Growing up, I always wished for a dad who wore a suit and tie. Even though they never came to much, they also never embarrassed their offspring with theatrical renditions of the national anthem or got overly chatty at open house night. Love you dad. It was probably my own insecurities, but I just wanted something that looked like everything else. My dad never really cared to belong. So from where I stood (usually a dimly lit corner, wishing he'd stop talking,) he never got "dad" right. Look it up: dads go to work. Mine went when he felt like it. Dads carry briefcases. Mine carried a bag of Lays Potato chips to snack on. Dads sat quietly in the back of the assembly hall, mine was front and center, video-taping and cheering as loud as possible when I won student of the month. Dads don't cry. Mine couldn't/can't sit through a Pixar movie without welling up.
My dad was bedtime stories, magical soup concoctions, and the tickle monster. He was different. I wanted a stock photo. I think somewhere I must have recognized this difference before I started to resent it: maybe when my mom would hand a 10-year-old me the list of to-dos, bypassing him altogether.
- Soccer at 3
- Don't let your sister forget her shin guards.
- There is pasta in the fridge, make sure you eat before practice.
At 10 I couldn't have known what she was afraid of -- just that she found him vaguely incapable of doing anything, even having a credit card. So I did what I was told and tried my best to stand in while he worked on our tree house in the backyard. It was only after my parent marriage dissolved -- around age 18 -- that I would come to truly understand the manic highs and the lows. But back then it was just "dad being dad." It was dad being dad when he booked a ticket and was suddenly gone, when he bought a new car, or couldn't get out of bed for weeks.
I think the reality of it all hit me when I finally decided to come home from college to his apartment. I'd done my best to avoid returning home -- there wasn't much left -- but I had a few weeks before I was set to takeoff again. My childhood house was the first victim of the divorce, so after it sold my brother sister and I became permanent house guests. Most of the time we stayed with friends/girlfriends/boyfriends but we left our heaviest stuff with him - in a small way, we appreciated that he'd at least stuck around to provide us with a place to leave our suitcases. Sometimes we'd all wind up passed out on his hodgepodge of couches, only then did it feel like home again.
I surveyed the interior: the weird moon-like mattress he'd bought in an airport, piles of unopened mail, and a grocery list affixed to the fridge - my sister's contribution to his bachelorhood. She'd concocted a weekly meal plan with things like spaghetti, salads, and grilled chicken. She'd even created an accompanying list of the ingredients he'd need for each day of the week.
I felt cheated -- my dad couldn't even get the basics. Go to work. Come home. Eat dinner. Instead he was off making grandiose plans to buy real estate in Saint Thomas or trying to launch his karaoke career. He'd take us to a divorced dad dinner, and then look at us when the check came. It was almost comical.
It was then that I made a silent pact with myself never to become like him. My mom had always mentioned that it was a bad idea to "be like your father." But standing alone in the mess of his life, I got serious -- seriously terrified, could I catch it? Was it inevitable? Word was he'd inherited whatever it was that made him go up and down and all around from his mother -- I worried it was lurking in me too. Yet unlike a cancer or a genetic mutation, I couldn't go to the doctor and get tested. Still, it had the potential to kill everything.
Everyone knew it. I figured that's why anyone who knew my father treated my siblings and I with kid gloves (that or they pitied us.) An alarm bell would sound if any one of us was too outgoing, too reserved, too calculating, too fast or too slow.
Because of his mutated shadow, if felt like we could never be just right.
A few years later I found myself in the midst of my own self-created mess: I'd impulsively quit/gotten fired from my job as an editor and my apartment was a mess of trash bags and boxes that I was supposed to move out of in days. It looked vaguely like my dad's abode. Instead of packing or job searching, I opted to spend the remaining days in my apartment running around Chicago, being day-wasted with my best friend. I'd thought I'd successfully exorcised my father from my being, yet without warning, he'd come knocking on my unlocked door.
I didn't care. I drank more. Slept less. And snuck on stage with Public Enemy. My world was crumbing but I was convinced I was untouchable. I pitched magazines suggesting that they allow me to drive across the country blogging about my experiences on the open road. With zero fear and less sleep I hatched elaborate plans to do everything and anything: Los Angeles? New York? Move into a retirement community to gain an appreciation for the elderly? It was all going perfectly, until I tried to withdraw money from my bank account -- apparently the Bank of America didn't care that I was a creative genius. Declined.
I called my mom, I can't remember if she picked up. If she did she probably gave me a stern "get it together" speech from wherever she was and hung up. And then my last ditch effort: dad. We hadn't spoken in months but he answered. I knew he would. He'd left me a message almost every week since I'd left home just to say, "Hi, I love you."
He booked me a flight.
"Megs, just come home," he said. At the time, I wasn't sure what he meant but then I didn't have any other options. So home I went. He pulled up at the airport to collect me from my one way from O'Hare. He wasn't in a suit or tie, but he grabbed my suitcase and hugged me in a way that made me know that even if I wasn't okay, I would be. Since I'd been gone, he's started to pick up his pieces. He'd started working for himself, fallen in love and even managed to use his own credit card to pay for my ticket home. It was good timing, since I was looking a little broken. I don't think I saw it then. I do now. I didn't get a postcard dad. I got something much better. I got a person with imperfections that did his best. Sometimes it wasn't enough, and sometimes it was more than I deserved.
I'm not scared of turning into him anymore.
When I eventually picked up my own pieces, I figured out how to be okay with just me -- whether I have a dad who wears a suit or not. I think the same is true of my dad. He figured out -- albeit a bit on the late side, how to be okay with just being him. He still sings (mostly in the shower,) still talks way too much, and still embarrasses me consistently. I don't see myself entirely in him, I have his dimples and there are definite pieces -- glimpses -- and I can now be proud of them.