Hardened

My dad is sick. Four words I could have probably strung together at birth. If I am honest, he was always sick. Deeply gifted and deeply troubled; a photographer with a brilliant eye, a lighting director on blockbuster films, and a man who made art out of everything he touched, for better and for worse.

He was handsome and talented and charismatic, a personality that everyone just wanted to be around… until they didn’t. He’d show up at grade school pick-ups in leather pants and a white t-shirt with cigarettes rolled in the sleeve, nodding me onto the back of a roaring motorcycle, and earning equal parts raised eyebrows and swoons from teachers and parents. He would buy me elaborate presents on his own birthday, and always repeated that if any kid ever really messed with me, he’d beat the shit out of them… I just had to say the word.

There were the years before rehab; cabin walls covered in photographs, meals cooked over an open fire, summer morning stops at the 711- to pick up a buttered bagel and a Yoo-hoo for me to tote to camp. There were the years of optimism following rehab; loft walls covered in photographs, money rolling in from big movie gigs, one then two then three more babies in as many years. And then, there were the years that connect those memories to today; the reality that mental illness, and not merely addiction, haunted this man; studio walls covered in photographs, watercolor postcards with hundreds of stamps and fragments of narratives bearing my address, broken relationships- personal and professional… blocked phone numbers, forced distance.

For over a decade, I have been convinced that I’ve made peace with my relationship with my father. He was so mired in the past, obsessed with wrong-doings from his own father, all the injustices of his own life… That isn’t me. I won’t allow that to be me. I am strong, I am willful, I am mindful, I am responsible, and I will cherry pick memories that serve me, and cast aside those that defeat me.

I will remember all the trips to fine museums, the ballet, tiny art galleries, punk rock shows, and dive bars. I will remember when he’d buy shoes for homeless guys on the street, give them his cell number, and in a few cases, a fresh start in life. I will remember how he wept seeing my drawing of Frida Kahlo, how he told me that I’d never be poor with talent like that, and how truly he believed in me. I’ll remember his generosity, how his gifts for my children, whom he never really met, have always been numerous and flawless… right down to the box that arrived a month ago from Mexico; superhero wrestling capes for Smith, colorful embroidered dresses for Roo, perfectly fitting for each.

A couple weeks ago, I noticed a few missed calls from Minnesota, no message, no answer when I phoned the number back. Then came the news from my aunt, my dad wasn’t well. He’d been in a geriatric psych ward, and now in the ICU. Maybe it was the trip to Mexico, maybe the shift in seasons, likely a mental break that was years in the making, maybe he’ll pull out of it, maybe he won’t. And just like that, the thick skin that I have spent 38 years hardening, feels riddled with holes. I don’t know what to hope for, I don’t know what the best end to this story would look like. I only know that this is a piece of my life that I was resolved would never again cause me pain, and it hurts like hell. No matter how tough I try to be, no matter how tightly I try to hold my shit together and make this life beautiful and easy for my children, the fear and pain and joy and beauty of my own history can never be escaped. I’m working to cope with that, and working to realize that it’s probably for the best. I’m working…

 

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