Kissing the playful father goodbye

Driving to the grocery store I see a father in his lawn running madly after a little girl in a pink bathing suit and pigtails. She is squealing with joy as he squirts her with the hose. I smile and the father sees me looking and smiles back.

I turn the corner and the smile fades quickly. Tears fill my eyes and I curse them away, angry with myself for allowing someone else’s moment of happiness to shine a spotlight on the sadness inside me.

I didn’t grow up with a playful father. I don’t remember him chasing us, tickling us or squirting us with the hose. I have no memories of being thrown into a pool, playing catch or giggling madly as he makes silly faces at me.

I’ve searched my memory and those things just aren’t there. I can remember going to museums, day trips and being dropped-off at roller-skating lessons. There are memories of seeing him at his computer, visiting him at work and picking him up at the airport after business trips.

There were Shakespeare plays, discussions about homework and watching TV. He was at all my horse shows, band performances, speech competitions and theater productions. There was never a doubt he was proud of me.

But as hard as I focus, I can’t find any memories where we are laughing and playing together. I can’t remember him hugging me or kissing me goodnight. I don’t remember hearing “I love you” or him holding me as I cry.

This is the source of the tears and the sadness.

There is this picture of me at around my daughter’s age. I’m wearing a pale blue nightgown with a dainty pink ribbon on the front. I’m sitting in my Holly Hobbie bedroom on my dad’s lap. His arms are wrapped around me. I have my hands folded in front of me and I am smiling. Our faces are close and it looks like he might be about to give me a good night kiss.

I’ve studied this picture for years, trying to remember what it felt like to be in my father’s arms. I wish I could feel the sense of warmth and love the picture suggests. I wish I could remember.

As a mother now, I think about my dad. I imagine how lonely he must have been, as he and my mom didn’t have a very loving marriage. He worked all the time at a stressful job and was exhausted at the end of the day.

I get it.

There are days when I can’t muster a board game or even to read a story to my kids. I find them irritating, far too loud and just plain annoying. I just want everyone to shut up and nobody to touch me. I lock myself in my bedroom with a few beers and pray sleep comes soon.

I get it.

My children don’t have a playful father either. He doesn’t chase them, make them giggle or ride bikes with them. There is very little in the way of interaction most days and it makes me feel all the sadness and longing all over again.

I get so upset at my husband and wish he could be the father I wanted growing up. The one my friend’s had. The dad jumping off docks, teaching them to fish, taking them on daddy/daughter dates and always telling them they were beautiful. The dad who made his daughter feel like something special, instead of always feeling not good enough.

I know it is unfair to pin any of this on my husband. He is not my father, but pain and longing are irrational beasts that don’t care about logic. They tear at my gut and whisper unkind things to me about my own kids. They remind me that everything is my fault.

Blame. Guilt. Shame. Repeat.

My issues of feeling unloved, unworthy and unheard make me look at every interaction with a childish sense of injustice. I’m always looking at how my kids are slighted. How I am slighted.

I always feel like I’ve been handed the short stick in the love department.

chessI see my husband talking with our kids. They sit on the couch and have discussions about space and science. They play chess and he talks to them about classical music. There are museum trips, Legoland, Disneyland and one epic trip to the Bahamas. Taco Tuesdays. Go-kart races. Ice cream when mom is away.

Every night, after I read stories, he comes in and tells them goodnight. He kisses them on the forehead and brings them a glass of water. He says he loves them.

Every morning, I see him peek at them sleeping in their beds as he leaves for work at 5 a.m.

These are the ways a quiet man like him loves his children.

These are the memories they will have of their father.

It has nothing to do with me or my dad.

Time to give up the pain.

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Saying goodbye 15 years late

Yesterday, while dancing away in the kitchen to Prince’s “1999,” I was suddenly cleaning my childhood home with my mom. Dancing, spinning and singing at the top of our lungs as we dusted and mopped. Prince, his tight pants and high voice, will forever be synonymous with my mother.

Driving to the coast last week, “In Your Room” by Depeche Mode came on the radio and I had an instant picture of my 16-year-old self. I’m alone, crying in my bedroom, playing that song on repeat and thinking I’d never find true love.

Whenever I hear David Bowie’s voice anywhere, even shopping at the grocery store, I picture him as the Goblin King in “Labyrinth” and I’m suddenly a young girl again. I can feel a surge of hope, as strong as ever, that somewhere out there is a mythical lover waiting for me, busy creating a world for the two of us alone. Bowie brings out the melodramatic romantic in me.

There is a soundtrack to life. A musical memory to accompany all the events, people and emotions that have combined to create the person we are right this minute. It feels like magic to me.

Music, like water and air for my soul, is something I can’t live without. Whenever strong emotions threaten to break me, I need to find music to match my mood and reflect back what I am feeling.

Johnny Cash is for the blues, obviously. There is nothing like the Man in Black when you want to wallow. Nahko and Medicine for the People are for when I’m feeling hopeless, picking me up when I think I can’t take it anymore. I love Emily Kinney for when I want to feel youthful and optimistic. Beastie Boys, Tori Amos, Imagine Dragons, Pixies, Queen. They all have a role to play in my emotional rolodex of music.

For over a decade, there is one CD I have to hear at least once a week. It fits a variety of my moods, but is particularly good for when I just want to sing and be happy.

eye

I found this CD in a free bin at work about 18 years ago. It never had a case and I have always just called it the “eye CD.” As in “where did I put the eye CD?” and “I need to hear me some eye.”

This week I pulled it out again and was singing along when it occurred to me, I have no idea who the singer is.

Seriously.

This voice I have grown to love and cherish is a complete mystery. As a former journalist, I’m shocked at myself. I suddenly had to know what he looked like. I had a million questions. Is he still touring? What other music of his am I missing out on? How old is he? Where does this album fit with his other music? Where did he grow up? What are his musical influences?

In tiny writing under the eye, I find a name.

Josh Clayton-Felt.

Excited, I type his name into Google and within a matter of minutes I have all the answers.

I also have a broken heart.

This beautiful singer, whose voice I adore, whose lyrics I have sung a thousand times, died of testicular cancer is 2000.

He has been gone for 15 years.

I spend the next few hours looking at pictures of his young face, listening to other music he created before he died, reading online interviews, watching videos and tributes.

I discover his mother, a playwright named Marilyn Felt, created an entire musical fable based on his life and his music called “Lightsong.” You can download it for free. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.

While my heart is heavy at this loss, fresh and new to me, I’m also filled with gratitude for having stumbled upon “the eye” so many years ago.

His words are a part of my soundtrack and part of who I am. Now I have a little more of him to carry me through.

Thank you Josh Clayton-Felt.

If your road has reached the ocean
But your legs still want to go
And if they taught you how to doubt it
But you know it isn’t so

And if the moments seem to miss you
And if your partner isn’t there
And if you know you could reach the treasure
But you keep coming up for air

If you want to get through
To the other side
Let the dragonfly
Come and give you a ride
Every day you’re born
And every night you die
Let the dragonfly
Come and give you a ride

–lyrics from “Dragon Fly” by Josh Clayton-Felt

More than just a little story

I felt her hand on my chest. Her fingers found the soft spot she has always loved. The spot she has been caressing since her baby hands could reach it. She once told me she loves it because it’s squishy, warm and love. I love it as much as she does.

I caress her head and she cuddles in closer to me.

“Tell me about when I was born,” she coos. I have told her this story hundreds of times, but it never gets old for her. Or me. We love this story. The story of how she came into the world and I caught her myself. How I loved her little face the second I saw it. The big tub, her brother leaning over, grandma’s tears, how little she was, her ballet feet.

It’s our story.

She knows it so well that it is almost like a memory to her now.

That’s the power of storytelling.

Memory has always fascinated me. Some things I can recall crystal clear, yet others are slippery and elusive. It’s often in the telling and retelling that a story takes it’s permanent place in my memory bank. How close it is to the actual truth, I am uncertain.

I have so many stories I tell my children about themselves. Each one is selected purposefully. Stories that show how much they are loved, how strong they are and how they have overcome obstacles.

The story of how my son got stitches at age two is a favorite one. He was running to help a friend that had fallen. He hit his face on a park bench. All our friends rallied around us. Both kids love the part about how the nurse wrapped him up like a burrito and he asked for sour cream and avocado. Even in pain he made everyone laugh. I remember that he stared right into my eyes as they stitched him up. He didn’t move an inch. He was brave and in good spirits through the entire thing.

Every time they ask for a story about them, I am happy to tell it.

These are the stories they will remember and tell their children someday.

These stories are the foundation of how they think about themselves and how they fit into the world.

They are so much more than just stories.

I was reminded of this in a painful way this week.

I have a childhood friend that I love. Adore, really. Our history is long and we have lots of stories. Silly ones like swimming in the gutters and ruining our swimsuits. Sad ones like when she moved to England and I thought my heart would never recover from the break. Happy ones like when we used to squirt hoses across the street at each other.

For some reason, she keeps sharing a particular story that really doesn’t capture the “us” I remember. In this story, I am a bratty kid with a very bad attitude. Apparently, when I was about my boy’s age, I wrote her a letter in which I tell her that her mother is a bitch. Her mom kept this letter and they have brought it up several times now. They think it is funny. Maybe it is. But it doesn’t feel funny to me.

It actually hurts.

Deeply.

I didn’t say anything about it for awhile, because it is their story. But every time it is told, it makes my heart sink. It is embarrassing and I don’t remember writing it or feeling that emotion. I must have been really angry, upset or confused. It must have been hard for me to write such an emotionally charged word.

Memories are funny like that.

They remember me as this kid that wrote that letter. They also remember me as being mean and making fun of her for not being smart and knowing math.

I have no memory of either of those truths. I know those things happened…I just don’t remember it. Not even a tiny bit.

My image of myself at that age is a positive one. I loved school and was very good at it. The teachers loved me and I made friends easy. I have such vivid memories of being joyful, playing in the yard and riding bikes.

Maybe that is because those are the stories my mom told me about myself.

Maybe we just choose to remember the good about ourselves; because that is the truth we want to remember.

I have no idea.

What I do know is that storytelling is powerful stuff.

As a parent I need to keep that in mind. Always.

My son loves to hear and tell stories about the massive fits he used to throw. I would sit in his room with my back against the door while he raged and raged. He remembers feeling out of control. Kicking. Hitting. Sometimes even trying to bite me.

He is embarrassed now thinking about it, but I remind him that he was little and was having strong emotions he didn’t know how to express. I tell him that I loved him even in those moments, especially in those moments. That’s what parental love is.

These stories I tell and retell are helping my kids to write their own life story. It is shaping who they are and will become.

It’s an awesome responsibility and one that I don’t take lightly.

It is an honor.