Everyone's talking about dads. Single Mom Seeking wrote about a dedicated long-distance dad. There's an accompanying long-distance dad post being featured on Singlemommyhood.com. Ms. Single Mama wrote a post in honor of her dad's birthday. And Father's Day is breathing down our necks.
I've been thinking a lot about my own dad lately. I have a lot I want to say, but I haven't figured out how to say it yet. While I get my thoughts organized, I thought it might be appropriate to recycle something I originally posted a few years ago.
My dad died in 2001 - rather suddenly - from cirrhosis. He was 47. About three years later, I went through a phase of intense writing; therapy. This is the first cohesive thing I wrote, by hand, scribbled in a spiral notebook at the kitchen table, late one quiet night, one steady stream from start to finish. (My siblings' names have been changed - to the names they'd wished they'd had as children - to protect the innocent.) The story is ostensibly about my sister, but speaks to the kind of father my dad was... to everyone.
My sister isn’t really my sister.
My dad and her mom married when I was three and she was six. I was young enough that I don’t remember a time before her, so I’ve always considered her my sister—and still do to this day—long after our parents’ divorce.
Rio was hard and brooding, even as a child, with a scowl—a glare, really—that I spent countless hours trying to imitate. It was the kind of glare that, when you got it right, actually seemed to inflict physical pain on your victim. I remember shooting my perfected imitation of it at a classmate in junior high. I watched with greasy pleasure as my icy stare made him fumble back a step and his friend, stunned, whispered, “Oh my God, did you see what she did with her eyes?”
That was the expression that was more often than not glued to my sister’s face, as if the old wives’ tale had become truth: “You keep making that face, and it’ll get stuck that way.”
I think, in a way, Rio’s face was stuck that way. On the rare occasions when a smile managed to break through, I could almost hear her facial muscles screaming in arthritic pain, being twisted and bent into shapes they’d long ago forgotten. She was cold and crass to the point of cruelty, and never seemed to care much for anyone.
I’ve only seen that armor come down twice in my life.
The first was when we were kids. Our parents were still married and living on a small, working farm outside of Centralia. Rio and I were taking turns riding our ugly Appaloosa horse, practicing for the summer competitions at the Lewis County Fair. We were waiting for Rio’s biological father to pick her up for an unprecedented day together, and I was eager for the chance to meet the elusive man. He slipped in and out of her life like a slimy politician—supporting the cause only when it promised a self-promoting photo op. When he did happen to slip in, he did so with such little force that he was hardly noticed before quickly slipping out again. Rio always seemed indifferent to everything about him, except the paltry child-support checks that sporadically appeared in the mail, which she was allowed to cash and spend on whatever she wanted.
On this particular day, however, Rio was agitated with nervous anticipation. She heard her dad’s dilapidated pick-up making its way down the country road before I did, and leapt over the barbed-wire fence (no easy task, as you know if you’ve spent much time around barbed-wire—I’ve got more than one jagged scar from failed attempts myself). Still airborne, she grabbed my ankle and pulled me off the horse.
As she fumbled with the stirrup and scrambled into the saddle, I sat in stunned paralysis where I’d landed, the heel of my right boot pushed part way into a pile of fresh horse shit. As the truck door slammed, Rio pulled her cowboy hat tight on her head and began trotting our horse proudly around the field, back straight, hands loosely holding the reigns—one just above the saddle horn, the other placed gently on her right thigh—just as we’d been taught.
Her desire to show off—to impress him—struck me, and even at seven years old I sensed her desperation and pitied her.
Rio rode that horse as well as I’d ever seen. It was a good five minutes before she gave up, realizing he wasn’t going to come looking for her. She found him standing on the front porch banging on the door, oblivious to the fact that nobody had used that entry—save for Jehovah’s Witnesses and door-to-door salesmen—in all the years we’d lived there.
Years later when the time came, she didn’t bother to invite him to her wedding.
I was witness to her well-masked vulnerability only one other time, when my dad—our dad, really—was in the hospital nearing his death. He’d been there about a week by the time my brother and sister made the trip to see him. Only two at a time were allowed in his room, so I prepped them as best I could for what they were about to see, warning about the mass of tubes and horrific swelling. Trying to be positive, I assured them that he was looking much better than he had a week ago.
When they emerged from his room only a few moments after they’d gone in, I thought a nurse must have asked them to leave for a moment during one of the many routine procedures that often skewed the tiny sheet barely hiding his nakedness. As they got closer and I could see the stunned void of their now colorless faces, I knew that a few minutes was all they could handle.
When they came to a stop next to me, Rio was trembling so badly I prepared myself to catch her for fear she was about to faint.
“How’s he doing?” I asked, not knowing what else to say.
Silas mumbled something unintelligible and Rio began to cry. Not taking her eyes off the floor she whispered, “And you said he looks better…”
Her voice trailed off and I could see her trying not to visualize what he must have looked like before. She excused herself and stumbled to the ladies’ room, one hand covering her mouth, the contractions in her abdomen foretelling the retching that would follow.
I talked to my brother about it later, both of us commenting on how shaken she seemed. “I hate to say this about my own sister,” I confessed, “but I didn’t really think she’d care.” I could feel my cheeks reddening, ashamed of what I’d just said.
But Silas quickly agreed. “It’s true,” he replied, “That’s Rio. She doesn’t usually really care about anyone.”
Neither Rio nor Silas made it back to the hospital before Dad died, but judging by the track marks I spotted on her forearms at the memorial service, she cared more than she’d ever let on.
Dad raised her. Dad supported her, even after his divorce from her mother. And Dad loved her until the day he died, unconditionally and without the excuse of a biological obligation. I think her loss at his death was more profound than Silas and I, his “real” children, will ever be able to fully understand.
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