When I was 17, I was thinking, as some do at that age, about what to major in when I got to college.  I’d had many years of schooling (or so I thought at the time) and I Knew a few things about myself.  I was not interested in math or the sciences as a field of study.  Many years into the future I would learn that a prescription I had been on as a child had, while I was on it, weakened the math and spatial analysis parts of my brain.

And so, I was thinking foreign languages, perhaps, or child psychology.  I had by this time had three years of Spanish and LOVED it.  I had read Sybil at least twice and knew I would read it again and again.  I had a dream of perhaps being an interpreter for the United Nations. 

It was in this space that I was when speaking on the phone (the long corded one that you had to stretch from the kitchen through the dining room around the corner into the closet for any privacy,) to my father.  My father, a dapper young man, a scruffy older one, had been absent from my daily life for years by now.  My parents had divorced when I was 10.  After a brief few months when my younger brother and I, being still too young to speak up for ourselves, were required to visit Dad at his "bachelor pad" every other weekend, he moved to a town too far away for regular visits to be practical. 

And now, in 1982, just as I am thinking and preparing to apply for college, I am on the phone with him.  I tell him my thoughts on a major for college and how that will affect which college I eventually attend.  He asks me if I’ve considered a math degree.  A degree in accounting, perhaps, because that is where the money is.  The jobs are in the math field, he insisted.

My father had been the first in his family to attend college.  He made it through with my mother’s help editing each and every paper he turned in.  He majored in French, apparently, but went on, after graduating, to teach electronics and mathematics.  He eventually taught French as well, when the regular French teacher was out on maternity leave.

I knew my father was odd from a very young age.  I mean I was young when I figured it out.  (He was probably odd all along too.)  He wasn’t really fully present in my life even when we lived in the same house.  Santa was too hungover, one Christmas, I remember, to come enjoy the presents with his six small children.  Dad was busy.  And yet, he wasn’t. 

Dad didn’t have a clue who I was at 17.  He thought I could major in MATH?  I realized then, at 17, that he had no idea who I was as a human being; as an individual.  He thought I could study ACCOUNTING?  I had just earned every award my school gave for liberal studies: English, History, Foreign Language.  I was a reader and a writer (even at 17.)  Where had he been all my life?  I wondered then and eventually came to understand that Dad’s world revolved around Dad.  Even more than most people’s lives revolve around themselves.  He was very self-focused.  And perhaps a bit, a tad, a soupçon of mentally ill.

I went on my merry way.  I realized this was something I could not change.  There came a time when I needed a break from being Dad’s daughter.  A break from "checking out" when he called to talk about himself.  I wrote and told him so.  Years later I visited him while on a business trip to Chicago.  He had grown old and thin and unwell.  He was living in assisted care and was weak from a recent surgery.  He recognized me and was grateful for my visit.  We forgave each other, I think, in that visit, though not explicitly.

Last week I got a phone call from my brother telling me that Dad was very ill.  He had been seen by a doctor recently who offered the diagnosis: failure to thrive.  Dad might have only hours to live; he might have a day or so.  This brother and I flew to Chicago that afternoon to visit the father who chose so few visits with us.

to be continued.

Advertisements