because he can't help it
When I was a teenager, I'd mow the yard during summer vacation. I didn't do it because I liked it or I'd been asked to do so. I just did it to be helpful. To contribute to household operations. Sometimes when I'd make the final pass along the back of the garage, I'd emerge and spot my dad standing at the gate, waiting for me. When I'd turn the mower off and push it back to it's resting place, dad would meet me halfway and he'd thank me. Then, more often than not, he'd slip $10 or $20 discreetly in my palm.
"Your sister doesn't need to know," he's say, and we'd smirk at each other and I'd nod discreetly to seal our pact.
Dad and I had that kind of relationship. We helped each other out and we didn't make a big deal about it. I was his first born child, and though he's also made me keep this a secret, that fact still carries a great deal of significance with him. I was the child who didn't challenge his every decision. Who did as I was told and simply chose not to get in trouble. I wanted nothing more in my childhood than to please my dad.
I have few tangible memories of my childhood and time spent with my dad. I more remember things like his cars and how I'd hold my breath while seated in the backseat of them so as not to inhale the smoke from his Winstons as we traveled to and from my grandparent's house each weekend. As I got a bit older, I remember dressing up in old wigs and jeweled cat eye glasses my mom had saved, calling myself "Helena," and entertaining him with my fake English accent, flair for the dramatic and lame jokes. Having him finish his dinner and look across the table to request the grand return of "Helena" would cause me to dash quickly from my seat at the table and to my bedroom to throw my act together.
My dad taught me to drive and attempted to make math a subject that would fall naturally in place for me. Neither of these lessons came without their fair share of tears - from both of us. He was the one who taught me how to ride a bike, shoot a basket and catch a pop fly. When I went to college a whole two hours away from home (it may as well have been to another planet as far as I was concerned then) and seemed to flounder, he encouraged me to seek out a faith and find like minded people. He didn't seem to worry, however, when the people I sought out actually found their faith at nickle beer night at the downtown bar. When the man I was going to spend the rest of my life with changed his plans, it was my dad I called in the middle of the night to cry to.
I could talk to my dad about most anything. Except when my parents fought, and all I wanted to do was beg them to divorce already. Be done with this nonsense. I had no voice then. Even if I did, I don't think it could have been heard in the chaos life turned into at that time in our house. When he'd leave, when my parents would go through yet another in a long and pointless adventure in separating, I'd lose my confidant. I didn't' have the same close relationship with my mom growing up as I did with my dad. It was entirely different. I wanted to please her on a completely different scale. And I certainly didn't wish for her to see how weak I truly could be. The anger in my house growing up, towards the end of things for us all, strained relationships.
It was during the next to last separation that, for some reason, my dad and I had an utter disconnect from the other. More than 13 years later, I can't remember why and can only assume it was truly for the most petty of reasons. I came home for a weekend to stay at my parent's house - now, for all intents and purposes, it was just "mom's house" - and was too busy (maybe too spiteful), too something to see my dad that weekend, even though he'd come to visit me and found me gone. Formally, I told myself I'd call him the next day.
The call to me, however, came first.
The next morning, early, the telephone rang. My uncle, as calmly as he could, informed my mom and me that my dad was in the hospital. My uncle, with whom my dad was living with during this separation, had come home early in the morning to find my dad lying on the living room floor. He'd experienced a massive stroke hours - so many damn hours - before. The hours left unattended and without help impacted his condition even more than the clot that initially had broken free in his body and raced to his brain.
At the time, my dad was 49 years old.
Driving to the hospital, grateful he was still alive, I convinced myself he'd also be fine and we'd talk about this and laugh one day. All the things you think and all the promises you make to God or whoever you choose to believe in at that precise moment were the ones I made as I sat in the backseat of my mom's car as our neighbor and friend drove mom and I downtown.
No such luck, these promises.
In addition to other impacts of the stroke that have left us watching my dad slip further into a state of frailty over the last 13 years, this moment we experienced left him unable to communicate fully. Suddenly and regretfully, my dad, the person I talked to more than anyone else, more than my best friends, anyone, could no longer have a conversation with me. Honestly, so painfully honestly, there are still moments today when we'll catch ourselves looking at the other and regretting this aspect so very, very much. I absolutely miss the man my dad was prior to the stroke, but I miss that conversational component of him more than anything else.
Oh, he's very much "there." He has his faculties, his awareness. Absolutely. He and I know that aspect adds to the sorrow that still creeps in. We talk. It's just different now. His frustration at his inability to share with me forces him to quit trying to talk when all I wish to do is demand he continue.
I'm sad to say that this fact, this bit of a loss, has impacted our relationship. Greatly. It's just so different now. I'm even more sad to admit that, all these years later, my anger over that is so fresh and palpable. It embarrasses me, and makes me quick to simply shut down when we're together. It's unfair to him. But it also feels unfair to me that I lost something I can't fully get back, too.
We can't help each other the way we used to. And now? Now it does seem like a big deal.