(BELATED) ODE TO AN ABSENT FATHER

My father’s mother, dreams unrealized

I called, he didn’t answer. I wrote, he didn’t respond. I invited, he didn’t show.

~

Our love language had long been argument.

As the oldest (and most talkative) of his daughters, I was offered the front seat to help keep him awake on long drives–to quiz him on an upcoming procedure, or best of all–to find topics upon which we disagreed.

“No daughter of mine will ever live with a man before she is married,” he said, on our cross-country move from the Rockies back to the Atlantic.

“When I’m 18, I’ll do whatever I want,” I said.

(I was 11.)

~

At 13 we lived on the base at West Point. “You just ran a stop sign!” I said, at the bottom of our road.

“No MP is going to give me a ticket,” he bragged.

This particular argument reseeded itself years later during my semester abroad; when our love language became my battleground for the soul of our family and his wasteland for pain unprocessed.

“Everyone who breaks the law should be accountable,” I said, as we sped toward Versailles.

“You don’t want to be the one to slow a doctor down,” he hollered.

“I’d give you a ticket,” I hollered back.

~

Another handful of years brought us poolside to a restaurant in Ft. Lauderdale on the weekend of my sister’s graduation.

“If your arm is cut off, it ain’t growing back,” he said, as he sliced the side of his hand against my inner elbow.

“It could someday,” I said, just a fiercely, as I rubbed my arm. “You really hurt me!” I told him.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said.

“It really hurts,” I repeated.

“Hit me as hard as you want in the arm. It won’t hurt.”

I considered this as the waiter cleared our plates, and then pulled back my fist to release the cruelty that he had inflicted on so many of us in the throes of divorce.

~

The next decade (and 300 miles) was dedicated to him–in the therapist chair, on the bodywork table, in women’s circles and onto journal pages & the mat.

In the end, there was a gaping hole where our love language once thrived.

Over time the empty space gave way to a rising tenderness inside.

“You couldn’t have picked a better father for what you came to do in this lifetime,” a healer said.

~

As a girl, I learned to recognize his footsteps in a succession of hospitals. As a candy-striper, I was able to stay nearby through junior high and high school, and I worked just as hard at college so that I might glean his attention.

“Did anyone get a higher grade?” he’d ask, or “Could you have earned more than a hundred? Was there any chance of extra credit.

Once remarried, the hospital was the best place to see him. To locate the floor upon which he was doing his rounds. The patient’s room. The hall. The nurses’ station. To say hello or goodbye–on my way in or out of town–with my husband, and later our boys.

No matter how angry, or hurt or discouraged I was, my body quickened as he came around a corner or out a set of swinging doors—the rise of his cheekbones (the ones we share with his mother and grandmother), the unabashed smile that lifted them even higher (carried into the next generation), and a sweet, boyish set of sea-blue eyes meant for open water.

~

Eventually, I stopped chasing him, but from time to time our paths will cross, say at a funeral or a wedding (to which he’ll arrive egregiously late, producing the same welcoming response inside those who adore or resent him); and if there are a few moments between us, what I’ll offer in the absence of argument (for which he is so fond), is a neck massage–to ease the ache of a lifetime bent over the operating table.

“You have magical hands,” he said more than once.

I grew up watching his.

The tender abdomen. The swollen glands. The forehead.

His kind touch.

~

Even my own best friend fell in love with him after he saved her mother.

~

My father sought me out once, in November of 1991, at his father’s funeral, after I gave a eulogy.

“That was really good,” he said. “I could never do that.”

~

He answered my phone call on November 9th, 2016.

We talked politics for the first time since Clinton was impeachment, and we were desperately civil as if our very nation depended on it.

It wasn’t until the topic of gender that my heart started pounding and I had to resort to Ujjayi Breath to not fall into the trance of rage.

“He’s a father figure,” I said. “His attitude toward women sets a dangerous tone.”

“What are you talking about?” he said. “He’s a businessman. He wants to do a good job.”

We both liked the first Clinton. Until the affair.

“I don’t care about blow jobs,” I said. “I’m not married to him.”

My father answered my call after Sandyhook too. Or did he call me?

I don’t remember what we said.

I’m always surprised to find that there are moments, even at 54 and 75, when I am “Kelly Ann” and he is “Daddy.”

His mother died at 55 in a car accident on a bridge outside Philadelphia.

Just the night before, they argued, fiercely, like they always did.

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