|MY FATHER'S DAUGHTER |
I AM AT MY DESK, WATCHING THE WINTER SUN SLIP BENEATH THE HORIZON, WHEN the phone rings. It's my father. He always calls in the late afternoon. He has a 45-minute drive home from work and a Bluetooth earpiece.
"Are you busy?" he asks. I tell him I can take a break. I ask him what's up and he complains about the traffic. The weather is bad over there, a sheet of gray sleet coating the Michigan highway, and after the third or fourth time he says he can't believe how damn slow it is, I say,
"So how's the traffic?"
And he says, "It's TERRIBLE!"
I laugh. I ask what he and Mom are doing over the weekend — visiting family, watching a movie, catching up on episodes of Lost. He tells me about a band he heard on the radio that he thinks I might like. We don't have the same taste in music, but every now and then he's dead on. He tells me about the baseball trip he's planning with his friends this spring, and wonders whether or not he'll be buying playoff tickets for hockey. Then he pulls into the driveway.
"Well I'm here," he says. "Guess I better let you go."
And I say, "Okay."
And he says, "I love you."
And I say, "I love you, too."
It took thirty years and the suicide of my younger brother, my only sibling, for us to get here, but we're not talking about that yet.
When I was six (and seven and eight), sunny Saturday afternoons meant baseball. The wind kicked up clouds of dust along the diamonds and my leg swung back and forth in the outfield, cutting the heads off clovers. Dad taught me where to stand, how to hold and swing a bat (eye-on-the-ball, eye-on-the-ball), how to stop a grounder, how to throw someone out. I could hit, I could run fast, I could catch. But I was a girl, and I threw like one. I squinted into the sun and drew pictures in the dirt with my toe when it was my turn to play shortstop.
After the games I climbed trees with my brother, and drank Bird's Eye orange juice from the foil covered cups that Mom bought out of the vending machine in the air-conditioned lobby of the YMCA. Then we went home. It was a race between my brother and me — first one to touch the back door wins. We rode in two separate cars for a reason I can no longer remember, and the division was always the same: Mom and me in one, my dad and my brother in the other.
I didn't wonder what it was like in the other car, the parallel universe of "the boys" gliding a handful of seconds ahead or behind us along the same streets, past the same churches and banks. If we pulled up alongside each other I yelled at my mother to go faster while crossing my eyes and mashing my nose against the window. As soon as we pulled into the driveway, and my brother and I flung open the car doors and sprinted a slap-shoving dash for the back door, the division dissolved.
Back home, back then, Dad treated my brother and me the same: whisker rubs, noogies, head-locks, sleeper holds, half-nelsons, full-nelsons, flicks. He rolled us up into afghans like crepes, leaving us to twist and shriek with laughter on the living room rug as we struggled to escape. He turned his hand into a rubber band gun, trained on us and fired. He told us whopping lies that we couldn't help but half believe — that he'd played for the Detroit Pistons before we were born, that he knew the Jolly Green Giant back when he was short and mean. He gave us sips from his beer can and laughed at our sour faces.
"You tortured us," I tell him, 20 or so years later.
"I teased you," he says. "That's what Schwartz men do."
In the fifth grade I made a family tree. I was supposed to go back as far as I could, to include names, birth and death dates. I was also supposed to interview my parents about my grandparents and then write a report. I knew my mother's parents; they lived two miles away and we saw them all the time. I knew my father's father, though he lived in a small town about 40 miles northeast of our house in suburban Detroit. We saw him less frequently — holidays at our house and occasional Sundays at his, where my brother and I ate stale cookies, drank diet pop, and jumped on the mini-trampoline in his basement. But my father's mother died before I was born. We went to her grave every year at Christmas with my grandfather, stood quietly and stared at her stone. I knew she'd died a long time ago, when my dad was still a kid. I knew she had been German, because Dad and Grandpa were German. I knew her name had been Elizabeth, because it said so on her grave marker. But I didn't know anything else about her.
So one evening after dinner, I cornered my father at the kitchen table with my folder, a few sheets of lined paper, and a pencil.
"What do you remember about your mother?" I asked, pencil at the ready.
He was quiet for a moment.
"I remember sitting on her lap and eating a donut. I guess I must have been about three."
Sitting on lap eating donut, I wrote, about 3.
"Anything else?" I frowned, looking at my empty white pages.
"I remember feeling happy."
Feeling happy, I wrote.
"Is that all?"
It definitely wasn't going to be enough.
That same year Dad took me to Joe Louis Arena to watch the Red Wings play hockey. At ten-years-old I was coming up on the end of my baseball career and the beginning of moody, brooding puberty, the gorge that would temporarily cut me off from everyone in my family. Yet I'd insisted my father take me to the game. He took my brother to sporting events all the time — hockey, football, baseball. Theirs was a relationship I never thought about and glimpsed only fleetingly, most often upon their return: my brother bursting through the door well after dark with a mitt or a program, Dad filling the doorframe behind him.
I imagine jealousy motivated me to ask Dad to take me to the game, made me forget my lackluster interest in sports, eclipsed the fact that my father and brother went to the games to watch the games, that their hearts were invested in victory, that they shared knowledge of the nuances — player stats and rules and terminology. I either forgot or didn't understand that to cheer for a team was to be part of a community, that fandom was rooted in relationships.
It didn't occur to me until Dad and I got into the car that I was taking my brother's place, entering the parallel universe. And as street lamps and lit buildings blurred across the car windows on our way downtown, flashed over my father's profile as we rode together side by side in silence, I understood that the division after the baseball games of those earlier years hadn't actually dissolved. I felt it, like a word stopped short, forgotten, frozen on the tongue. Dad turned on the radio. I clicked on the dome light and cracked open a book.
Our seats were nosebleeds, and because I couldn't really see what was going on, because I didn't really care, I continued to read throughout the game — the sounds of blades scraping ice, the whistles of the referees, the clapping, the shouting, the groans and roars, lost in the story of a half dozen fifth grade girls who pierced their own ears. Every now and then I'd lower my book and see the skaters, small, blurry, swarming the ice below like toys, and my father, standing, sitting, cheering along with the crowd. I'd pick up my book again and it would all fade away.
For decades I did nothing more than privately acknowledge the space between us. I didn't have to do anything more. We'd paired off — Mom had me, Dad had my brother. The scales were even, so it didn't matter why it had happened. It was what it was.
"You begged me to take you to that game," he said for years afterward, shaking his head. "And all you did was read a book."
Not knowing how to tell him any of this, I'd shrug and shake my head, too.
In the year after that hockey game I got braces, pimples, breasts, my period. The year after that I started middle school, started kissing boys, started smoking. My father and I didn't speak, we shouted. About anything, everything. The space between us charged electric, the way two magnets with identical polarity thicken the air between them when brought together, the way they create a force to push themselves apart. His eyes widened as our voices rose, our mouths moved at the same time, faster and closer until I was crying and running up the stairs and slamming my door, the reflection of my twisted face in the yellow mirror on my bedroom wall making me want to pound my fist into the glass.
We never said we were sorry. Instead we waited in separate corners for our throats to relax, for our breath and hearts to slow, for the air in the house to thin. Then we hovered at each other's edges, tested the temperature of the silence until it was cool enough to pretend like nothing had happened.
I'm at my desk again, around the time Dad would normally call on his way home from work. The sun hangs low in the sky but it's burning longer these days, even though winter is still gripping Chicago with iron claws. The phone rings. It's Mom. I'm actually working this time, but I know she's calling to give me the results of the endoscopy Dad had this morning, so I answer.
"How did it go?" I ask.
"Everything was fine."
"Good," I exhale, only then realizing I've been holding my breath.
"Do you want to talk to him?"
He gets on the phone and I ask him how he's feeling. Fine. He asks me if I'm busy. I tell him I can take a break. His voice is scratchy, tired. He asks me how my weekend was. I can hear the TV in the background, filling in the pauses between my voice and his. He asks me what I've been up to lately and I tell him I'm reading a book on container gardening. He perks up.
"Oh yeah? What for?"
"I'm going to try and start a garden on the roof."
"Oh wow, that's great! Are you going to grow vegetables?"
"Yeah. Beets, tomatoes, squash, carrots, herbs. Maybe some peppers. I might put some flowers up there, too, if I can find something that won't attract too many bugs."
He is quiet, a laugh track filling in the pause. I've lost him, I think. To the TV or the sedative. I'm wondering if I should repeat myself or tell him that I need to let him go, and then he says,
"I'd like to start another vegetable garden, if I can find the time."
He planted his first vegetable garden in Alabama, where we moved from Detroit when I was a sophomore in high school. The move was his idea — a new job. A better job, one with more money, one that would pay for my brother and me to go to college. I didn't think about that. I thought about the heat, the weird accents, the lack of sidewalks, the giant bugs, the red dirt. My old friends and the people I hated for being new. I got a nose ring, combat boots, birth control pills. I hated him. I told him so.
My grandfather died. I cried.
His father died. I didn't think about that, either. I didn't ask him if he was okay. I didn't tell him I was sorry.
My dad and my brother listened to stacks of old vinyl: Clapton, The Who, Lead Belly. They went to see the rock opera Tommy. They played roller hockey.
I listened to rap and played soccer — the one sport my father didn't seem to know, or care, anything about. Still, he came to my games when he could. Drove me to the hospital when a ball to the face swelled my eye shut, and drove home to get eye drops when an unusually large grain of pollen did the same thing. He took my brother, my boyfriend, and me to watch the U.S. soccer team play Argentina during the 1996 Olympic qualifiers, and he bought me a jersey.
But more often than not it was Mom in the stands, driving me to Olympic Development Camp in Birmingham, taking me to buy shin guards and cleats, making sure there were bags of frozen peas to ice my shins after the games, kicking the ball with me in the backyard.
The year I graduated high school the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup. I still wasn't a huge fan of hockey, not the way my father and brother were, but I understood face-offs and icing and offsides. I knew the names of the players, their numbers, and what countries they were from. Besides, after living in Alabama for three years, hockey was less about hockey and more about a connection to the past. We were cheering for more than a team, more than a city. For a brief while, a week or so, the four of us sat in front of the TV and watched the games together. We cheered, we groaned, we tossed a stuffed octopus at the screen when the fans at The Joe flung real ones onto the ice.
We recorded the final game. After it was over we paused the tape at the end, when the entire team had gathered around the cup to pose for pictures. We put on Red Wing jerseys, held red and white pom-poms, put the octopus on top of the TV, and took a picture of ourselves with the Wings. Grinning, holding up our number-one fingers. Mom and me on one side of the TV, my brother and my dad on the other.
I started college at the nearby University of Alabama, moved out but came home several times a week to wash clothes, steal food, and use the printer. I majored in English and my mother read all of my papers.
I met a boy from Detroit who'd moved down to Alabama with his family as a child. We dressed up and went to fancy restaurants. We dressed down and went out for half-priced margaritas. We hit the bars downtown and passed out at my studio apartment. We fell in love. We drove up to Michigan to visit our grandparents (who lived ten minutes away from each other). We drove down to the Gulf coast and baked brown on the beach. We bought football tickets and cheered on the Crimson Tide. We moved in together. We got engaged.
"Give her whatever she wants," Dad said. "Our only daughter's wedding."
Mom and I planned the whole thing. White dress, buckets of flowers, a towering cake covered in sugar daisies.
Dad gave me away. We stood in the cry room at the back of the church — he, my three bridesmaids, the coordinator, the photographer, and I. There's a picture of Dad and me together from then: my hand is on his shoulder, his face is out of focus, and he's holding the lucky penny that we're about to tape onto the bottom of my shoe. We are looking at the camera instead of each other, saying cheese.
A few minutes after taking that picture, the photographer left to set up by the altar. The violins struck up Cannon In D, and the bridesmaids filed out. The coordinator closed the door behind them and my father and I stood alone, arm in arm, waiting. The song was taking forever, my bouquet was heavy, the room was hot. Neither one of us said anything, but by then we'd been living with the space for years. It was easy for me when we were alone together, as it had been when I was a child reading that book at the Wings game, to retreat into myself. When Trumpet Voluntary finally started and the doors opened, he disappeared completely. I didn't feel his arm around my elbow, or the silence between us. In my memory I walk alone until, at the end of the aisle, he pecks my cheek, shakes my husband's hand, and takes his seat.
I thought nothing of it at the time. Less than nothing, I didn't even notice it. Again, I didn't need to. My brother stood smiling at the end of the line of ushers, his hands folded in front of his waist.
My brother went to Rutgers and my husband and I moved to Chicago. I started graduate school. Mom asked for my syllabi, bought the books I read so she could read them, too. My brother majored in political science. When we came home for holidays, he and Dad sat at the kitchen table and talked about government, Marx, the world. I'd listen for a while, until I'd realize it had been minutes since I'd said anything, that I didn't know the names or theories they were throwing around, and then I'd go into the living room to watch TV.
My parents called my brother every Sunday, and Mom tried to extract the reluctant details of his life. I know this because when I'd talk to her, later, she'd give me the report — Did you know your brother has a new girlfriend? Did you know your brother got a job at the campus library? No, I didn't. I knew that he went to concerts with his friends in the city, that his suitemate looked like Justin Timberlake, that he'd seen a guy slumped in front of the liquor store with a stab wound, waiting for an ambulance.
My parents called me once a week as well. I'd talk to Mom first, usually for an hour or so, trading information about my brother and catching up on the week. She'd say,
"Do you want to talk to your father now?"
And I'd say, "Sure."
She'd say, "I love you."
And I'd say, "I love you, too."
Dad would get on, and since I'd already gone through everything and I figured she'd fill him in later, we'd talk for ten minutes or so about things that didn't stick to memory. The weather, current events. Then we'd fall silent and one of us would say,
"Better get going."
And he'd say, "Take care."
And I'd say, "You too."
The phone rings on a Sunday evening while I'm sitting on the couch watching TV. I press mute and answer. It's Dad. He and Mom have just been to see my cousin's baby. The size of a tennis shoe when she was born in February, she is now a month old.
"Is she finally getting bigger?" I ask him.
"Oh yeah," he says. "I think she's about eight pounds now."
"Eight pounds, that's like the size of a regular newborn!" I say.
"No, you were only six pounds when you were born."
"I was not, I was seven."
"No, you were six."
He doesn't need to. She has overheard us and shouts SEVEN in the background.
"See?" I say.
"Well you were big."
"I was not! How much did you weigh when you were born?"
"I don't know."
"What do you mean you don't know?" I say. "Didn't anyone ever tell you?"
"Nope. I was the last one, old news. No baby books for me."
I am quiet for a moment.
"Why?" he asks.
"Because that's the kind of thing your mother would have told you."
"Yeah," he says. "Probably."
And I think for the first time about how young he was when she died. About how he's known loss for almost as long as he's known memory. How all but one of his siblings, a brother too close in age to be of much help, were 15 to 20 years older than him, already starting lives and families of their own, too busy to tell him things about the woman he never knew. Too busy to tell him things about himself. How, most of the time, it was a household of men: just him, his brother, and my grandfather. How he was only 20 when I was born. How strange for him a girl, a daughter, must have been.
I talked to my brother for the last time on a Monday afternoon. We talked about a pediatric cancer fundraiser he participated in, a book he bought me for Christmas that I'd finally started reading, a midterm that he skipped. It was his senior year of college, his final stretch, and I asked him what went wrong.
"I don't know," he said. "I just couldn't do it."
I told him I'd help him if he needed it. He said everything was fine. The conversation stalled and it was time to go.
"Take care," he said.
And I said, "You too."
The phone rang five days later, on Saturday morning. It was my father, calling to tell me that my brother had killed himself. He'd attempted once before, in his mid-teens, and there had been several hospitalizations over the years. Rehab, therapists, medications. His falling-apart life locked clam-tight to keep us from asking questions. This was not exactly a surprise. Which didn't matter. I cried so hard I couldn't breathe.
"I love you," my father said.
And I said, "I love you, too."
And suddenly I was an everything. An only. Two lifetime's worth of expectations. A daughter and a son.
For a long time after, for years, my parents called me everyday. Most often our conversations were built solely on subtext, the details of a trip to the grocery store or the plot of a movie nothing more than an assurance that the rest of us were still breathing. But sometimes my father asked me outright how I was, how I really was. I didn't lie. I was not okay. None of us were okay. And there wasn't anything else to say about it.
So we talked about other things. Sports, politics, music — the kind of stuff, I realized, that he'd probably talked about with my brother. I tried my best to fill the role and felt myself fail. He'd ask me what I thought about some Bush administration gaff and, knowing nothing about it, I wouldn't be able to answer. He'd tell me about a band he'd seen and instead of getting swept up in his enthusiasm, asking questions about their sound or the way the music made him feel, I'd say, "Mmm-hmm," or, "Sounds cool."
And so it fell to sports. Football most often, specifically Alabama football. At the prodding of my then future husband, I had gone to every game our last year in college and fell for the Crimson Tide as hard as I'd fallen for him. During those conversations in the months after my brother died, Dad and I talked about the players and coaches, the upcoming season or the season just past.
Our interactions usually devolved into teasing, sports related or general — my lack of knowledge regarding offensive formations or my insistence on remaining vegetarian. It had always been the choice form of relation between Dad and his brothers. Between Dad and my brother. The two of them had ganged up on me often, in the later years. After those kitchen table discussions about Marx they'd spend fifteen minutes taunting me about the size of my butt (which, for the record, isn't really that big), just to watch my nostrils flare.
So after my brother died I played along. Played his part. Followed the script, swapped barbs until I grew annoyed, exhausted, and the mock debate ebbed into silence.
The same Sunday evening Dad and I talk about my cousin's baby, we talk about the time he almost died — four years old in the hospital with spinal meningitis, just a year after his mother's death. His father was in the hospital when he was born, for months. Rheumatic fever. Grandpa was in the hospital again when Dad was six — staph infection. I make fun of his family's weak constitution. He scoffs,
"What's that supposed to mean?"
I remind him of the early years — the whisker rubs, noogies, afghans, rubber bands.
"You tortured us," I tell him.
"I teased you," he says. "That's what Schwartz men do."
"Uh-uh, tortured. Abused," I say. But of course, I'm just teasing.
The everyday calls after my brother's death petered out with Dad first. Every other day, every three days, twice a week.
"He worries you don't love him," my mother told me one afternoon, when she was still checking on me everyday.
"Really?" I said. I thought about what it would be like if the opposite happened, if my father told me my mother thought I didn't love her — how I'd probably call her right away, ask her why she'd ever think such a thing. It struck me that I didn't have to ask him why. Maybe we'd both been worried about this all along. Maybe that worry was the strange space between us, pushing us apart.
"That's crazy," I said. "Of course I love him." Though sometimes, after that, I wondered whether we would have made better friends than family. Wondered whether what we really needed was to choose each other, instead of being chosen.
"Don't tell him I told you," she said.
"I won't." And I didn't. I wouldn't even have known how to begin.
Spring is nearly over. There are leaves on the trees (hockey weather melted away months ago) and the sun sticks around well past dinner, yet here I am watching the second period of the second game of the Stanley Cup Finals: Detroit Red Wings versus Pittsburg Penguins. I'm still a bad fan. I didn't watch a single regular season game this year, even though Dad reminded me when they were on. He goes to games frequently now that he and Mom have moved back to Detroit. He was at last night's game, a game I watched because, even though I barely followed the playoffs, this is the Stanley Cup, Detroit vs. Pittsburg for the second year in a row, and I've gotten caught up in the hype.
I'm on the couch with my husband, staring at the TV and nervously chewing at my lower lip. It's a tie score, 1-1. The Wings started strong but faltered midway through the first period, allowing the Penguins to take 11 unanswered shots in a row. I'm worried that they've lost momentum. They won last night, 3-1, but to give up this second game, at home, and then travel to Pittsburg would be rough. Sometimes, when things start going wrong, they don't stop. Sometimes all it takes is one mistake to knock you out of a groove for good.
But a good team makes adjustments, regroups when they need to, hits the ice fighting and forces a miracle. The Wings are a very, very good team. Even in front of the TV screen, on the couch with my husband, hundreds of miles away from The Joe, I feel the flip. A surge like a wave pushing a million variables into place. Three red jerseys moving into Pittsburg territory — a shot — bounces off the crowd in front of the net and rolls to Filppula, standing alone at the left edge of the fray with his back to goal. He looks over his shoulder and fires a back-handed wrister, an impossible angle, three defenders and the keeper in front of the goal, and the puck ricochets off the post into the upper right hand corner of the net. The announcer shouts, the crowd explodes in a roar, I scream and high-five my husband. And then I call my dad. Not because I'm supposed to, not because I think it's what my brother would have done.
He answers, "Hello?"
"Did you see that! I mean holy shit! That was unbelievable!"
"Yeah, tell me about it!"
We marvel at the replay.
"I don't want to keep you," I say, "I just wanted someone to woo-hoo with." He laughs.
"Okay, I'll talk to you later," he says.
"I love you," I say.
And he says, "I love you, too."