Sunday, June 16, 2013

Fathers and Daughters


A couple years ago, in the midst of trying to understand some strange things that were happening to people I loved very much, I wrote a story that I called “Opportunity.” It was about a father and his grown daughter muddling through a very complicated relationship. There was an element of magic to it as well, coming in the form of a family ability called the berk. To place a berk was to cast a spell on someone that could become either a blessing or a curse (yes, hello, recurring theme!).

To make a long story short (which, quite frankly, would be a miracle for me), “Opportunity” was not very good. The idea behind it was lovely if I do say so myself—a daughter, Mattie, struggling to understand her father through his last words to her, which were themselves a berk. And there were some wonderful scenes, but the whole thing . . . not so much. Fortunately, only about four people in the entire world ever read it, and at least one of them was me.

What I loved about the story was these little moments between the younger Mattie and her father, back when she was a child and a whole lifetime of history had not yet built up between them. He tucked her in for bed, kissed her good night, smoothed the covers back across her when she twisted and turned from a bad dream. There was love there, even when it was imperfect, even when it was rejected.

What made me ache as I wrote it—and still does—was the missed opportunities for showing love. Well-known therapist John Gottman calls these moments “bids for connection”—times when a person makes a tiny step toward deepening a relationship. A phone call, an email, a touch on the shoulder, a smile. So many opportunities, sometimes on a daily basis, to strengthen or tear down a relationship.

To write these characters who continually ignored or rejected or just barely reached out but then pulled back was heartbreaking. Not because of the characters themselves (well, okay, a little bit because of them, but I did try to remind myself that they weren’t actually real people) but because this experience is real. It happens to people every day, all the time. I have experienced it, and so have you I’m sure. Writing these people made me want to do better, to more fully give and receive those bids for love.

I have my own imperfect relationship with my father. We live across the country from each other, and I am not a person who keeps in touch with others very well, especially at a long distance (you can ask the minutes on my phone if you don’t believe me). He is a person who deals best in conversations initiated by the other individual. We are both sometimes too wrapped up in our own projects and feelings and ideas to listen very well to what the other one has to say. And even amid all that, I know there is love, however imperfect it might be.
Me and my awesome daddio.

Many of my best memories of childhood are silly moments with my dad. That time we were counting manhole covers as he drove me to school—and we both got so distracted by it that he nearly veered into the opposite lane of traffic (this actually was much funnier than it sounds). The way we ate exactly the same thing at the same fast food place for breakfast every morning for a while and I memorized the amount we would pay for it (I really wish I could still remember that number). The way he believed I could do anything (kind of a mixed blessing, really, but that’s a different story).

Days like Father’s Day and Mother’s Day are reminders to me. They are reminders of what I love about the people in my life, and reminders of where I’m not so perfect, and reminders that we love even the imperfect people—and they love us. They are opportunities to connect to those people. You might say they are berks, and we can find them a curse or a blessing.

In the spirit of that notion, I leave you with a brief conversation between the young Mattie and her father.

***

“How do you know if it worked?” Mattie once asked her father as he was tucking her into bed one night. This was when she still believed in the family magic.

“If what worked?”

“The berk. How do you know if the berk helped someone? When is it finished?”

“Ah, Mattie. That’s the thing about a berk. You really never know for sure. It always comes with a choice—you make it a blessing, or you make it a curse. You make that choice every day. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes you don’t know what to do or you feel lost. But when you choose the blessing . . . ” He smiled. “Ah, when you choose the blessing, that is beautiful.”

“It sounds tiring.”

He chuckled. “Sometimes it is.” He patted her arm and stood to leave. “I love you, Mattie. I hope you know that.”

“Yeah. I love you too. Good night, Daddy.”

“Good night.”

***

Happy Father’s Day to my father and my husband and my brothers and all the wonderful men in my life. I love you. Good night.

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