There is a flickering electronic sign by the Walgreens near my house, a sign I pass every day. This week, it’s been my only reminder of Father’s Day, a day of the year I block out as much as possible. The sign says in red, all-caps, flashing letters, REMEMBER DAD. REMEMBER DAD. REMEMBER DAD THIS FATHER’S DAY. It’s something I’d really rather not do, but at this time of year, I have to do it. I’ve just got to choose carefully which dad I want to remember.
The first birthday card I ever got from my father was made in prison. I know that now. At the time, I thought he was just crafty, or I wanted to think he was just crafty. It was a file folder he’d cut down to card size, pre-scored on one side, the thing was still too stiff to close properly. On the outside was a skeleton in a baseball cap with a gold necklace around his neck: gold because my father had colored the necklace with markers. The skeleton had been cut out of white paper and glued to the folder, but was loose around the edges like he’d run out of glue. “Yo,” the skeleton said, a greeting in a white paper bubble above his head. Inside, Deaddy Bears colored in green, pink, and worn-out blue markers danced around the birthday greeting. I don’t remember what it said.
I used to talk about my father’s life like he was carefree, just a zany, crazy guy getting into all kinds of shenanigans. People just didn’t understand him. He just wasn’t made for this uptight world. He was too cool. So cool, in fact, that he’d gotten really high before going on an all-night delivery truck run for the grocery store chain for which he worked, and so cool and so high that once he couldn’t see the road anymore, and drove the truck into a ditch, overturning it and its contents into a reservoir. Isn’t that funny, I’d laugh when I told people. What a fuck-up, what a colossal lovable fuck-up. Or I’d say, My dad once spent such a long heroin binge in a hotel room, he woke up one day with just elastic and scraggly cotton bits from his socks around his ankles. He’s just a free spirit like that. I sold him to friends in junior high and high school as this Grateful Dead-following hippie type, which wasn’t untrue. I told stories about him taking off for California and landing in the Haight-Ashbury district, where he’d grown up, and where he returned to stay throughout my childhood, getting high, getting arrested, getting sent to rehab again and again. I imagined it much as it must have appeared in the sixties: artists and creative people walking around flashing peace signs and getting high and busking and partying. But this was the eighties, and he was supposed to be raising me. I didn’t talk about that. This was after my mother had suffered one too many black eyes. This was after she waited on the front steps for him to get home with my sister and me, only to open the car door when he finally pulled into the driveway to find that he’d hotboxed and both of her babies were strapped into their car seats, completely stoned. I didn’t think about those things, about her telling him to leave. He was just too interesting to be tied down to a family in a small town, and I forgave him.
I sold the dream of my dad to others so well that I, too, believed it in its entirety. That’s probably why my mom agreed to take me to San Francisco when I was sixteen to meet the man I’d idolized all this time. He looked tired. His face was like an old apple that had been peeled and left to rot, all soft folds and creases. He was bald, fat, and shabby. His arms were covered with prison tattoos, the smudged kind, thick greenish-blue lines with indiscernible shapes. He was not at all what I had been expecting. Nonetheless, there was still something in his face that seemed familiar, sort of like when you see yourself in the mirror and just barely recognize yourself, and you think Has something changed? Is this what I’ve always looked like?
We stayed with him in his shitty apartment in Oakland. He lived across the street from a McDonald’s, and all night long there was shouting and screaming, bottles breaking, police sirens. It was my first taste of “city life,” and it was the worst part of the city. We visited the rehab facility where he had spent eleven years of his life, he introduced us to friends. The only thing I remember about them was that they were a man and a woman, and once at a green light as we drove through Chinatown, my dad stared off into the distance, and the man said “It ain’t gettin’ any greener,” which I thought was the most hilarious thing. I didn’t know why they were there at the time, but now I realize that he probably needed some moral support when it came to meeting his daughter for the first time since she was 6 months old, and seeing his ex-wife for the first time in over 16 years. Every night, back at his apartment, he smoked a Black & Mild on the couch and told me that it was his only vice.
We stayed busy with tourist attractions so that we didn’t have to do much talking. I asked to see Haight-Ashbury, which turned out to be a bunch of head shops, Jerry Garcia-themed t-shirt shops, and a massive Urban Outfitters. I was frustrated by the utter uncoolness of it all. My dad pointed at a window and told me about getting high on crack up there as a teenager, because it used to be a good place for that. He pointed at the ground below the window and told me that Bob Dylan used to set up down there on the corner, and the guys in the crack den would fill buckets with water and dump them down on him. “Why?!” I demanded to know. “It was BOB DYLAN.” My dad shrugged. “Well he wasn’t Bob Dylan yet.” I filed this story away to tell later; further evidence that my dad was an all-knowing badass. On the fourth day of our trip, we were tired. He insisted that we load into the car and drive for 5 hours north to his brother’s house, to introduce us to the rest of the family. Stressed and nervous, I told him I didn’t really want to go. “Well, that’s too bad,” he said. “Because your mother was just telling me how much she wants to go. Don’t tell her I told you that.” He repeated that several times throughout the day, taking me aside, out of her earshot. It wasn’t until that evening, when I was alone with her in the car while he waited in line at a taco stand, that I told her I was sorry for not wanting to go. “I don’t want to go, either,” she said. “He told me you really wanted to?” I watched as the annoyance slowly crept across her face. When my dad got back into the car, she told him we needed to talk, that neither of us wanted to go on a road trip the next day. Angry that we had compared stories, my father erupted. He grabbed the food out of my hand and threw it out the window. When I think of my father, I sometimes think of a quesadilla flying through the air and landing on the curb. “You and your mother,” he screamed, “are BOTH fucking bitches. Fuck both of you. I hope you go to Hell.” I cried myself to sleep while he and my mother argued in his kitchen. He paid for early flights back, and we left in the morning. The quesadilla was gone, and it was the saddest thing, thinking that someone had eaten it out of the gutter. On the floor of his mostly empty closet, I left the gifts he’d given me: a used black leather backpack and a frame that someone had filled with pictures of him when he was young, posing by a street sign, standing in the woods. I shook all the way home, my face red, raw and swollen. I didn’t talk about what happened, I didn’t talk about my father at all anymore. He was no longer separate from that freewheeling guy I’d created and loved for so many years, one had killed the other.
Every few years, my dad finds me. What follows is a pattern of asking for forgiveness, updates on my life, and always, out of nowhere, accusation and anger. On Christmas Eve in 2004, he called me an ungrateful little cunt. Two years ago, he told me that if I didn’t start talking to him more often, he’d have to leave all his money to his new wife’s daughter instead of me, and I wouldn’t want that, now would I? When I didn’t respond to that, he emailed my mother to let her know that she had raised my sister and I to be little bitches. This dad, the one who threatens me into loving him, then verbally abuses me to keep me there, this dad who is so broken and terrified that his only choice is to manipulate and hurt, I don’t want to remember him. The dad who is just too spontaneous and creative to get a job, love his wife, raise his infant daughter, I don’t want to remember him. The dad who stole money, lost jobs, got high, wrecked trucks, who ran away from home and chose The Grateful Dead, coke and heroin, who boxed up his anger and resentment to unleash in bloody spurts on his own kid, I’d like to stop remembering that dad. I’ve spent a lot of years examining that dad, and I no longer feel obligated to make excuses for him, to accept him, to allow him to walk in and out of my life.
On the other hand, without my dad, I wouldn’t be here. He gave me my sense of humor, my cooking skills, my hair and eyes. Whatever happened that made him into the man he was when I was four, ten, sixteen, twenty-one, there was something before that which I have to consider in those moments when a drugstore sign causes me to crumple inside. There had to be something before that, something to be appreciated and treasured, something for my own sense of purpose. Just as it couldn’t all be funny stories, it can’t all be dark and frightening.
I want to remember the dad he was just after my sister’s birth, when he curled up next to her and my mother just long enough for someone to take a grainy photo, my mother’s arm reaching back, her hand on his face over her shoulder. I want to remember the man in the pictures I left on the floor of the closet: handsome, young, smiling, capable. My dad in his hairnet and white apron, behind the counter at a California Denny’s, passing plates of food over the warmer to my mother, the waitress, the woman he would marry. I want to remember that picture I have of him holding me on his knee at my sister’s birthday party when I was only a few months old. His huge hand supports me, I’m wearing a party hat that is bigger than my head, and he clearly thinks it’s funny. There’s a little rip in the edge of the picture that goes across his smile, and I used to pull it apart to make him talk. “Hi there, you’re my baby and I’m your dad! You look like me. I love you, right now I’m here and I love you.”