Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Christmas Chronicle: Part I

Earlier this year I received a card in the mail from someone I hadn’t heard from in a long time. The card was from my father, and it wasn’t a card so much as an invitation to spend Christmas with him and his family.

At first there was no question in my mind as to whether I would go, of course not. I haven't seen my father in years, and the twisted role that he has played in my life is not one that I like to subject myself to thinking about often. But as the year went on the idea of seeing my dad began to grow on me. I have to admit that I was curious as to who he was and what kind of life he made for himself. I wondered how or if he’d changed since I last saw him from the vantage point of the landing on the stairs.

I wrestled with the decision, but over the past few months, I began to think of the opportunity as a unique gift. A telescope pointed towards the window of my parents’ failed marriage, I thought that perhaps seeing him would help me answer some of these rhetorical questions that plague children who don’t know their parents.

He sent me his address, and I opted to attend dinner at his home a few days before Christmas that way if the visit was tainted it wouldn’t completely ruin the holiday (positive thinking from the start I know). I drove 2 hours last night to his suburban home, a cul-de-sac located right down the street from an elementary school. My dad’s silhouette stood in the doorway as I walked up the driveway, he looked as I remembered him, although he was noticeably grayer, and his face now revealed deep laugh lines around his eyes.

He introduced me to his wife, a secretary at the company where he now works, and his 2 young sons. I found myself staring at them as they told me their names, looking for some sort of resemblance, some connection between us, but found none.

I gave them each a video game wrapped in Christmas paper, which they tore through in seconds and squealed with delight at the site of the contents… that was our connection.

My dad, his wife, and I had dinner and lovely conversation. I was delighted to find that my father (who had served for 8 years in the U.S. Navy) had some interesting thoughts regarding Iraq, and the hurricane, and we engaged in a long discussion about policy during which I learned a lot.

Before the boys went up to bed they thanked me for my gifts and said goodnight. They bounded towards my dad in their footed pajamas with security blankets trailing behind. I watched as my dad took each of their heads in his hands and gently moved their hair aside to place a kiss on each of their foreheads. They paused for a moment and said goodnight before their mother herded them up the stairs. Their voices as they said goodnight prayers carried down the stairwell.

All of these years, it had never occurred to me that my dad had a life like this. I had assumed that he would spend the rest of his years drinking, smoking, and single, bouncing from job to job, refusing to settle down, because that’s the person he was when he was married to my mom. It had never occurred to me that maybe he had changed, or maybe it had occurred to me and I chose to ignore it because it was just easier for me to believe the pathetic notion that he must still be a fuck up. I suppose that Aspazia is right, it is tempting to turn “the other” into a monster, for “it forestalls any serious contemplation that I, too, may find myself hurt and embittered after a long relationship. Depicting the other as someone who deserves misery is a powerful way to neutralize the threat.”

Had I known that my father was wonderful, it would have caused me to redirect the focus to my mother and myself, and what we did to drive this saint out of our lives? It’s that introspective questioning that is so dangerously melancholy. It’s much more suitable for self preservation to have a vision of the other as a monster, to hold them to blame for what went wrong.

I sat at the dining room table for the next hour or so and shared drinks with the man who is my father and yet even after this visit is still no more than a stranger. I felt as if I had only spent the evening as a tourist in his life.

I stared at the multitude of metallic gold picture frames that were scattered on the hutch in the corner of the room. Each was filled with a memory. His eldest son playing tee ball, his youngest with a backpack and cheesy grin on his first day of kindergarten. There were pictures from trips that they had taken to Disney World, and pictures of the boys as toddlers on the beach. And I found myself wondering if my dad had memories like that of me as a child, or whether the memories along with the frames that housed them had long since tarnished.

I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again, I don’t know that I necessarily have the desire to do so. I suppose that I got what I wanted out of the visit: I was able to quench a curious thirst; I was able to see what kind of man my dad was. And yet the visit has left me with an even bigger thirst, the wondering of what might have been, the vision of story book imaginings that will never be more than that… imaginings.

I have always imagined how my life would have been different had I had him as a father, however, I had always wondered this with watercolor clarity having no idea what kind of a man I was imagining in that picture. But now I have seen my dad with his children, I have seen the tenderness in the way that he embraces them, and I have seen the mantle full of memories that are so vivid that they transcend the glass. The clarity that this provides my imaginings make the longing for their reality that much deeper.

I came looking for the man who had left me over 15 years ago; I was looking for a reason to think that my life had been better off without his involvement in an effort to make the time I’ve spent without him easier to bear. But what I found was a highly successful man, who adores his wife, and is fathering two amazing little boys. I have to admit that part of me resents him for being such a great parent to them, I wonder how the same man who left me so abruptly without ever turning back can show these children such affection, such warmth.

I had convinced myself that I wasn't going to come expecting affection from him, and yet seeing the way that he donated it so freely to his family suddenly made me crave it in a way that I wasn't expecting. It's amazing how much my dad has changed in 15 years: he's gotten married, created a family, held a stable job, takes vacations, and drives expensive cars, and yet I haven't changed at all. I'm just how he left me 15 years ago: begging for love that even with his monetary success he can't afford to give me, wanting so desperately to claim a piece of him as my own, and yet not being able to take the steps off the landing of the stairs in which to take it.