“It doesn’t matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was.” -Anne Sexton
I remember the way he had to hunch himself over to hug me. Until the day he didn’t have to anymore. I was twelve. I remember that, too: suddenly, unexpectedly, being tall enough to reach him. Tall enough to see the laughter in his eyes when he was hugging my sister and I.
I remember the way his deodorant smelled. Like Old Spice. Like him. I remember the way his mustache tickled my cheek when we hugged. Every time.
I remember the way his hands shook, uncontrollably. The effect of a medicine he had to take daily, to be well enough to spend time with us. I remember how it used to embarrass him. I remember asking abrupt, ten-year-old questions. I hurt his feelings because I asked “why.” I didn’t understand. He was sick. Somewhere, I knew that. I had been told. But he was my dad. And so, you see, my dad couldn’t be sick. It was impossible. I rearranged memories to make him well. To make him whole again.
I remember our “traditions.” Special every other weekend customs that were “ours,” and ours alone. I remember the pumpkin patches at GreenBluff, rides that twisted, turned, and made us want to be sick at the fair, home-made huckleberry pancakes every morning, three-hour-long hikes through “the little woods” around my grandmother’s house. This was all before they built condo after condo, and nearly erased the trails that wound from her back porch to the river. I remember stops at Baskin-Robbins for chocolate chip cookie dough ice-cream and rainbow sherbet. Two scoops, in a waffle-cone.
I remember the day I was lost, at the fair. I was eight years old and I was looking at balloons. I let go of his hand to twist to see the different colors. I turned around and, suddenly, I was walking with another family. I looked up to see another man’s face. A stranger. I stopped abruptly. Tears instantly welled. I cried out “Dad,” but instead of his hand, I found another’s. Yet another stranger. This one with a kind voice and soft hands. She led me to a booth where soon after I was given a once-coveted red balloon, but I didn’t want it anymore. I wanted him. I was taken to a “Lost Child Trailer,” where other children were playing peacefully. Toys were strewn across a brown carpeted floor. A lady tried to pique my interest in building blocks. I ignored her, sat on an uncomfortable blue sofa and cried. The moment he opened that trailer door, wide-eyed and horrified, worried and already apologizing, I was up and running toward him, lunging toward his arms, already beginning to forget I had just spent thirty minutes sitting with strange children who seemed more than content to be separated from their parents.
I remember he found me. He looked for me, and he found me. I remember.
I remember wondering if he was looking for me, even then. Even as he was sinking. Was he still looking? I remember I was looking for him. Years and years later, I was still looking for him. Still waiting by the riverside, waiting for him to come home to us. Waiting for him to walk in, dripping wet, but fine. Freezing cold, but smiling the smile that would tell me, that would tell my sister and I it was all a bad dream. He would sit down and tell us where he had been all that time. He would tell us he never really left us.
I remember feeling foggy inside, like his drowning was a dream. I remember feeling as if something had been stolen, but simultaneously feeling that it couldn’t be real. It couldn’t have been stolen from ME. He couldn’t have been stolen. Not from me.
I remember my dad. And even though it still hurts, and sometimes it still hurts badly, I can smile while I remember. I can smile because, for nearly thirteen years, he was my father. He was the one who consistently found me. The one who would never stop looking for me. He was the one who laughed with his eyes. And for all of those years, I was his little girl.
When I remember, I still am. And nothing, not even the deepest, coldest, fastest-running river water can ever change that.