Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Dear daughter.

After my dad died this past summer, my mom, sister, Angus, Mike, and I had to take on the ugly task of cleaning out closets, donating clothes, organizing the office, locating important paperwork, and making the necessary contacts to take care of financial and logistical issues. Digging through the personal items of someone so close to us was an odd experience. We learned some things about my dad those few days - he saved EVERY bank statement, received $.49/month in royalties from his father's brief music career, and bought into the healing power of magnets. And, what we already knew about him - his immaculate fashion sense, matching colognes and deodorants, and plethora of golf gear - was reaffirmed.

Many of his belongings still remain in the house because it just didn't seem right to get rid of it all - especially the lefty golf clubs, his prized possessions, which are propped in the corner of the garage just how he left them, now collecting dust and waiting for the next lefty in the family to pick them up. For me, it was his contact lenses and glasses that I couldn't dispose of. Part of me hoped he'd come back and knew he'd need them when he did.

Over the holidays, we were back in my parents' house for the first time since the summer. A few more "secrets" were uncovered like the Rubbermaid tubs of Beanie Baby bears my dad collected for his future grandchildren. As we searched and rummaged, I kept daydreaming about finding some sort of written letter from my dad, a sort of documentation of his love. (I watch way too many sappy movies.) This would be a bonus, I realize, because anyone who knew my dad understood that his love for his family trumped all else. And, I know that, too. I think the part of me that longs to hear from him, talk to him, and hug him, other than in the occasional dream, has conjured up these fantasies to fulfill those desires.

I'd like to think if I did find a letter, this is something how it would go:

Dear daughter,

If you are reading this, I am probably gone from this life, and while that makes me sad, it also brings me peace because I am no longer suffering. To be honest with you, I don't really want to talk about those days other than to say, thank you - for being there with me, for holding my hand, for comforting me and Mom, for being you.

When we found out we were pregnant with you, we were ecstatic. I still remember the moment Mom told me she was pregnant; I cried tears of joy. And then when you turned out to be a little baby girl, I couldn't contain myself. I had always wanted to have all girls, and when it was time to name you, "Keri" seemed just perfect. (I thought of your name, by the way.) I loved your big eyes, chubby cheeks, and contagious smile. I loved seeing you splash in the yellow plastic bathtub and laying with you on the floor surrounded by stuffed animals and toys. I made silly faces at you, talked in funny voices, and watched you light up. For the first time in my life, I felt truly purposeful and needed, and I vowed I would protect and watch over you always.

Watching you grow up and become a child, so curious about the world around you, was breathtaking. Even though I traveled a lot for work, I tried to become involved in as many areas of your life as I could. I remember coaching your basketball and soccer teams and cheering you on. "Hustle, Ker!" I'd yell from the sidelines as you pushed yourself to be better. I meant to cheer you on, but sometimes you frustrated me. All the time, my actions stemmed from my love for you and only ever wanting the best for you. You wanted me there and were proud of your dad, and I felt that. I don't know if words can explain how it feels to know that your daughter thinks her dad is cool.

One day, when you were around 10 years old, we were shopping at Staples. Mom needed crates for her classroom, but they were on a really high shelf. I thought I could reach them, and when I did, I lost my grasp, and the crates came crashing down on your head. You were alright but had a slice of skin hanging from your cheek and were bawling. I looked at your face and felt sick; I did this to you. I cried that day. I'm not sure if you saw me, but I felt terrible. I had hurt my baby girl. We went to the video store later that week, one of your favorite things to do, and I let you pick out three movies. You smiled and touched the scab on your cheek as if remembering then letting go.

When you got to high school, you went through the typical teenage drama. Looking back, I probably should have stepped in more often, but I didn't know what to do. I had a rough childhood in some ways, so I didn't do much of the discipline with you and Katy for fear of being too harsh. I always tried to tell you how proud I was of you and that it wasn't worth worrying about the petty things in life. I'm not sure how much sank in then, but I think telling you this advice over and over again into your adult years had to help somewhat. I was amazed at your perseverance, hard work, and goal-oriented attitude as a high schooler. You always seemed to have it together, whether in school, on the field, in the pool, or on the track. You gave it your all, and I stood and watched and was so proud of you. I remember standing at the end of the lane of the pool with my stopwatch trying to contain my excitement as you'd come close to winning a race. The timers weren't supposed to cheer for anyone in particular, but I always gave you a thumbs-up or high-five. Man, those were the days.

When you were looking at colleges, I drove you up to Connecticut in the fall of your junior year. The colors of the leaves were vibrant, and I watched you worry about what it would be like to be that far from home. When we went to Elizabethtown, I saw you immediately feel at home, and I just knew you would be accepted and go there. Tuition was more expensive than we wanted to pay, but I decided that I'd pay a bill for the rest of my life to see you happy and embarked on your chosen path. Even though Etown was 45 minutes from home, we didn't see you all that often. I loved coming up to visit you, but I hated leaving and knowing you were homesick. I remember feeling that way the summer I was 15 and worked in Wildwood, NJ at the sub shop. It was fun and exciting to be out on my own yet lonely at times, too. I could see this in you: a desire to be independent yet an intense longing for familiarity.

You graduated and moved to Baltimore, and I was scared shitless. My daughter, the one I vowed to protect and watch over, was moving to inner city Baltimore full of crime, and God knows what else. One night, your cell phone called our house. It must have been in your pocket or purse. It called our house over and over, and all we could hear on the other end was screaming and loud music. I frantically tried to call you back again and again, but you never answered. I knew you were in trouble, and I couldn't do anything to help you. I cried and laid on the bed and envisioned all the horrible things that must have been happening to you. In that moment, I thought I lost you. It was the worst moment of my life. I started putting on my sneakers and was about to drive to Baltimore when our phone rang. It was you. You were happy, probably drinking, and asked what was going on. I couldn't even talk to you, so you talked to Mom and told her you were at a concert with some friends. I curled up and cried and thanked God that you were OK.

You got your first job at Hopkins, and I loved telling people that you worked there. "Wow," they responded, just in awe of you as I was. You had been through your fair share of high school heartbreak, and apparently were dating someone you met through work. I met him, and I didn't like him. I could see from the way that he looked at you that he wasn't in love. He wasn't the one. He left you and moved to California, and you were distraught. I told you over and over again that summer that you deserved better. "The man you will marry will think you walk on water," I said. I knew that there was at least a shred of you that believed me and hoped you would hold out and never settle for less.

Then, you met Angus. We met him for the first time at Woody's Crabshack in Maryland for dinner. I knew from the moment I saw you two together that this was it. He was special, and he looked at you like you were the only person in the room - the only person on Earth. You were yourself that night, smiling and happy, very proud to introduce us to Angus. On the way out of the restaurant, you walked to our car with Mom because she brought you a bunch of her old clothes. I stood with Angus, and we shook hands. I hoped and hoped...and hoped that you wouldn't let this one get away.

Angus drove up to Lancaster one night without telling you. Mom and I had a feeling there was something up. He told us he wanted to take us to dinner. My heart was pounding that night as I got ready for his arrival. Could this be the moment every father fears/dreams of? Before going to dinner, we sat in the living room, and Angus started his speech. His voice was a little shaky, and he was nervous, but he told us that he loved you, wanted to be with you forever, promised to take care of you and asked us for your hand in marriage. Mom cried, and I tried to hold back my tears - you know, to play the Dad role - and asked him if he knew what he was getting into. He laughed, said yes, he was sure you were the one. We had dinner together, and I really felt in that moment that I had gained a son, and you had gained a husband who would be your soulmate and friend.

I loved Angus's parents. They were some of the nicest people I had ever met, and they embraced you as their daughter. I thanked them for that in my toast on your wedding day. The day you got married, I was in my glory. I danced and sang and partied my ass off. It was one of the highlights of my life. A lot of fathers feel sad to "give away" their daughters, but I felt only joy. I had no doubt that Angus was the man for you; you finally got what I'd been saying you deserved. That said, you'll always be my little girl. ;)

In your adult life, you called me a lot for advice or to chat, sometimes in tears, other times with good news. I am a man of few words, and our phone conversations were never lengthy or drawn out. But, I promise you, I was listening. I always had faith that you would figure it out, whatever it was you were going through. You and Angus were careful with your decisions, and though you didn't really need me, I was flattered to be involved.

The day you Skyped Mom and me to tell us you were pregnant goes down in history as being one of the most exciting of my life. Then, I found out I was going to have a baby boy grandson, and my heart soared. Those 9 months were the longest of my life. By the time your due date drew near, I had to resist calling you every day to find out if it was "time." When you finally did call us, early in the morning, to let us know, every ounce of my body wanted to jump on the next plane and see you in the hospital. But, you told us you needed some space, and I understood that, although you felt guilty for feeling that way. We arrived when my baby boy was only a few days old, and I remember climbing up your stairs, meeting you halfway down the hallway, and holding you and Calvin in my arms as you cried tears onto my shoulder. That week I will cherish forever. Staring into his tiny face as we sat together day after day on the chair in your loft, I fell in love. I found myself reliving my days as a new father, only this time from a new vantage point. If I thought I felt pride as a father, this was a million times more intense. Calvin and I were connected, there's no doubt about it. When Mom and I left after that week, you held onto me for a long time, not wanting to let go. All the feelings of "needing your space" melted away, and you felt homesick. I looked at you and said, "You can do this, Ker. You are a great mother," and I meant it.

I was not perfect. I know you thought I was for a long time and maybe still do. But, I was not. I was just a father who did his best to love his daughter with every bit of his heart and soul, support her goals and dreams, and pick her up when she fell. I hope that was enough for you. I hope you can always hold onto who I was and how much I loved you and still do.

I'll see you soon, baby girl.


1 comment:

  1. Keri, this is amazing. So appreciate your openness to share all of this. What a wonderful ode to your father. Thanks for letting us in.