This year, my birthday falls on Father’s Day, just as it did the year I was born. It is possible that this will be the last Father’s Day I spend with my dad.
In our thick brown family album, spanning the late 60s to early 70s, is a black-and-white photograph of a wispy-haired girl, pudgy hands gripping the rough metal chains of the swing that hang from the clothesline tree in our backyard. My moon-pie face is upturned toward my father’s — clean-shaven, almost boyish, in those days — my baby lips puckered in expectation of a Daddy’s-girl kiss. In the photo we gaze at one other as if drunk with love, like recently reunited lovers enraptured by one another’s every move and word. I look at the photo now and wonder: Was it really that uncomplicated, once?
In 1976, when I was nine years old, my father built our family a house on the same property as my grandmother’s trailer park, uprooting us from our Cape Cod in the city. I balked at the move, just like my mother. But the idea of living in the country had some small appeal. I’d read Little House on the Prairie, All Creatures Great and Small, and Charlotte’s Web, after all.
“Can I get chickens?” I asked, sensing his desperation.
“You bet.” His beard, red and wiry, concealed his lips almost completely, making him impossible to read. Was he smiling — pleased at the idea? Or did the corners of his mouth drop: small, hard parentheses around the words?
“And goats? And sheep? Dad, can I get a baby lamb?”
“Sure. Mm-hmm. We’ll see.” He glanced away, his focus back on the field he had to mow, the wood he had to split. With each of my requests, my dad sounded more noncommittal. I realized, eventually, that the promise had been a ploy to get me on board and that the animals never would materialize, just like most of the things he would ever promise me.
It has been said that love has many faces, and in our house one of them looked like this: A scrawny, former Army motor pool worker grew thick around the middle, wore plaid flannel shirts almost exclusively, covered his head with caps that advertised “Stihl” (chainsaws) and “I Worked Hard for this Body,” and grew a scratchy red beard that smelled like stale coffee and cigarette smoke when he kissed his kids. While we children were young, he collected wooden pipes that rested in a round carousel by the console TV, and when he packed one with cherry tobacco and lit it, wherever he was — car or restaurant or field — smelled like home.
My dad often teased my childhood playmates: telling a new best friend that he was a zookeeper who brought home baby giraffes and sick hippos that it was, regrettably, against zoo policy for him to show her. He cheerfully informed the kids from my church youth group that he was a heathen — then, somehow, managed not to take it personally when I informed him that he had, through this bit of levity, destroyed my life.
At the close of a seemingly endless day of mowing fields, burning brush, building outbuildings, tearing down outbuildings, chopping wood, stacking wood, clearing brush, replacing septic systems, repairing water lines, or mending fences (or some combination of the above), my father uncomplainingly ratcheted up his tired body, one joint at a time, when we asked him to join the family at playing badminton or Mille Bornes, ping-pong or Balderdash — bringing his corny jokes, surprising athleticism, and insatiable sweet tooth to the table because he knew that, for us, it just wasn’t a game without him.
When I was in high school, my dad forbade me eating potato chips at parties, warning that they could be laced with LSD — then, later, simply prohibited the parties altogether. After I grew up and bought my first house, he waited until I left home one day, drilled thick holes in the perfect 1920s window frames, and nailed the windows shut: a first-strike against would-be intruders. Despite teasing by the family, Dad perpetually packs a .37 — even at family picnics held on my parents’ property, but especially when standing on the front porch of my new home, where he pushed back his heavy, outer plaid work shirt so the holster was obviously exposed for the neighbors to see. Because, by god, you just never know.
At 16 years old, I made plans to graduate a year early from high school. When I pressed my dad about college savings, he told me there were none.
“No kid of mine is ever going to college,” he announced, sounding convincingly authoritative.
I first debated the point — fiercely — but then realized he was deadly serious, and not merely testing my commitment to higher education. It didn’t occur to me until years later that he might have had the taste of sour grapes in his mouth; that he may simply not have had the money for tuition and was hoping to bitter the fruit for me. Or perhaps he worried that education would make me somebody different. Different than the child he knew. Different from him.
He told me that the liberal professors would brainwash me, that college tuition was a rip-off and a scam. He said that I was smart: that I could learn everything I needed to by using my library card.
Proving my dad’s prophecy premature, I worked for a year and then enrolled at a state university two hours from home. At 19 years old, broke and overwhelmed, I dropped out — for the first time — and followed my first serious boyfriend back to his home in California. Between Portland and L.A., my 1974 Chevy Vega (a 16th birthday gift from my father) broke down three times, and my rich boyfriend’s mother decided while we were en route that I couldn’t stay with her after all.
After getting my frantic call, my dad drove a thousand miles through the night to rescue me, then whisked me off to visit his cousin at a California retirement community named Leisure World. When I insisted on finding my own place in L.A., refusing to return to Oregon with my tail between my legs, he shook his head in frustration and marvel.
He was a stubborn man who had raised a stubborn daughter. I could see it in his face: it was one of the things that made him most proud. And making him proud was one of the things I liked best.
Years ago, as a young father, my dad was driving down the freeway in a car full of men from the sporting goods store where he worked, when two cars ahead of him lost control–spinning across the freeway like mad, out-of-control ice dancers. My dad says that he simply kept driving, that he slipped right through the tiny, shifting space between them. That if he’d tried to brake or steer around the spinning cars, he and his coworkers likely all would have been killed. It wasn’t until the whole thing was over that his heart began to race, that they all realized how close they’d come to death.
A decade later, I stood on the deck of the house my dad had built with his own hands, watching as the tree he was cutting began to drop in the wrong direction. I heard my mom and older sister suck in their breath, felt my heartbeat quicken with the scream of the chainsaw. There was no time to run. The tree simply came down with a whoosh, burying my dad in an avalanche of branches and leaves. He was gone. And then, just as quickly, he was back up again, his red nylon cap rising above the verdant leaves, the massive trunk having just narrowly missed his body. His gray-blue eyes shone later as we women scolded him for his carelessness: “Naaaah.” With one thick-veined hand, he waved away our concerns. “I’m too damn mean to die.”
He might have been right. Though his waist thickened further and his red Scotsman’s beard grew increasingly gray, and though his friends one-by-one faced their own health crises, he somehow managed to keep plodding forward. A decade ago he had a massive heart attack; several years after that, a stroke. Then this January — after returning from Mississippi, where he had nursed his recently widowed, cancer-riddled best friend to the end of his life — my dad was himself diagnosed with lung cancer. At one point in his treatment his white blood count dropped treacherously, landing him in the hospital for several days. We didn’t think he’d make it, but he did.
He is like a carnival act: the Great, Death-Defying Father. Eluding the Grim Reaper has been his hobby for years.
“I’m glad that I won’t live to see where this country is headed,” my dad says, pacing awkwardly behind me as I stand at the stove, making dinner. “It’s in worse shape than it’s ever been.” This assessment is the only thing we agree about; my father and I are both passionate about politics, though from completely different perspectives. Dad blames the Democrats. I blame George W. Bush, neo-cons, Sean Hannity, and religious fundamentalists, not necessarily in that order.
I also blame Rush Limbaugh — for driving a wedge between me and my father: a man who stops to help people stranded on the highway, but whose compassion does not extend to welfare moms, immigrants, or the general population of Iraqis who spend much of their own time dodging death. It hurts to have a parent seem so foreign, see his own child as so unknowable. Are there people out there whose parents “get” them? Will I “get” my own kids when they grow up?
These days, my dad’s once-ruddy skin is yellow and chalky; it hangs loosely from his face, reminding me how young middle age once looked. For 30 years, my dad looked virtually the same; in the last six months he’s aged decades. The doctors think they got the cancer, but warn that this type has a high return rate. They want to do radiation on my dad’s brain, just in case, but he isn’t sure he wants to bother.
A year after I married my husband, my father-in-law died from liver cancer — just 10 days after his diagnosis. My children never met him. We have nothing but old family photos and stories about Granddad: how he flew as navigator for 30 missions over Nazi Germany. How he would stop his car on the street — or bring it to a slow roll — so he could reach out and salvage a stray screwdriver, or a nickel, or some other treasure abandoned on the side of the road. How he never wasted a morsel of food: eating his watermelon down to the rind with practiced teeth, gobbling up every bit of apple, down to the seeds and core.
My dad has defied the odds countless times before. But this cancer has worn him out. One day, too soon, I will try to explain to my children the nuances of his personality, of our relationship, but I will fail. There is no way, really, to explain love this complicated. I can only impart it in my own maddening, inadvisable, and inappropriate ways. This comes easy.
I am my father’s daughter.