The Unbearable Lightness of Being My Father

The Unbearable Lightness of Being My Father

June 17, 2018, Father’s Day

For so many of us, Father’s Day leads to that inevitable father-hole—father as source of emptiness. As if all our days do not lead us there—or lead from there, all of our movements not defined at least in part by this untetheredness, by the fact that we have no father. But we do; everyone alive has a father that guides, at least in part, even in absence, the course of our lives and who we are. In this we are all common.

For most my life, I took my father’s absence to be unaffecting, believed that he had no particular influence on my life at all; he was almost nonexistent.

He was weightless as air, mainly existing in faded photographs, photograph a word meaning the writing of light. He had left when I was a baby and made only sporadic appearances throughout my early life, then moved to Hawaii when I was five.

I have a memory of him in Tennessee, before he moved to Hawaii, bent at the side of a horse, horse’s front leg angled backwards at the knee joint, hoof set between his thighs, resting on his leather chaps. He wears a leather belt of tools. Takes one, begins to loosen the moist clods of mud packed into the hooves, scrapes the dirt away. Sweat rolls down from under his cap. He cleans and trims the hooves one by one, crescent-moon clippings falling to the ground around his feet. A dog saunters in under his legs, snatches a clipping and slinks away to gnaw on it at the corner of the barn.

Notice in this memory that I cannot see my father’s face. Notice I have this one memory, that I have framed it like a photograph.

One of the places that memories occupy in the brain is called the hippocampus, which means seahorse, called so for its shape. My father’s life seemed improbable as this: a horse, swimming across the sea. Improbable as an island in the brain where memories are sent to live, floating in a sea of gray forgotten things.

For a period of time, throughout college, after I had turned 18, I desperately tried to be a part of my father’s life, flying out to see him every summer, to stay with him on the island that he had removed himself to. I flew through a hole in the sky to that other world, crossed the widest, emptiest stretch of ocean on the planet to those most remote islands where my father lived, to try to make my life a part of his or his life a part of mine. I drank beer & smoked joints every night with him and his buddies, my only way into his world, which he did not interrupt for me. And yet, he showed me off to his friends as if I were his own creation: “my daughter,” he would say proudly—daughter who he did not help raise, daughter who he had never supported, daughter who he had never called on her birthday, he did not say.

If no man is an island, well, he was. He did not ask me about myself, who I was, while I tried to learn everything about him that I could. I became invisible to myself, a reflection of his disinterest. I worshipped this father-cowboy riding off always away from me into the sunset.

What of these fathers at home on the range? Always skirting the edge of the horizon, where earth dissolves into light, into pure unfettered space. What of us sons and daughters, always falling into the distance? Always waiting for something or someone to catch us.

If I don’t have a father, I can at least claim my story of him now as I grow into acceptance, & the telling of it is beginning, slowly, to give me the strength and grounding that he never did. And the island gave me strength, even while my heart was breaking every time I went to find no father. I had it to stand on, its volcanic earth to cry into, its waters to cleanse & buoy me. Its birds & people sang me songs. It’s a part of me now, & my father was the thread that led me there.

My recent essay “The Unbearable Lightness of Being My Father,” about some of this father-journey, can be found in the current issue of the Oxford American, on newsstands now, and here.

{Photograph taken on French Broad River, Tennessee, before I was born, where I would go on to grow up after my father left.}

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