In honor of fathers everywhere, I'm going to share an essay that I wrote many years ago. It was during a particularly tough time in my life . . . when the blessing of a father's love made all the difference.
“It’s full of Magnetic Energy,” my father whispers as he spreads the thin sheet of gauzy fabric on my waterbed.
A fan of cure-alls, he proves it by lifting his trouser legs to show me that he has the same stuff wrapped around his knees. They are swollen and knobby like a camel’s and his lower legs are thin and wasted. When did that happen?
A photo album flips open in my mind, faded black and white Kodak snapshots held in place by tiny corner tabs. I see Mom’s handwriting, white ink on black paper.
“Orville 1955”: Dad, tanned and muscular, curly black hair, movie-star smile, holding a hunting bow. Our can’t-sit-still dog Caesar is half in-half out of the picture behind him. Across Dad’s shoulder is a quiver of handmade arrows. I smell singed feathers and see his fingers, wearing the black onyx ring, deftly glue them to the arrow’s shaft. “It’s called the fletching, sweetheart, and see: they must be exactly straight, or the arrow will not fly true.”
“Oak Lake 1958 ”: Dad in hip waders proudly hefting a big mouth bass, a little girl in seersucker shorts and a tee shirt and dark braids squatting on the bank beside him. I breathe the rich odor of moldy oak leaves, wood moss and algae. Summer sun warms my back. My bare toes squish into the mud of the lake’s edge as I struggle to form a ball of Rainbow Bread around a tiny brass hook to catch a sun perch with a twig pole. The tick- tick of a reel and the swish- whir of Dad’s fiberglass pole gives me confidence as he casts his line beside me.
“Girl Scout Father-Daughter Dance, 1961”: Dad in a suit and tie beside his chubby twelve-year-old daughter; too-big teeth, bushy eyebrows, tottery high heels, first time razor-nicks on her legs. “You are the prettiest girl here, Candy. Now I’ll teach you to fox-trot; it’s one two quick-step, one two quick-step…”
He leans close to me now as he talks, the way that puts some people off; tilting his head to avoid his deaf ear, his curly white hair wild like Einstein. He punctuates his words with little jabs of his fingers, dark eyes darting to see through paint specks on his glasses. Dad is telling me about the latest antics of his little dog, Teddy. His laugh hisses in and out between his teeth.
I suddenly remember the sound of him sucking kernels of corn from between his teeth while eating dinner. He wore a zip-front jumpsuit-- “My rompers,” he called them-- sitting in the living room with a TV tray in front of him. The tray was white metal with gold legs and had a fanciful line drawing of a rearing circus horse.
I’d huddled invisible beside the high rolled arm of our tweed couch, my back against a furnace register to soak up precious puffs of heat from our stingy furnace. I winced, rolled my eyes and covered my ears with every toothy hiss from that despicable corncob. I was a prickly teenager then and certain that my friends’ fathers ate only in dining rooms, never in front of the TV and laughing out loud at Jackie Gleason. The sucking sound made me crazy.
Today his laugh sucks corn from the air around me and I laugh too; the pain from the rib fractures searing my chest like a hot poker. It seems peculiar that I should remember the TV trays with the horses, since Daddy is here now because of a horse.
“Do you see, baby?” he asks me, as he smoothes the homeopathic fabric carefully under the spot where I will sleep. “You just lie on this thing and the Magnetic Energy will move into you; you’ll think nothing is happening, and then you’ll start to feel the warmth. I know it will heal you.”
He leans close to me and takes my hand a little gingerly, like I am a piece of delicate glass. “Good—God,” he whispers, separating the words, emphasizing the D’s at the end of each, “I still can’t believe that horse broke your neck.”
I can’t either except that in the past few weeks since the accident I have walked slower, my posture skewed a little sideways like a damaged crab released from a fisherman’s net, my right arm a dangling useless claw. I take a breath and feel the reality of the seven fractured ribs, the faint purring sensation of the blood absorbing around my lung. Dad is smiling now, his gaze somewhere beyond me, remembering.
“You were always so horse crazy. We couldn’t walk into your room without falling over the pile of plastic horses on the floor. Remember the time Mr. Dutton called you into his office because you took your stick horse to school? You and your friend Mary, trotting instead of walking, always holding those imaginary reins…” He looks directly at me now, like I am a little girl who’s crossed the street without checking both ways “Tell me you’re not going to ride anymore, Candy.”
“Sure, Daddy,” I tell him shaking my head a little at the still unbelievable events of the past eighteen months, “I promise you: no bucking horses, no unfaithful husbands, no houses in a flood zone…” Hot tears sting my eyes. “I sound like a bad country song.” Dad moves toward me and I use my left arm to raise my right arm, spreading my fingers to keep him at bay. “Don’t. Don’t hug me Dad, it might kill me,” I tell him and we both laugh again.
“Then let me tell my favorite daughter a little story,” he says and I think how his voice sounds the same as it did when I was a little girl.
We sit down on the edge of the waterbed, and he begins to talk in that amazing way he has. The words tumble out and take on a life of their own, becoming bigger, grander each moment like a side-show hawker; his arms wave in the air, sweeping aside some imaginary canvas curtain, do-you-want-to-see-the Bearded-Woman, little lady?
Suddenly I feel myself bouncing along the highway in the back seat of a blue 1957 Plymouth station wagon on the way home from Disneyland. Mom and Dad are in the front seat bickering with each other, Mom’s crimson painted nails drumming atop the seatback. We four kids are crowded in back, my sister Debbie asleep with her curly blonde head on my shoulder and her Indian Princess doll tucked to her chest. My brothers wear “shades,” and wave at girls in the passing cars, their hair leaving greasy smudges on the windows--- Dixie Peach Pomade.
“Tell us a story, Daddy.” I had asked him then.
“What do you want to hear?” he tantalized, “Bugs, spacemen, magic glow worms?”
“Oh please, magic glow worms!”
He talked nonstop all the way back to Sacramento.
Today I am 47 years old, have a broken neck, a broken marriage, a prickly teenage daughter, and a For Sale sign on my house. The horse I have raised from a foal is boarded in another town, awaiting decisions for his future. I have to wonder about my own future. Will I be able to continue in my career as a nurse?
I spend my days in physical therapy doing biceps curls with Campbell’s soup cans. “You’ll work up to the one-pound dumbbell, Candy.” And trying to identify objects with my numb right fingers while blindfolded. “It’s a marble?” “It’s a thumbtack, Candy, just try again.” And I sleep in a king-size waterbed alone. What kind of story can my Daddy tell me today? How can I tell him magic glowworms just aren’t magic enough?
But today he tells me real stories, not so grandiose and not stories I haven’t heard before. They are stories I haven’t heard as an adult, and that makes a difference. He talks to me about being a parent, an employee, a spouse, and a reluctant senior citizen. He shares regrets, disappointments and broken dreams, dwindling health, a failed marriage to my mother. He talks about starting over.
They are his stories; my family’s story, maybe everyone’s story, really. I see how he has come to accept change more gracefully now. How he remembers most vividly the happy times, less so the bad ones. His volatile anger has been gentled with time, but not his zeal.
At age seventy-four he teeters on a cane when he walks but still plays golf, and is planning to add a huge addition onto his home, doing all the work himself. “I’ll tie my self up there with a rope when I do the roof work,” he tells me. “Trish will yell at me,” he says of my stepmother, and his dark eyes sparkle, “but she’ll finallyget the big kitchen and dining room she’s always wanted.”
Dad points to my waterbed now. “Don’t forget to smooth out the wrinkles before you lie down,” he cautions me as he covers his magic fabric with my bedsheet. “I’ve got it pulled up so it can reach your whole spine.”
I walk him to the door and kiss his cheek and tell him goodbye.
“Be patient,” he tells me one last time. “Magnetic Energy takes time.”
It is somehow morning; early daylight awakens me and I gaze out my curtainless window toward the dawn, my favorite time of day. A fine mist rises over the alfalfa fields behind our property and a heron wings slowly across the quicksilver-orange sky, his long sticklegs trailing lazily behind.
I can see the stables, the Dutch door of a stall open wide. For a split second I wonder if I’ve forgotten to latch that door. I think of fixing my husband's coffee, the way he likes it: one spoon of sugar two of Coffee-Mate. Did I buy more Coffee-Mate?
Then sleep leaves my head and reality enters too abruptly. Somewhere in the distance I hear a tractor chug, a neighbor getting an early start. My heart cramps. I miss my horse. I miss my husband.
I pick up my journal, from a tall stack of journals lying beside my Bible, and realize how vital writing has become to me. It fills some need in the way food relieves hunger; the way balm soothes a blistered burn. I need to tell the story.
I force my clumsy right hand to form the loops and connecting lines, willing my fingers to feel the pen, feel the paper beneath the pen. I begin to write about Dad’s visit, about his stories, his stubborn zeal—his hope.
And then I feel it. I feel the warmth.
It starts at my feet and I curl my toes to test it. Yes. It’s really there and it spreads upward using my spine as its highway, until it radiates to my shoulders, my neck and into my chest. It fills my broken heart.
I raise the pen in a half-crazy salute and I laugh out loud. It’s all going to be okay.
Magnetic Energy. It’s not in any piece of fabric. It’s genetic. From Dad to me.
Happy Father's Day, Daddy. I miss you.