I have the euphoric pleasure of announcing that Elizabeth Little has chosen me as her Pitch Wars 2020-2021 mentee. (More about what that means here.) I called my mom to tell her. I cannot call to tell my dad.
But I need this day to be about him, too. Because I cannot share the news with him, I want to share something of what this would mean to him with you. So, here’s a short story.
In a year, this kitchen table will be covered in boxes of fentanyl patches, probiotic pills and laxatives — the balloon-patterned tablecloth from my dad’s 59th birthday still spread out underneath. In a year, my father will weigh less than I did when I was sixteen, and I will be grateful just to have him answer, groggily, from his gurney-bed when I call out, “Hi, Dad!” But, for now, all is well. He may know he has cancer, but I don’t. He’s sipping his coffee, leaning against a cutting-board-topped cabinet, in blue jeans and a t-shirt. It’s 2016.
He can tell I’m working up to saying something, and I can tell that he just wants me to spit it out. He’s loose, head to toe, except in the eyes. Archetypally he’s a sort of brusque jester – as many New Yorkers are – so, generally, he’s got merry, mischievous eyes. But for me, and certain, serious moments, he saves this look. It goes with the words I’d lop off my right arm for you or, other times, you need me to kick somebody’s ass? He cannot fathom that anything I’d say might suggest my ass needs kicking. Not just because I’m his kid, but because his kid has a record of making him proud.
My dad is (was) a welder and a steamfitter, and he is (was) good at it. Careful. Exacting. Proud. But when I started my undergraduate in philosophy, he had a photo printed of him at work – rappelling off the side of a building. He had my stepmom write “Hang in there, Baby!” (because his penmanship was atrocious), and signed it. When he gave it to me, he said, “Whenever school gets tough, you look at this. You don’t want to have to work the way I do.”
I did as he said. I wrote a thesis on existentialism as a guide for healthy romantic relationships (which he read and talked over with me – and hey, why not? Socrates was a brick-layer, you know.). I graduated as an Honors Scholar. I got my MLS after that. When I landed a tenure-track job as an academic librarian, my dad cried. He was set, because I was set. He didn’t have to worry about me anymore.
But I wasn’t happy at that job. I loved teaching, and helping students, but as the years passed other aspects of the job were over-growing these, wearing me down. And I’d started asking myself what the point of security was if I wasn’t living a fulfilling life.
I had come to this conversation ready, I thought, until I was face-to-face with my father. He knew, in a way I did not, what the value of security was. He knew what long days of manual labor, without weekends off, could do to a person. That I was ignorant of his reality was exactly as he wanted it – it meant I was better off – but ignorance is still ignorance.
“I’m thinking of going back to school for my MFA,” I say, fast. “Part-time.”
When I don’t translate, he says, “Okay, I’m an idiot. What’s that for?”
“Like an English degree, but for writers. For fiction. I miss writing. It’s not like I think I’m Stephen King or anything, but… I want to try, because I love it. Maybe it’s stupid and won’t come to anything, but I want to try to be a writer.”
Dad puts down his coffee, and stares hard at me. I cringe, and I think of all the notebooks he used to watch me write in when I was ten, filling them up with silly stories. I compare that toothy ten-year-old to the woman at her big desk, next to the photograph. Hang in there, Baby.
Dad waits until I work my eyes back up to his. There is no humor in them, still.
He says, “It’s about time.”