When my dad was a child, he thought he was adopted. He felt so out of place in his family that he thought, surely, there had at least been a mixup at the hospital. He would scour photo albums, looking for pieces that would convince him he was related by blood to his parents and two siblings. Eventually, he grew up and realized there had not been an adoption, that he had not been switched at birth. But facts didn’t make him feel anymore at home.
I remember once discussing with him the idea that one small action could change the course of events throughout history. I was maybe nine or 10 years old. The notion, of course, was that if we could go back –– or even forward –– in time with the knowledge of what was to come, then could we alter the events by changing one small action, like choosing to not brush our teeth that day?
He told me that he, too, believed that, although we could not go back and reroute history, our singular actions were powerful, that we had the ability to institute big change. “I remember one time saying to my dad, ‘Do you ever wonder what would happen if you did one thing differently in your day, how it might alter history?’” he said. “’Like, if you hadn’t walked into a convenience store on the day JFK had been assassinated, would he still have died?’”
“But my dad said, ‘Don’t be stupid. That’s not how things work.’”
We are standing in the lobby of a theater, waiting for my grandfather. I look down at my still-orange thighs sticking out from under a white skirt dotted with pink, purple and orange tulips. The night before I had experimented with tanning lotion only to wake up and see orange ankles peeking out from my red plaid pajama pants. My mom had helped me try to scrub it off, but we had only managed to take my legs from Cheetos-orange to faded Cheetos orange.
My dad and I have driven an hour or so to see my grandfather in a play. I have never known him to be an actor, but my dad tells me it’s something he has recently decided to pursue.
When he approaches us after the show he is still wearing his costume, a long sleeve shirt and vest with a brown plaid newsboy cap on his head. He is smiling ear-to- ear, but I am mostly noticing that something is deeply wrong. It wasn’t just his yellowing skin or thinner appearance. It was the way he was looking at my dad. I had never seen him smile at my dad like this before. I had never seen him look so happy. I remember thinking, “Why haven’t you always been doing this?” ”
When we found out a few weeks later that he had pancreatic cancer, I knew he had known. I knew that his seemingly sporadic decision to audition for plays had instead been an end-of-life decision. The one you make when you realize you’re running out of time.
He died six weeks after receiving his diagnosis.
As his conditioned worsened, he was moved to the hospital and my parents visited him frequently. One or two times they took us with them. I was 12 and my sister was ten, so we had understood that he was very sick. Our brothers, however, were just almost-three and 20 months old, so they were clueless. I remember Isaac, the baby, sitting on his hospital bed and trying to feed him animal cookies.
During one visit, I leaned over his bed to hug him. “I love you,” he whispered, his prickly, unshaven face grazing my cheek. It was the first time he had ever said it to me.
It was the last time I saw him.
My parents were 21 years old and married for two months or so when they found out my mom was pregnant with me. They were 22 when I was born. I was 31 years old when I had Claire and, even though I had always admired my parents’ know-how at such a young age, I gained extra perspective as I peered down at my daughter’s little face.
My mom has always says she was too naively in love to realize that raising a child could be … um … hard. All she knew was that she wanted a child with my dad.
When they told my dad’s parents they were pregnant, his father said, “Well, God has a way of taking care of drunks and idiots.”
It was, by the way, hard. My dad went to work and was gone for long hours while my mom stayed at home with us. “Us” being my sister who followed 21 months after me and our brothers, who arrived later, Luke when I was nine and Isaac when I was 11.
When it came to work, my dad did all of the things he had been taught. Show up on time. Work hard. Keep a clean shaven face. Tuck in your shirt. Don’t complain about it.
On many days, my glimpses of him were early in the morning as he was leaving –– and that was it. He often arrived home late enough from work that we were already in bed.
But I also caught these glimpses:
Him crawling through the door to the Popples tent my sister and I had set up in the middle of the living room floor for a “camp out.” He slept there with us all night.
Him using small circular stickers and dots of paint typically used to write on the windshield of cars –– he worked at a dealership owned by my mother’s family –– to decorate brown paper bags that were wrapped around my school books. I never saw him doing the work, but I woke up to “ENGLISH” spelled in rainbow colored stickers or “SCIENCE” written with neon strokes of paint across the fronts of my books.
Him knocking on my living room window and waving, a bouquet of flowers and a bag of gluten-free pierogies in his hand. It had been a particularly tough pregnancy day for me.
Him dancing to Will Smith’s “Wild Wild West” as he docks a boat at our family cottage, his hands on the steering wheel, sunglasses on, head nodding side to side.
Him standing in a doctor’s office, while a nurse rolls an ultrasound wand across my rounded belly. His face when I look over at him as my little girl’s body pops up in black and white on the monitor.
Him trying so hard to hold back tears as we go around the table at the end of our family vacation and each say our favorite things about the time. We all giggle because dad is “doing the ugly cry,” but it’s really because his tears make it so damn hard to keep from crying too.
The other day my dad showed up at my front door with a folder in his hand. “I’m your official printer!” he said, handing me the folder. Ever since our printer had broken and I had first asked him to print something for my once-a-week writing class, he had declared it his job. I once told him he really didn’t have to do it if he didn’t have time, but he laughed and said, “Stop it right now or I’ll punch you in the face.”
Claire is in my arms and I say, “Give Papi a kiss,” and I watch as she leans forward with her lips pressed together, meeting his halfway.
As I sit in class that night and open my folder to the essays my dad has printed for me, I can’t help but feel like I am keeping a secret from my classmates, like the words I am about to read are a joint effort. Those of a daughter buoyed by the love of her father.
I decide my official printer, my dad, can keep the job as long as he’d like.