Once, during a particularly un-Louisiana like winter in my youth, we had a severe ice-and-little-bit-of-snow storm. The world outside our flimsy screen doors was cold and white. The ubiquitous pine trees bent beneath the weight of icicles. The roads lay covered by inches of ice and the little stream in front of our house looked as if it had been interrupted mid-flow, frozen into a wavy sheet that we assumed must be just right for ice-skating (we were kids from the Deep South; what did we know? :-). Because my blue-collar parents didn’t have the luxury of having jobs to which they could just call in and miss, they went to work. My mom always hated the fact that if one person made it out of the bad weather to the plant, all of them would be expected to come.
My sister and I spent the day at the babysitter’s who lived down the street from us. At some point after 3 p.m., my dad, who was working days that week, came to collect us. We were so excited. Because mama did most of the day-to-day care and was so overprotective that we were always with her, Daddy was the “fun” parent. (As a mother, I think that’s horribly unfair, but it’s how we perceived it.)
He’d ridden with someone else who dropped him at our babysitter’s house. We were all going to walk home together. My sister and I initially took itty-bitty steps, scared of slipping and falling. We clung to Daddy’s arms and I honestly have no idea how he stayed upright and managed to keep us standing. Over the course of the few hundred yards to our house, we grew bolder, sliding on the ice, nodding at Daddy’s warnings, but skipping and squealing as we’d slip. Each time, Daddy would sigh, catch us, set us on our feet. It was a little scary, the knowledge that we might slip down the steep sides of the “branch” and land on the frozen stream. It was also exhilarating because we were made virtually fearless by the presence of Daddy, secure in the knowledge that he would never let us fall.
Today is my dad’s birthday and I couldn’t think of a better metaphor for our relationship than the one expressed in that story. I have done some questionable, dangerous, make-no-sense-at-all things in my life and my dad was always there to catch me, to make me feel safe, to keep me upright. Even when I ignored his warnings, he’d sigh a lot, scold for a minute, then pick me up and set me on my feet again. His presence made me feel safe in venturing out, messing up, and trying again. One of the reasons that I’ve been able to do so much, good and bad, is because I knew I had a secure foundation in my parents. “You can always come home,” they told us, and they didn’t mean it in just a literal sense. My parents were/are home, and in the last four and a half months, I’ve felt the missing part of that structure keenly.
This is the first November 8th I’ve ever faced without my dad. I’m not even home to visit his grave. And in two weeks, I’ll have my own first birthday without my Daddy. I don’t like thinking about that, either.
But I do have moments of peace. A few weeks ago, we went rock climbing. As I hemmed and hawed and climbed, I kept thinking, “Your ass knew better than this! Lord, I’m not gone make it.” I kept going, though, a little bit at a time, stopping to catch my breath or balance. And then, a good way up the rock, we suddenly felt a strong wind at our backs. It was so forceful that we could feel it pushing us. I made it to the top and just sat there for the longest, thinking, breathing, silent as the wind blew all around me. That night, when I talked to Mama about it, I told her, only half-jokingly, “I know that was Daddy helping me up that hill.”
“It probably was,” she said, “You know he’s still holding you up.”
I love you, Daddy. Happy birthday.
And thank you.