Fifty Bucks and a Card Game: A Father's Gift

06/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

A friend of mine, who I'll call John, phoned the other day. He was on the way to the nursing home to say goodbye to his father, long ill, and finally succumbing to age. He was heartbroken but ready -- he loved his father enough to let go.

I can't imagine that kind of love for a father. It reminded me of my own father, someone whose death I doubt I will mourn.

But is that true?

My mother would often tell me, as a little girl, that she went ahead with my adoption even though she knew my father was ill. Mentally unstable. It was her way of telling me how much she loved me, how much she wanted me, usually after a long night of bourbon on the rocks.

But that's where I always go, back to my mother, when thinking about my father. Safe, while at her feet in the kitchen, with the smell of coffee in the air. Talking about my father and love is almost impossible for me.

Was there ever any? He was diagnosed as schizophrenic and manic-depressive, but the real sickness of his mind doesn't come through with these clinical words. He was a tall man, mostly silent. In a wedding photo, one stashed away long ago by my mother, his gaunt face sans smile and haunted eyes, he looked wrong. Incapable of joy, it seems, without ample amounts of gin.

There was a time, though, when I was very small, I wanted his love. He would come home from work and I would sit in his lap while he read the comics to me. But that image melts away, as he always slid me down his leg, bouncing me up and down, in a way I knew was wrong.

My mother would end it. Dinnertime, set the table, come help in the kitchen... she stopped it. An innocent game with a child, one played by so many fathers, in love and silliness, I knew on some visceral level wasn't the point. There was no love, only sickness.

I wanted love. Over time, I tried to erase him from my mind. I haven't seen or spoken to him for so many years I can't keep track. I won't keep track. But his voice and smell stay with me. The way he rocked from side to side, a side effect from the years of medications, or stuck his tongue out, oblivious to the bizarre impact it had on his children. I convinced myself I did not want a father, but I know that's not true.

I wanted a Dad. Over time, after my parents divorced, he would take us camping, to football games, and once to see the soccer star Pele play. He would take us to the grocery store and let us pick out junk food, sweets, anything forbidden by my mother. Always, at the end, there would be the sickness, the touch, when we returned to his apartment. Take a bath, he would urge my sister and I, while he masturbated behind the shower curtains veil, small sounds betraying his secret.

When John talked about his Dad, his voice cracked. The connection and love was clear. And yet I felt like I was watching something from behind a thick pane of old glass, distorted, waved by the years of withstanding the weather. I wanted to know what that was, the love of a father. A father who loved his child with kindness and generosity. What would it have been like to be safe, cared for, held with no sick demons demanding rewards?

Triggers, always triggers make me ask these questions. The most innocent of conversations can send my head spinning. One night, a friend mentioned a sailboat her father made her.

I know her father was a horribly abusive man. Unlike John, there is no separation; the glass is jagged and cuts me. I lean into it because I cannot stand the curiosity. Was this love?

It started as a casual conversation about a seaside town. I almost moved there, she said, because I had this sailboat my father made me...

It didn't fit. John would say this, and have love in his eyes. Not her. I looked long at her and she simply shrugged. Her father was a vicious man who broke my friend at a very young age. I don't think she's ever recovered. And yet, with this simple sentence, enters my own father again.

Triggers are like that. Small innocent words with the teeth of a bear trap.

What did my father ever give me?

Fifty bucks when I went to college to spend on "books." That and an intense hatred of camping, pan-fried hamburgers and cleaning out the bathtub. I'm not sure those were gifts but they were lasting memories.

He made her a sailboat.

My father was not a brilliant musician, nor a poet, nor a craftsman of any kind. He did own a table saw, where he cut off two of his fingers while still married to my mother. I can remember sitting outside and having my mother's frantic call to me that I assume my siblings. There was a blanket wrapped around his hand and her instructions to stay home, the neighbors would check on us.

I knew there was blood. I went to the table saw, where I was not allowed, and looked at it. I don't remember seeing anything, only the horror.

What was it like to have a man as a father who was many things? Both awful and talented? Mine was simply awful. Sick, mentally ill, there was nothing there but voices that echoed in his head, telling him what to do.

Surely, I keep thinking, there must have been something. Something, somewhere that he built or sang or wrote, that was beautiful.

Cards. I know he was a brilliant card player. Life Master at Bridge. He taught me, and my siblings, at a young age to play a very grown up game. I can still play, although I am not very good.

Combined with the fifty bucks, I feel cheated. If I had to go through what I did, couldn't I have at least some gift?

Do I really want one is the better question. I can simply write off a man who was neither my biological father nor a real father in any way. I feel no remorse. It must be harder for my friend. Beauty came with the carnage. How do you sort that out?

Maybe you never do. Maybe I'm blessed to have no ambivalence about the fact that I hate the man. I don't miss him and when he dies, I will not cry. Cold, some have called me, mean, thoughtless. I throw people away, I was told.

I am thoughtless when it comes to my feelings about some one who ripped away my innocence, showed me pornography with a sick laugh, encouraging me to read the stories, guiding my hand in the dark of the canvas tent. I look at my eight year old and think about what I was swallowing at the same age, leaving me with endless dreams of a mouthful of glass. He reads a silly book about farts and poops, tucked under a blanket, snug on the couch.

Cold? No... encased. I built sturdy armor at a young age, fed with the images of the Greek Gods and Goddesses. I longed to be Athena, born fully-grown and in full battle gear. No arms stronger to hold me down.

And yet the sailboat lingers, intermixed with the sealed off dream of a real, painless father. Somewhere is the little girl, waiting for her father to come home to read the comics.

My mother, on the other hand, left me many things, and while we fought, we loved each other very much. She could be cruel but to a child where pain had another dimension, she felt like safety to me. I could kick the can through the air so everyone was home free. When she died, I needed her things close to me. I wanted them in my life. The things she gave me over time had more meaning.

I am back in the kitchen. Coffee is in the air, it safe enough to write this even though I know my mother would be furious. Life is hard, Sara, she'd say. You move on. Her last words to me, as she lay dying, Will you ever be okay?

I don't know.

Our relationship was nowhere near perfect. Over time, I have been able to pick away the shards and find the kindness. I know I'll never have that with my father. There is simply nothing left after the pain is swept away.

I know, on some level, that I'm lucky. I know it's better to not have anything than to have something, briefly and have it ripped away. I understand the sailboat is the illusion of some kind of love, of regret, an extension of good will. I know my friend John had other struggles to attend to, and life is never as perfect as it seems. The reality, my guess, is the sailboat was a gift of guilt, shame and not for my friend at all, rather her tormentor's conscience. Aloe for his soul, not his daughter's.

Fifty bucks. And a card game. So pitifully forgettable, it was indeed a gift.