Like many fathers, mine could often be coaxed into a spot of playtime. I would interrupt him as he reclined in his armchair by running up and wrapping my arms around his knees: a tactic it would take awhile for me to outgrow. At six feet and ten inches, and three-hundred-eighty pounds, my father can veritably be called a giant. He’s out of shape and perpetually short of breath, health ravaged by decades of smoking, drinking, and drugs. As I tugged at him, he’d fold his newspaper with a sigh and allow himself to be pulled to our traditional play-spot on the stained rug of his trailer.
“What game, cupcake?” he’d ask, peering over the rims of his glasses.
“Puzzles!” I’d reach for my favorite, a depiction of dinosaurs amidst a volcanic eruption.
At times like these, there was no place I’d rather be was teetering on my father’s knee, watching him assemble the pieces.
Slot by slot, piece by piece, the picture formed. My daddy was a genius! He knew how to fit together each square, slow and steady beneath his huge brown hands, speckled with hundreds of tiny white scars. At last would come that perfect moment, when he leaned back and the puzzle was whole.
“There we go,” he’d say. “Can’t you put it together yourself?”
I’d roll my eyes. “That’s not the point!”
In those days, our relationship was simple. Every Thursday I stayed over at his trailer park, where I could eat McDonald’s for every meal, stay up until five a.m., and watch TV until my eyes ached. The divorce happened when I was four. Mom married my wonderful step-father. Dad moved in with his parents. Insidious as a plague, comparisons of the two households crept into my mind more and more.
Mom and Chris had a clean, spacious house. There, I had my own room, my own bed, my own toys and books and electronics, and my own blankets.
Dad’s trailer was grimy… clothes strewn about, carpets stained. I slept on the couch with a sheet.
Mom and Chris brought me to school each morning and went off to work. In the afternoon, they came home and we ate dinner together.
Dad… never seemed to have anything to do. At any given moment, he was sure to be lounging in his junkyard armchair, constant as the tide. And yet, despite all this free time, all his days of smoking and playing chess in his chair, he didn’t pay child support.
My idealistic image of my father had officially withered.
On my fifteenth birthday, this simmering resentment came to a boil.
I’d been trying to schedule my visit with my dad all week, but due to my mom’s plans, it wouldn’t work. In exasperation, I finally texted him to just forget it; we wouldn’t see each other at all. He immediately called me up and chewed me out over the phone, furious that my mom’s schedule took precedence over his.
“Dad,” I finally begged. “Can we not argue right now?”
Mom didn’t know what Dad was saying, but she saw the tears glistening on my cheeks. She snatched the phone from my hand.
“Your daughter,” she said icily, “is crying.”
Mom ended the conversation effectively, but all too soon, Thursday came, his designated custody day. His van pulled up to the driveway, purple and dented. For ten minutes, we drove in perfect silence.
“Amy,” Dad ventured at last. God, why did this have to be so confusing? I loved him, he loved me: it was as easy... and as hard... as that. Was he gonna make it right? Bring back the days when our relationship was clear as jigsaws on the floor?
“You really hurt my feelings Sunday,” he said.
My eyes widened.
“Dad,” I choked out. “It was my birthday. Mine.”
“But you know I wanted to see you, and I--”
“Dad, it’s always you.” My voice, shaking, began to rise. “I try and I try but you never listen to me and I’m your own daughter and you don’t try to understand me and I hate coming to your house because it’s so filthy my skin crawls and you don’t work and you don’t pay any child support and it feels like you don’t even care about me!”
My scream tore through the van.
My father’s knuckles were white on the steering wheel. Tears coursed down my face in rivers. S***. S***. I wiped my face underneath my glasses and turned away. I wished I could snatch the words back out of the air and bottle them up again. I’d started something, and now it was out of my control. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Dad remove his own glasses, eyes red.
“Honey,” he croaked. “I... I… didn’t know you felt like that.”
Didn’t know? He didn’t know? How could he have possibly missed the fact that our relationship had been crumbling like a sandcastle in the tide?
“Well, it’s true,” I said softly, as we pulled up to his house. I all but flung myself out of the van. Hiding out in the bathroom, I paced the walls, heady dizzy, hyperventilating, unable to breathe. I dialed my mom with shaking hands, explaining in a garbled voice.
“Honey,” she said. Her voice was desperately sad.
In her practical way, she suggested I clean myself up and go back out with my head up high. I proceeded to sit through quite literally the most awkward family dinner in the history of man, surrounded by grandparents and cousins, only my father and I knowing what had transpired. The ride home was quiet, my eyes sandy and dry.
“I’ll see you next week,” he said quietly when he dropped me off. “We can talk. Later.”
My mom couldn’t believe that part. “Later?” She shook her head. “He should’ve pulled the car over right then and worked it out.”
Maybe he should have. But, as was typical, he had postponed the discussion, and for the next week, the thought of dealing with the aftermath of my breakdown terrified me to the core. Next Thursday, he pulled up to school to pick me up. The sight of his purple van sent me running into the bathroom, where I trembled in a stall for five minutes. My face in the mirror was sickly and pale under the fluorescent lights. If only I could stay there forever.
“Hi,” my father said softly, when I climbed into the car.
I stared at the dashboard.
“Maybe we should… get lunch?”
I nodded silently. We pulled into the Jason’s Deli on Hancock Bridge Parkway, took a corner booth that would forever thence be colored by this memory... and we talked. My father had always been oblivious about emotional issues, deadened to sensitivity, but that day... he listened. As absurd as it was, he hadn’t known about the resentments simmering as my childhood admiration faltered, realizing he was not a perfect man. At last, Dad leaned over the table and cupped my hands in his.
“Amy,” he whispered. “We’ll work this out.”
I squeezed his hand back, and, through teary eyes… I smiled.
My father never got a job.
He took out Social Security instead, but never did pay child support. He didn’t clean his trailer. He did quit smoking, thank God, and the acrid smell in my clothing slowly faded away.
And that is all okay.
My father is not the father I need. But he’s the father I have. I had been continually placing expectations on him that he wasn’t capable of fulfilling-- expectations I deserved to have fulfilled, yes. But unrealistic ones nonetheless.
This realization freed me. Freed us. Today our relationship is better than it has ever been. I learned how to craft fair expectations… and, most importantly, how to love someone without hinging my own self-worth and happiness upon them.
When I was young, I admired the way my father fit together my puzzle pieces. Unfortunately, he could never replicate that deftness in piecing together his own life… or in mine. But I don’t need him to do it for me anymore.
Under my hands, this time, the picture emerges: colorful, vibrant, whole.