Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Truth at Last

An excerpt from Dear Dad: Reflections on Fatherhood

By Nichole Christian

Years after my daddy died, I finally laid down my superhero image of him too. Two decades after spreading his ashes, facts I’d never known about Daddy began to surface and collide with the fiction I had cherished as a child. It turns out Daddy was more human than I could ever see.

It’s funny to me now the way I once romanticized a man I knew so little about. And sometimes I cringe, thinking of the many nights, the many ways I prayed death upon my mother, while forgetting and forgiving Daddy, who’d gone AWOL first.

He had ducked out of their marriage not long after doing the honorable thing and marrying my pregnant mother. By the time I was fourteen, they were both dead, departing one after the other—first her (by a drug overdose), then him, with just nine months between them.

Through it all, Daddy remained golden to me because he was the one who bothered to come around. My mother had parked me at her parents’ house while she divided her time between getting high and her stints in jail for petty robberies. I never understood how he knew, but Daddy always managed to show up when she was at her worst. The more he showed up, the more people swore they saw him in me: his eyes, his chin, his highbrow humor. Daddy bought me Underoos—Batgirl and Wonder Woman—before anyone on the block had a pair.

I saw E.T. on the big screen, with Daddy at my side. He plied me with buttered popcorn, while I pretended not to see his little brown paper bag or to smell the stench seeping from it every time he raced it up to his lips. One parent playing the part here and there was better than none at all. Even now, I smile at the memory of Daddy bopping up the street, sing-calling the nickname he created just for me. “Cola, Cola,” Daddy would sing.

In my childhood eyes, the precious moments he’d given me seemed the measure of a man worth worshiping. I was content with the things I knew about my father. That is, until many years later when I myself became a parent and started sifting through the details I’d one day tell my daughter. I wanted to be able to share with her the good stuff, a way to understand why I was so proud to be Daddy’s girl. I wanted to pour the details into a letter for her to read someday as I’d done with so many of the tales about my family and our struggles.

The year she turned three, I called Uncle Raymond—Daddy’s brother—looking to flesh out a story I’d heard bits and pieces of that had always made me proud. Daddy had been a soldier in Korea, so the story went. I had seen a grainy old photo of him once in what looked like a soldier’s uniform. I had imagined him a decorated soldier in the war who had been too torn up to tell his story. Uncle Raymond, I had decided, would give me the facts.

“Daddy was in the war, how long?” I asked Uncle Raymond over the telephone.

Uncle Raymond’s voice went silent. I could hear him take a quick breath. It should have been my clue that I had just stuck the key into Pandora’s box...

Nichole Christian--A native Detroiter, she was formerly a member of the Detroit Free Press editorial board, writing about education policy and children's issues. She began her career at the St. Petersburg Times and later became a staff writer at the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Time magazine, where she was Detroit bureau chief.

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