"Mommy!" I ran to my mom, sobbing. Only one year old at the time, I didn't recognize the stranger who stood in the door, hands outstretched. I didn't recognize the man who had been gone for a week in Switzerland. I didn't recognize my dad.
Mom sighed. She had been looking forward to Dad's return, she confided in me years later, so she could let him watch me while she finally took a much-needed rest. Dad had obviously been looking forward to seeing his wife and year-old daughter, as well.
When Mom told me this, I laughed. I had been raised on stories of my clinginess, my absolute refusal to be held by anyone other than Mom, and a residue of that clinginess stayed with me for years—in fact, it was still in me when Mom told me the story of Dad's return.
This isn't to say I didn't and don't love Dad. I love him fully as much as I love Mom; I just preferred Mom's company. Dad was witty, amazingly funny, and, unfortunately, punny. He was the one who gave me piggy-back rides, he was the one who let me touch the ceiling (a goal of almost every kid), he was the one who had time to read me stories and play games almost whenever I asked, and he was the one who provided the hundred pennies in ten neat stacks that "magically" appeared on my bedside table in the morning.
But Mom was the one who held me in her lap and watched Sesame Street with me when she had the time. She took me to all the "special places" like the movies, the video store, and the toy store. She and Dad both contributed equal amounts of boundless love and care, but I still clung to Mom. I suppose it was because I saw her pretty much all through the ay, while Dad appeared only at night.
My attachment to Mom was no small, insignificant thing. It was fairly major and it was definitely there—in my Mom's Las Madres group I was especially known for that trait.
Such a legacy, and it was hard to break down. Mostly, it was my efforts that finally overcame my bias against Dad, but it was an event beyond my control that truly began the change.
The eve of my eighth birthday. Such a simple summer day, one of those days when you eat breakfast at eleven-thirty and skip lunch completely. My mom was gone—her birthday was coming up soon, and she was out for an early birthday dinner with her friends.
Dad, my six-month-old sister Noelle, and I ate our own dinner around seven o'clock, then engaged in our personal, quiet nighttime activities. Suddenly, the screeching siren of an ambulance filled the air. We hear sirens on an infrequent basis, but they always pass by and fade out of earshot before they reach their destination. This one, however, didn't, and before it left it had indirectly caused a night of terror for me that remains in my memory still.
"Come on!" Dad called to me, running out of the room and scooping Noelle into his arms. "Let's see what's happened for upstairs!"
The siren had stopped only a few doors down, and Dad thought it would be exciting to "see the action," as he put it. So we ran upstairs, Dad bumped a chair up to the window with the best view, then held Noelle and me up so we could see. Well, we could see better than on the ground. Instead of a line of boring houses stretching into the distance, I could see the houses and lights above them. Hooray.
Anyway, suddenly I heard a *pop!* and I was plummeting to the floor, released from Dad's grip late enough the hit the floor on my side. Not my preferred position. I felt, rather than heard, Dad's thump on the floor and split second after mine. I slowly pushed myself up, shaky from my unexpected fall but not really worried, as the sound of Noelle's wails penetrated the deadly silence. That made me hurry my action, and I looked up. Or rather, down, at the sprawled body of Dad on the floor and Noelle beside him, waving her tiny fists in fury.
"What happened?" I asked, panic rising in my throat. "What should I do? Oh God what happened?!"
I heard Dad's voice, only a bit shaky. In his place, I would have joined Noelle in screaming. "My knee—gave out. Don't know why . . . are you hurt?"
"No," I said, choked by tears. I was the only one standing and he was worrying about me before him or Noelle? I didn't deserve it. Dear God . . . I was the only one standing. And as it became painfully obvious Dad could not get up, I was the only one who could get help.
Struck with this sudden responsibility, I was daunted. Like many young (and older) children, I had dreamed of saving the day and becoming a heroine. But, as most of those children who have had the opportunity, I found, to my dismay, that I scared into helplessness. I hated it, hating my body for not moving, hated myself for not knowing what to do, hated Mom for not coming home—I knew hating it couldn't help, but I did it anyway. I was past caring.
Up until that point, my memory remains clear. But the rest of that night remains a blur punctuated by a few crystal-clear scenes. I don't remember calling our neighbor, Esther. I remember being scared, as only a young child can, of the strangers who passed our open door as I waited desperately for Esther. I remember seeing her walk around the garage and hurry in. I remember the muscled men who came in with a yellow stretcher. I don't remember Dad being carried away. I remember stamping and coloring with Esther, who knew exactly how to calm a child who was close to hysterics. I remember showing Mom how far I guessed Noelle had fallen—though it turned out that Dad had held on tightly to her to shield her from the fall, using his body to protect her. I remember being scared. But no other details of that horrible night remain.
It was then, I think, that I really started noticing Dad. His love, his care . . . and my sometimes-cold refusal of his presence in place of Mom's. I want to cry, sometimes, with shame at my cruel actions. That shame, and the resolve to change, fueled my "bonding" with Dad and my more-generous behavior.
I realized, again shamefully, that Dad had always been there for me. Now, I mean this in no way to slight Mom, but she's a very busy woman and frequently she doesn't have times to play games or read stories to me. She is constantly working around the house. But with Dad, all I have to do is ask and, on all but the busiest days, he'll play that game or read that story. How often had I cried and complained because it wasn't Mom? I had ignored his sacrifice entirely and selfishly concentrated on my wants.
Knowing my nature of making excuses, I have probably spared myself much other blame I should rightfully take, and I mentally cringe at that thought. But, but, I can say I have worked to bring about a change.
That change, now pretty much complete, was helped greatly by a common hobby I wrote about in a previous essay—Ham Radio. As a quick summary of what it is, I'll use the frequent Ham explanation—"It's a chatroom on radio." It's pretty much true, except there are no blocking, swearing, other inappropriate language, and there are rules to ensure the safety and pleasure of everyone. And I've found that generally the people are friendlier.
Dad was, basically, my tutor for Ham Radio. It took hard work on my part, three strenuous months, and let's not forget Dad's twice-daily computerized exams. Se, to gain a Ham license—giving a person the right to talk on the radio—a person must pass an exam to ensure that a Ham knows the rules, safety measures, and operating procedures of Ham Radio. It took me three tries to pass that exam with the required seventy-five percent correct, but I finally did it.
During those three months, Dad and I became a lot closer. We began talking more—not that we didn't "before," but this was still more. I began seeing him as a real person instead of nighttime spirit, disappearing with the new day. I learned about his Ham life, and so I knew him better. Writing this now, I think that was probably the main barrier between Dad and me—I didn't see him as a real person. Stuck in me since I can remember, I never noticed it and so never bothered to change it.
Now that the change in my attitude and the destruction of the barrier is complete, or at least almost-complete, I've found I've gained a mentor and a true friend. That's another belief that had been part of me since birth—parents are wiser, stronger, and better than you are . . . live with it. Getting closer to Dad brought down that barrier, and I've only no noticed it. I'm beginning to see more and more evidence of what I've known is true: I'm not that perceptive. Sigh.
But as I was saying, Dad has become a real friend. Mom is there for my social-life problems (which are many), and night talks and general loving, and now Dad fills in for everything else. Sometimes Mom doesn't understand some of my worries, such as premature college worries, and Dad does.
Of course, sometimes that has its negative side. Troubles with math homework lead to college problems and material—no wonder I'm worried about college!—and I'll find that one problem leads to two hours of unrelated explanation, much like Chenxin described in her essay of her dad. Still, those times are fun, and I do enjoy the challenge . . . which I promptly forget.
There are talks about other stuff, too—who'd imagine my computer-nerd dad in deep discussion with me about (dun dun dun) "Les Miserables: Play vs. Book"—me providing the play (I know almost of the words by heart) and Dad providing the book (one of his all-time favorites). It was very interesting, but I discovered then, more than ever, that I have no taste for debates. I prefer to say, "Eponine is better!" and let it go unchallenged.
My dad—he's been here all my life, and I've only now discovered him. I miss the twelve years of my life that he was the "nighttime and weekend spirit," but I won't spend too much regret on that. I've found him now, and that's all that counts. I love my mom—and now what I've shared with her, I can share with Dad, too.
Written July 2000, Nicole La Fetra
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