Some days I feel the ground shifting beneath me, the revelations bursting like fireworks over my head. I’ve thought that too much introspection was keeping me from my work. But I’m noticing that I’m suddenly finishing things and embarking on new ones: I graded all my papers yesterday, wrote to an editor about some work, took an assignment from another one, nailed down dates for my spring classes, got my open mic poets lined up. It’s as if sending this locked-up part of me into the illusory world of cyberspace has opened me. It’s still terrifying as hell. A new novel is forming, a series of linked poems for the children of suicide.
I talked to one of them the other day: Gina. I was waxing passionate about my thoughts on this confederacy of children – that I had decided to do a free workshop for them, where we would tell our stories and write poetry. “Good luck with it,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to participate. I’ve worked through that part of my life. I’m dealing with a sick child now.”
She has – so much as any of us can. And her son has cancer. And I was immediately caught, rabbit-in-the-high-beam style with my desire to distance myself from my own pain by being an expert.
Isn’t that interesting?
I think what I’m trying to do is simultaneously climb into myself and climb out of myself. I don’t want to live cocooned in my pain. I don’t even know if it is pain. It is a story that has brought intense emotion with it. Really, it is a love story. It is the story of love for life, for resurrection, for resilience -- love for my father.
I took him to the opera the other night. Always, these outings with him are so rich and full of stories. Neither of us had been to the opera in at least 20 years. He used to go with my mother and, surprisingly, he said almost nothing negative about her the entire evening. He was full of fond memories of “being among the swells.”
When I was 18 I worked for the opera. The offices were near where Dad worked. He was living in his office, one step from homelessness at the time. He slept on his desk, washed up in the sink. The other lawyers pretended not to know, I think. He was so proud of me, working for the opera. I’d get him free tickets and we’d go together. We saw lots of Wagner that year. I haven’t been back since. Until last Wednesday.
* * * * *
He yells at me all the way from his apartment to the bank. “Turn here. No! Not there! Change lanes. Now! Now! Gun it! God, Tess, you drive like an old woman.”
“It’s like old times,” I say. “Just like when you taught me to drive.”
He stops yelling, slightly chagrined.
Dad just does what he does and usually I get in a kind of Zen state with it. It’s just his way.
He wants to go to the Chinese restaurant across town. I wonder if we’ll get to the opera in time, but decide to go with his lead. He always has the #2 with fried rice and can say to the waiter, “I’ll have my usual,” and they know.
He drives from the passenger seat all the way to the restaurant and all the way back to the opera end of town. Six blocks from the parking garage we hit a lot of traffic. With the opera beginning at 7:30, it is now 7:09, then 7:12, 7:15. “We’re fine,” I keep saying smoothly, feeling his anxiety. “We’ll make it just fine.”
His vision of this area of town is 30 years old. He knows just where he used to park when he went with Mom, just how to get to the cheap seats. But the opera house has been knocked down and rebuilt since then. And the parking garage has some new entrances. It is 7:17. I turn left. “No!” yells Dad. “No! Not there!”
And my Zen state leaves me. “DO not” I holler, “DRIVE for me! ESPECIALLY with so little time left! I know what I’m doing; I am FORTY-TWO YEARS OLD!”
He is immediately contrite. “I didn’t realize there was an entrance here,” he says quietly. “Here, I’ll pay for the parking.”
Damn straight you will, I think, accepting the money. “I love you,” I tell him a second later. “And you drive me crazy.”
He directs me, albeit with less volume, to just the right parking place. I feel victorious over letting him have it. Certainly he deserved it. But he looks a little stunned as we pull into our spot. As if being yelled at made him feel small.
“I shouldn’t have done that,” I say. “Sometimes my temper gets the better of me.”
Yes. My temper. How I’ve enjoyed being the all-powerful victim. Perhaps she is leaving me now. I am, after all, forty-two years old.
How he loves the opera! Up in the nosebleed seats, we’ve made sure to bring binoculars, which we trade back and forth. I remember how I used to read the libretto by the light of the exit sign. Now they put the words up on a screen over the stage. I imagine they’ve been doing that for awhile, but for me it is a new marvel.
He walks with a cane now and I keep reaching a hand out to catch him. But he doesn’t want to be caught. The cane makes a handy weapon with which he could ward off would-be attackers of his daughter.
At intermission I reapply my lipstick and brush my hair in the ladies room. When I rejoin him, he starts fussing with my collar. “It’s sticking up,” he says, though it isn’t. A pause and then, “You’ve still got that fine hair.”
Mom will plunge her hands into my hair and play with it. Just like I do with my daughter.
“It’s gotten long,” he says meditatively. Then, “I’ve got a picture of you with it short; I liked it better short.”
How long did I not hear his tenderness because he’d hidden it so well?
It is nearly 11:00 when we leave the opera house. “What is all this traffic?” he says.
“A concert,” I tell him. “Cold Play.”
“Cold Play,” he says, as if the words make an unpleasant taste in his mouth. “That’s Rock and Roll.” (The Scourge of Decency, Music for Morons.)
“It’s what people have been listening to, Dad,” I say, “For the last forty years.” I think I’m very clever to have pointed this out. “Didn’t you have music that made your parents crazy?”
“No,” he says. “But Budd Raymond sure found it amusing in high school when I suggested 'Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair' for choir class.”
“Because it was Irish?”
“No!” he yells. “It’s Stephen Foster!”
“Oh,” I say, sure I heard my first rendition of it on an old John McCormick album.
“He wanted some old hillbilly music like, ‘Chicken Crowing on Sourwood Mountain.’” He sings a few bars. I join him. “My true love lives up the holler, hey de-ding-dang-diddle-eye-day. She won’t come and I won't foller, hey de-ding-dang-diddle-eye-day.”
We are a couple of secret hillbillies, he and I.
As we near his apartment he makes an uncommon speech. “I wish we’d had more time to talk about your family,” he says. “The last time we talked you sounded so down. I was afraid you had clinical depression.”
He names it. We never used to name it. I thought it was because he didn’t want to.
“Sometimes I do,” I say. “But I’m finding my way out more quickly now.”
I can’t tell him what’s been eating me at home. One of my kids. Things I fear. Things Dad fears. Too painful for both of us. “Things are moving in a positive direction,” I say. Which is true. “Things” are.
“I’m glad to hear that,” he says. We stop at the light. We’re a block from his place. He goes on. “Because I love you so much. You’re my flesh and blood – my cast into the future. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
Sometimes, he stuns me with such words -- a string of pearls handed to me unexpectedly.
He didn’t used to be able to say things like this. Does he want to make sure it’s said? Is there anything he’s not telling me?
Do not drive for me -- especially when there’s so little time left. What do I mean by this? How much time is there?