My mother. Something could be wrong with her. How many times did my dad slam the trunk of car as I was leaving from yet another brief visit to them while I was in college and say, "You know if anything ever happened to me, you'd need to take care of mom." It sounded like I was inheriting the farm, but with a tinge of burden unlike a farm where you know you'll be selling a large part of yourself in the exchange. It's not that I don't love my parents. It's just that due to circumstances, my life so far has been riddled with numerous false starts. Every push was the first push out of some nest I had constructed poorly, knowing it would crumble under my feet. Every start was a start over and I felt I was not yet ready to stop trying to get my life to going to sustain my grief stricken and hollow mother in the event of my father's death. This may also have to do with the fact that while I have seen most of my parents' friends die of one lonely cancer or another throughout my childhood, no one has ever died that has been close to me. My friends say I am heartless, that I will know what that's like someday, and I'll be sorry. In a way, I already am.
"Well I applied for one of those credit cards where you get money back, you know? And they rejected it. So I had one of them credit reports done on me and it came back with something on it about a loan. I think it's one I signed for."
"But dad, I've been paying them for over six month now…"
"I know you have, baby. I don't know what's going on. Can you, can you write them and ask?"
"They didn't give you a number?"
"No but here's the address." I grab a sheet from some other debtor and scribble it down. I need a number. It'll take forever to get an answer out of these people.
"Ok, dad. I will."
"So, how are things?" He tries to pass it off like it wasn't a moment of weakness he just let fall to the floor.
"Fine. Listen, I'll get right on this, ok? I promise."
"I know you will, my love. Bye bye."
I feel a moment of relief but then a wave of anger comes over. $4,000 he co-signed for, 4 years ago, and I'm still trying to keep the loan people off his back. He spent their entire retirement savings on my college tuition, which sadly only paid for one year. I got partial grants, had to do work-study and sign on all kinds of loans, but even that wasn't enough I still, at some point, needed $4,000.
I was angry at him for being so poor, for me being from such a poor family in the midst of well to do people. I was also angry at myself and more so because my neglect had caused my father, this strong and towering man (even now at 62), to ask for my help with something he had no control over but for which he was partially responsible. This was the reason I had both their Social Security numbers scribbled in my organizer. Half my mail came with his name on it so he wouldn't be able to see right away that I was trying, really trying to make all this up to him. I wanted them to leave my father alone.
When my father was first married and had 6 kids, he used the eat the backs and necks from the chicken so the kids could have most of the meat. He lied about his age so he could register for the Korean War. He knocked out walls in our small apartments to make a big family room, even though our family was just three; he once put up an outside porch at one place and when I went back to Ocean City once for vacation, it still stands.
My father always built things that would last.