Falling off the Pedestal

January 6, 2021

You have been steeling yourself for this conversation, for this moment. Actually, the right time was two years ago, when you had been caught. Maybe neither of you was ready then, hard to know. Yet you cannot wait any longer.

You knock on Remy’s door. She doesn’t answer. But you know she’s there. Your daughter deserves her privacy. She’s a woman. Regardless. You crack open the door. Peek inside.

Softly, you say her name. “Remy?” Again. “Remy?”

She has on headphones. Beats by Dre that she got for her birthday. Bright red and cost a fortune. She’s listening to hip-hop, the language of the streets, the African American experience, rife with “F” bombs and the radioactive “N” word.  You can hear it pulsing through her sleek headphones.

Unseen, you take a moment to observe her. A small person, she seems half swallowed by the comforter on her bed. Her bobbing head reminds you of the gophers that occasionally poke through the grass in your backyard. You think it’s funny: this little white girl listening to rap.

Save for the blues, you grew up loathing disco and rap. You remember an ill-fated promotion called  “Disco Demolition Night” at Comiskey Park in Chicago. An unruly crowd of mostly white teenagers, incited by a local DJ, lustily roared as a mountainous pile of disco records got blown to bits in center field. An embarrassing spectacle, it caused a riot. They had to cancel the baseball game. You’re glad Remy has an open mind, even if it sometimes scares you.

Remy sees you and removes the headphones. She is genuinely surprised. Her eyes widen.

“Hi,” you say. “Can we talk?”

“Right now?” She asks. Remy bites her tongue, a habit she’d recently developed. Your request was unusual, as was your presence in her room. She braces herself.

“Yes, please,” you say. “If that’s okay.” You enter her bedroom and take a seat on the large ottoman.

Remy crosses her legs on the bed. “What’s up, dad? She asks. Nervously, toying with her headphones. Finally, she turns off the music, shutting her laptop.

“Don’t worry,” you begin. “You’ve done nothing wrong.”

“I’m not worried,” she says, timidly. “I mean not really.”

“Let me start by saying you’re an amazing person, Remy. I don’t tell you that enough.” It’s true, you didn’t.  In spite of dragging her to California, disrupting her life, utterly, Remy had remained stoic throughout the ordeal. She has no friends! Her mother had cried. She doesn’t belong to a group! Feebly, you’d reasoned that Remy had sisters and that the move had brought them closer together. But you knew Sarah was right. The move had hurt Remy, thrusting her into a world of diffident girls uninterested in befriending a pale and diminutive child. A wound you’d made infinitely worse by betraying her mother. This is why you are here, to make amends.

“When I was a boy, I put my father on a pedestal,” you say. “Maybe even more so after he left us.” You pause, pulling one of Remy’s long brown hairs off of the ottoman, watch it fall to the floor.  “I don’t remember when he fell off it exactly but I do know it was painful…realizing my dad had flaws and weaknesses, a life that did not include me.”

Remy looks right at you. Her brown eyes remind you of your own.

“Anyway,” you continue. “I think we both know exactly when I fell off your pedestal. That is assuming you had me on one in the first place.” You force a laugh.

Remy smiles. Thank God, you think.

“The night your mother found those texts on my phone. When you and your sisters saw her yelling and crying. That was the moment.” Though you desperately want to avert your eyes from Remy, you do not. Doing this correctly demanded your full attention. And so you say the hard part: “When I betrayed your mother I betrayed you as well.”

Remy nods, uneasily. This was an adult conversation, maybe the first she’d ever had with you.

You press forward. “I don’t expect you to put me back on that pedestal, Remy. Or even to forgive me. I know what I did was wrong and that I hurt this whole family. And for that I am truly sorry.”

You stop talking. You’ve said what you came here to say. You will not provide reasons or excuses. You must accept that she may give you no quarter. The outcome was not yours to determine. Only that you own the mess that you’ve made.

Remy speaks and her poise surprises you. “Thank you, father,” she says. “It’s true. I did have a hard time when we moved here. I pretended it was cool but it wasn’t. And then what happened, what you did … that made it even worse. It was awful.

You nod. “Yes, it was.”

Remy comports herself, sitting up straighter. “But in the last year or so I found my place. I have friends now. It’s not perfect but I like my life. I grew up.” She laughs. “Just in time for college!”

You had not expected humor. Nor would you have linked Remy’s maturation to your own bad behavior. But the dots connected. Your weakness begot her strength. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair. But that’s exactly what had happened.

You are not glad hearing this, but reassured. “I was scared I might have lost you. And I would have understood it. But I want you to know that you will never lose me.”  You look down, contrite. Play with your wedding ring.

Remy sighs. “I’m glad you and mom are still together,” she says. “I know that it can’t be easy, for either of you.”

In that moment, gazing upon your daughter, you realize what you just did here was right, the words and the deed. If only you could continue down this path. Being intimate, vulnerable and honest. If only…

“At school, the sisters always preach forgiveness,” Remy says. “That we should even pray for the people that hurt us…”

You’ve heard that said before, in AA. It was a textbook example of something easier said than done.

“And so I prayed for you.”

You point to the ceiling. “Do you know every morning I ask God for help? And every night I thank Him for giving it to me.” You pause.  “For keeping me sober… For all of my blessings… And for you.”

Remy’s phone vibrates, lighting up. Somebody wants her and you don’t wonder why. She’s a remarkable young woman.

“It’s okay, I won’t look at my phone,” she says. “If you’re not done.”

“I am done,” you say, getting up. You don’t want the conversation to end. Yet, you didn’t want to push it either. In this family, intimacy was damn near a mirage, like water in the desert. Too much all at once could be detrimental. “Look, I know this is awkward but can we end with a hug?”

Remy rolls her eyes. All the same, she climbs off the bed, opening her arms.

In these tiny arms that you created. She squeezes back. Next time, would she come to you? It was more possible now than it had been ten minutes ago. Every year, their high school has a Daddy-Daughter Dance for its freshman. Proud fathers and their flowering daughters, everyone enjoys it. You recall being petrified. Holding your daughter that close felt so awkward. Yet, she was scared, too. Reluctant. Her tiny bones seemed to vibrate. Like father like daughter.

The thing about falling off a pedestal is getting back up onto solid ground.

Bodily Functions

December 7, 2020

Caution: The following is gross…

Your body loves to tell you how old it is. It complains. Varying intermittent pains in your back, knees and shoulders. Twinges you feel upon rising. Parts grow bigger (nose, prostrate, hairs in your ear) even as you get smaller (5’ 8” from 5’ 10”).  A shrinking bladder forces you out of bed. Or is it an expanding prostrate? Likely a combination, another one-two punch to the body. An incessant gurgling inside your stomach, like an old furnace, churns and groans, doing its job, but inefficiently and unpleasantly. Sometimes when you sit on the toilet you emit only gas. Ten full seconds! Surely that is a record. You think of capturing one of these lengthy farts on your iPhone then playing it for your daughters, who still get a kick out of such things. Why not? They watch crude and vulgar videos on You Tube. Girls, look what daddy can do! It would break the Internet. You imagine the terror on your wife’s face. How could you? You could.

Bodily functions have become more important. Maybe pervasive is the better word. When did taking a dump become such a triumph? Some years ago you began to feel an itch in your ears. You stuck your pinky finger in to remedy the matter and pulled out a large yellow flake. Now you regularly use the top of a ballpoint pen or even a bent paper clip to rake your inner ear. Pieces of wax adhere to the metal and plastic, which you find satisfying and troubling in equal measures. Within hours the buildup is there again. Sticking foreign objects in your ear has become routine. It’s gross but not enough to make you stop. Not even close. As a kid you were the same way about scratching mosquito bites, until they bled and scabbed over. Then you would pick the scabs. On and on that went. You have blemishes on your ankles that are 40 years old.

If you hadn’t started shaving your head decades ago, before it was trendy, you might wonder how much hair you actually have left. It began falling out in your late twenties, when you got married. Whatever amount remained it would most certainly be gray. Thankfully, this is a moot point. You are relieved that your cranium is smooth and without unsightly contusions. A shaved head suits you. If it doesn’t, no one has told you otherwise.

Solitude & Devotion.

November 28, 2020

It could be worse…

Soft and feminine, you adore it. It has become your companion. Palpable. Serene. Lovely. You have a long-term relationship with solitude, which almost never gets old. So many people abhor solitude, likening it to loneliness, depression and even madness. Especially women, who feel others in ways you’ll never understand.

Like many parents, Sarah fears the impending emptiness of her nest. She’s not sure you’ll be in it. And neither are you. But that was the least of it. The girls. They are her everything. And soon they will be gone. Remy was in college and the other two right behind her. The girls. Sarah answered to their endless chirping like a calling. She lived deeply in their experiences, feeling every bruise, celebrating all victories, and worrying herself sick. How would she ever replace that? With you? Please.

For you, it would not be an empty nest. It was solitude.

There will always be a wall between you and devotion. You built it for protection against cruelties, both real and phantom. Over time, the mortar hardened. Now, it was virtually impenetrable. Like your father, you eventually surrendered to the fact that intimacy would never come to you the way it did for others. And like your dad you found a way to compensate. You became an underwriter. Enabling your family to have deep and fantastic experiences, even if you couldn’t.

The Acorn

November 16, 2020

On the last day of your senior year in high school you broke a rule by wearing shorts. The Principal called you out for the infraction, stopping you in the hallway. The details of your exchange are lost in time but you most certainly had been disrespectful. Whatever the case, he ended up banning you from the graduation ceremony. A harsh blow, but hardly the first one the school had dealt you during your tenure. Thankfully, it would be the last. Good riddance. Your mother was upset by the news. Maybe she cried. Maybe she took your side. You don’t remember. It was a long time ago. However, you do recall your father’s reaction. “Good,” he had said. “Now I don’t have to go.” You were relieved that he hadn’t gotten mad. But was it also possible that you’d been hurt by his indifference to your banishment (and by proxy his). After all, had you not been banned from the ceremony your father would have been forced to attend. At the time you viewed it as a win: neither of you sitting in the hot sun waiting for a piece of paper. But shouldn’t a father want to go to his son’s graduation?

The acorn does not fall far from the tree. Having three children, you too are put off by the myriad events you were made to attend. Parent-teacher conferences. Recitals. Soccer matches. Graduations. You were ambivalent about going to any and all of them. Sarah hated this about you. “Why must you only think of yourself?” She asked a million times. As time wore on, she would become even more direct: “You’re going, whether you like it or not.”

And go you did. Sometimes grumbling, rarely happy about it, always happy when it was over. You have wondered about this attitude. Many times. It’s not that you didn’t want your children doing these things you just didn’t want to do it with them. It was nerve wracking watching Remy hammering away at the piano or Callie being bested on the soccer field. Worse was enduring the other children. That was the opposite of entertaining. What did Oscar Wilde once say? Hell is other people’s children. They bored you to annoyance.

But you went. Dutifully. You have Sarah to thank for this.

After joining AA, you learned to name your character defects and that your principal sin was one of self-centeredness. Early on, you recall a member’s lamentation about drinking in his car while his daughter played the cello. How low can one go? He asked the group. Join the club you wanted to say. It went without saying.

Your upbringing demanded that you become self-sufficient. Your difficult surroundings forced you ever deeper into your head, where you created fantasies to offset the growing fears and frustrations of the outside world. You became introverted and built your life around it – it being you. Reading, writing, collecting butterflies, drawing comics, even masturbating; by the time you started using drugs and drinking the die had been cast. You put yourself first because in your mind no one else ever would. You had ample evidence to support this view. Your parents abandoned you. Friends betrayed you. Girls were beyond you.

You have covered this territory before: in therapy, in AA, in your writing, in your head, ad nausea. Even during your darkest hours, you knew better. That’s why you intervened on yourself, joined AA. What you hadn’t counted on was “better” meaning selfless. You desired to be a better husband and father but you couldn’t let go of your will. Despite everything, you admired your wits and what they had wrought. In AA, you heard people attack such pretenses over and over but… There was always but. Needless to say, untangling yourself from your self has proven to be tricky. A lot more tricky.

Even so, there is much to celebrate. You are not so angry anymore. You are responsible, law-abiding, and paid your taxes. You do not feel cheated by the world or anyone in it. Though you know the world is unfair you also realize that this is why you are still alive and not a drunken statistic. If life were fair you’d be dead. You are grateful for what you have. You are sober.

Every day you do something physical, something spiritual and something for your brain. You have your set of unwise and unhealthy behaviors but it soothes you. It could be worse.

But the calm always seems conspicuous. Can you maintain it? Will another front arrive? The questions buzz like mosquitos, disturbing the peace. What now?

Welcome to Armageddon

September 25, 2020

“I’m going to tell you a true story, okay?”

Callie is looking at her phone but you know she is listening. You are driving her to rehearsal. She has a big part in Les Miserables. She plays the grown-up version of Cosette. Though you saw the movie you don’t really remember the story. Victor Hugo is not your thing. Being a musical, Callie has been practicing her song for weeks. You’ve heard her belting out lyrics from her room, in the shower, on the trampoline in the backyard, which she pretended was a stage. You couldn’t tell if she was good or not but her enthusiasm was infectious. It gladdened you to see her so passionate, so happy. Many members from your family are coming in to see her perform. Hundreds of other people as well. The tickets cost money and this is a real show. Up until yesterday Callie had been totally psyched.

One of her “friends” had disrespected her online, insulting her singing skills or some other shit. Usually a brick, Callie had been wounded.  Your wife told you as much. Now you felt it in your daughter’s sullen demeanor.

So you tell her a story…

“Before you were born,” you begin. “Back when I was coming up at my agency in Chicago, we were preparing for this huge presentation. It was my idea we’d be showing. I had written all the copy. And I had the game to go with it. I knew what I was going to say and how I was going to say it. I had my shit down.”

Callie looks up when you curse. Good. You had her attention. No easy feat with a teenager.

“Anyway, the night before I rehearsed my bit in front of the team. I get done. My colleagues are pleased. One even clapped. Then the head account person –the guy who deals with the client- he proceeds to crap all over my work. He’s not happy with the creative, he says. It’s shit. I’m dumbfounded. Where did this come from? He’d seen it before.”

Traffic on the 101 is heavy but it allows you to turn and look at your daughter. “The guy says to me, in front of everybody, if you present that work tomorrow it will be Armageddon.”

“The end of the world?” Callie asks. “What did you do?” Callie’s eyes are one of her most beautiful features, big and blue, and they are wide open staring at you.

You laugh. “I told him I would make changes. That I’d do what he wanted.”

“That sucks,” your daughter says.

“It would have sucked,” you say. “Had I listened to him. The next day I delivered my presentation just as I’d planned it. My work. My way. And I fucking killed it. When I was done the client cheered.”

“Really?”

“Damn straight,” you say. “But the story’s not over. After the meeting ends, everybody’s shaking hands, patting each other on the back. I walk over to the account guy who’d dissed my work. He thinks I’m going to shake his hand. I look him right in the eyes, and I say, ‘Welcome to Armageddon, asshole.’”

Almost missing your exit, you swiftly change lanes. So caught up are you in the tale.

“Wow, that’s a great story, dad,” Callie says. “It’s all true?”

“Every bit, sweetheart.”

At the red light, you look at Callie full on. The middle child, she’s the sassy one. The daughter that gives your wife the most trouble. You choose your words carefully. “If people disrespect you or your work that does not mean you have to listen to them. Just be…”

The light turns green and you move the car forward. The word comes to you.

“Devastating.”

AA teaches that redemption comes from being of service. Letting go the bondage of self. This is true. Yet redemption also comes by shattering the chains from the bondage of others. You want your daughter to believe in herself, even when others don’t.

In the parking lot, Callie thanks you for driving her to practice. But you sense something deeper. You can see it in her eyes.

The fierceness has returned.

You watch Callie as she marches toward the theater, joining her other cast members. When she was a toddler, she had refused to walk upright, instead choosing to tread on her knees. The pediatrician had concerns. Your wife was worried. It’s not normal, they said. But you knew her day would come. And in your mind so did she.

The world is a stage and you just gave an important player some badass direction.