When I was 12, my father took me to the school fair. This was huge for me. Father didn’t really take me anywhere. And yes, at 12, I did call him Father as the whole family had fallen in love with the musical Peter Pan, and Wendy, Michael, and John called their daddy “Father.” And so it was with us.
I have no memory of what I was “before” this fair. Surely there must have been other school fairs I experienced? Surely I had known the sights already? Surely I had been on the Ferris Wheel before, or perhaps the Octopus? But they mean nothing in my memory. It is the presence of my father that makes this stand out in my brain—you know it’s relevant because the light in my memory as it conjures the past is luminous.
It is the Ferris Wheel that enthralls me to no end. The first time around, Father rode with me. I keep seeing him in his formal lawyer outfit: crisp white shirt, gray tie, gray trousers, and black shoes. We held hands, and I wasn’t sure what was more thrilling—the swoosh of the wheel as it went breathtakingly down or the fact that I was unafraid for Father was with me. After the first round, I went again and again and again and again and again. At dinner, he could not have been prouder that I had gone up five more times without him.
I know for a fact that my memoirist’s brain, my process, a gift even, is to learn how to trace why a memory stays with me. It is my job to find its resonance in my present. I call this the “Hansel and Gretel” phenomenon of memory-seeking. The memory leaves traces of itself (as vision, as items, as ambience, which is the hardest to interpret) so that I can find my way home. The problem is, the chosen material for the path are breadcrumbs—they are ephemeral, they do not last, they crumble, they become soggy, someone else eats them. How then to make sense of the crumbs that lie in this particular path?
I think of my father often when I think of my special son. I think about how uncannily alike they are—their tempers, their outbursts, their propensity for violence, their unstable natures. He looks like my father, while all my other children look like my mother. I think of what my father would want to say to me in my deepest moments of quiet despair, wailing in the bathroom or immobilized by pain, lying down on the floor, right after brushing my teeth, overwhelmed by the magnitude of his dis-ease. It is Father’s face that always comes to me first. Maybe because he had the amazing gift of making me feel better. This he did, by making me know he was on my side, even when I was wrong.
Another memory jumps—another breadcrumb! I am grateful for its sudden arrival. I am 16 this time and have just failed Math. A parent is required to receive my card. I am frightened beyond belief because I am the only child at home now and every one else in the family is doing so ridiculously
well abroad with their music studies. He comes into the room and peruses the books on my shelf. He asks which books I’ve read and which ones I have yet to start and casually inserts that he knows I’ve failed Math and it does not matter because I am such a good reader.
We have a shared memory about reading, Father and I. My first set of books, in the middle of our very poor and lean years came from him. I was 6 in this memory, in the bank, and he is negotiating a loan. A vendor comes in with books, and my eyes dilate with desire. I know in my bones we cannot afford them, but he buys them anyway. I know very early on that this is pure love.
All throughout my childhood years, Father would patrol at night, locking each and every door in our rambling house filled with doors. I would always be caught reading by the bedroom door, on the floor, reading using the hallway light, far beyond the time I was allowed to stay up. He never scolded me but would escort me back into my bed. Night after night, for years, this was our ritual. Some nights, I’d fall asleep on the floor and he’d carry me to bed.
My special son and I used to have rituals all the time. It was I who woke him up. We’d loll in bed, I’d raise his five fingers and use each tiny finger to help him remember something
. Finger 1 to wear his shoes. Finger 2 to always use his words. Finger 3 to not hit. Finger 4 to not scream. Finger 5 to not throw food. He was only three at the time, and already the admonitions were an indication of our lives ahead. Until today, at 14, these 5 fingers still represent what I still need to remind him of.
In the afternoons, we’d read, and this was my favorite ritual. My favorite was Winnie the Pooh’s Oh Bother series, and Blue’s Clues, of course! But his most favorite book was Gabriella’s Song
, and I would make the most of my clear, soprano voice to invent the music this song proclaimed to have. His other favorite book was Peter and the Wolf
, and I would read it as Tchaikovsky played, and he would do his pretend-conduct and even then, when he would hit me in excitement, I could never just let it go.
In the evenings, I would massage him, to relax his over-wrought system. I would wrap him like a lumpia
and sing him a repertoire of songs I’m not sure he still remembers. But that’s not true, because I am certain he remembers. Teodoro, my son, is a memory-seeker too. I know he remembers because, if I sing these songs, there is a darkness that enters his eyes, his head looks down, and he curbs the urge to hit me, not always successfully. Like me, his memory is a burden, and I have discovered that some memories are more charged than others. I have spent all these years deciphering and documenting hits and what they could mean. In my mind, I call it the Dictionary of Violence. This one, the one when he hits me when I sing, this means he misses me.
My father was like that too. He would turn cranky, irrational, and difficult to please, and the whole house would turn upside down trying to figure out what it was he truly wanted. That was perhaps when I first learned how to decode silent signs because it was I who figured out that when my father turned cranky it was when he most wanted to love someone. It makes no sense, really. We create language to help us communicate and in my family, and in our dictionary of love, everything is topsy-turvy. Maybe it is the same for your family, too?
Perhaps parenting a special son is a lot like going on a Ferris Wheel and fate or grace, or God, or all of them, had planted (warned me, even) this in my 12th year. It is a daunting exercise and one that is premised on the enjoyment of fear. You ride the Ferris Wheel knowing you will be terrified, and yet you do it because of its strange beauty. You cannot truly
see all that is out there
unless you are suspended and made closer to the sky. And the terrible swoosh, the inevitable drop, and the plummeting of your stomach that makes you scream, a cornucopia, a mishmash of all feelings, “buffet” a somehow perfect word for the fullness of it all. Maybe I need to go up and see the view from above, ideally, with Father’s hand in mine. But the memory is truthful. He is only up there with me once. He is certain I got it, already
There are lesser and lesser rituals between my son and me now, propelled by my own fear of not wanting to get on that ride any more. He wants me to, I can tell. And he doesn’t want me to, I can also tell. I am as charged a memory for him as he is for me. We have not yet learned how to soften our vocabularies, to re-admit each other into our lexicons, to even forgive each other in our past memories. Can people who have loved each other long still be “new” to each other? How we both must wish for a clean slate, for a kind of tabula rasa
. I can imagine other people in our lives (family members, friends, even our health professionals) defining our lives much differently as they afford me that one thought as they sleep in their safe houses—she has given up, when did she become such a weakling?, she is a bad mother—there, I’ve said it, and there is surely a measure of truth in all these definitions.
What they do not know is that I watch Teodoro all the time. They do not know how my every waking moment belongs to him. They do not know how every step, every measured step I take is in relation to him. But that’s all right. No one really knows everything about love.
At 15, my father catches me in the garden, right by the bougainvillea. I am in tears over some hurt or other suffered in high school. He sits beside me, offers no words, and caresses my cheek. He says, “Ms. Melancholia, watching the sunset, like no one else I know can.”
Want to read more of Rica's Motherline entries on her father, her son, and the lessons she's learned from them? Click on the links below: (Photo of Ferris Wheel by Jonathan Cohen via Flickr Creative Commons; photo of five fingers by woodleywonderworks via Flickr Creative Commons;photo of father and child by SMN via Flickr Creative Commons)