At some point, many, many years ago, we lost each other.
Somewhere, between the teenage years when I rebelled with a fervor that would have any father of two adolescent daughters wanting to take his own apartment for a few years, and the time I launched my own adult life which included college, traveling, building a career, failed relationships and eventually getting married and having babies, I lost him.
I probably lost him long before that.
It could have been as an angsty pre-adolescent, when I stopped playing Barbies and discovered boys, pining for unreturned crushes and playing The Smiths on my Walkman until I’d send myself spinning into melodramatic episodes that turned me into a tweenage cliche. That was probably around the same time I stopped adoring him. When I stopped running to the front door to greet him when he returned from work, his crisp white shirts smelling of the Niagara spray starch my mom ritually ironed them with, mixed with the faint remnants of his Tumbleweed cologne that smelled like sandalwood and the sweat of a long workday, with an even longer commute in traffic.
My sister and I were his joy at the end of his day. We were the sweetness and innocence that punctuated hours spent with hardened adults — mostly men — and navigating office politics, along with the pressure of making sales and meeting quotas and making money and making sure our family had what we needed in our middle class neighborhood, living our middle class lives.
We were his joy when we ran to that door as if someone wildly famous was entering it and we practically threw each other out of the way to get to him first, to capture his attention. We idolized him and crushed on him as little girls do, just as we crushed on those boys whose names I can barely remember from junior high and high school, when I started shutting him out, when I stopped adoring him altogether and he took it personally.
When he’d turn that key to the front door after a long day at work expecting to hear the giggles and squeals of anxious girls who missed him and was instead met with silence. One day, too soon for him I’m sure, he came home to teenagers, who were holed up in their rooms chatting on the phone to their friends or blasting loud music behind headphones, blocking out his words, which sounded ridiculous and archaic to us.
Until last week, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d spent any time alone with my father.
My earliest memory of us having conversations alone were in Kindergarten. I attended some kind of fancy private Kindergarten for a year where I learned French and where I was so painfully shy I didn’t have a single friend. I sat alone at lunchtime daily, head down, staring at the detail and grain of a wooden lunch table, inspecting it so intimately I could have told you exactly what kids had eaten for lunch all week, just by examining the crumbs they’d left behind. I don’t know what I was looking for in those lunch tables, with my head down, avoiding eye contact with my classmates. Maybe I was looking for someone to save me. A friend to reach out to a little girl who was virtually paralyzed by her shyness.
At the time, he saved me. His office was nearby and he would pick me up once a week from school in his baby blue Ford Granada, a boat on wheels, and take me to Bob’s Big Boy to eat a hamburger and french fries. He was my knight in a dark business suit, scooping me up, and it was a welcomed relief. I didn’t have to sit alone at lunch that day, humiliated by my shyness, watching my peers interact with one another from the sidelines.
He picked me up and we quietly ate our lunches together. I remember him not quite knowing how to converse with a five-year-old girl at the time, but I didn’t mind, I was just happy to be with him in the silence, away from a world that made me anxious. At the same time, I’m sure he was equally relieved to not have to share another harried lunch with a potential client, trying to close a sale between bites.
Looking back, we probably saved each other during those days in the late 70s where we met alone on weekdays, mostly in silence, quietly dipping our thick french fries into ketchup and then parting ways, returning to our separate worlds for the afternoon, two socially awkward souls not entirely comfortable in our own surroundings.
And then one day those Kindergarten lunches stopped. I changed schools and my new school was many miles away from his office. I think we might have started to lose each other from that point on, through work and school and life and friends and teenage years and boys and into adulthood, through more work and life and boyfriends and eventually a husband and children.
We have recently tried to find each other again. He’s retired now and he has nothing but time on his hands. He hasn’t worn a starched shirt or business suit in over a year. He lives in shorts. He stopped shaving. He stopped working the endless hours he worked for decades, his workaholic self replaced by a gentler, more patient and less on-edge persona, someone who has all the time in the world now, while also being painfully aware of the reality that he doesn’t. We are both sobered by the awareness of what time means when you are an aging man who has reached 70. Time seems much more urgent than it once did.
Earlier this week, we took a long hike together on a beautiful February afternoon, two uneasy nature-lovers reunited in a setting we both feel most at home in, where we could rediscover each other, at first with cautious, awkward footsteps that grew increasingly more at ease along the path.
With every step, it felt as if we were shedding years of pain, of holding grudges, of putting up walls. So many years of not understanding each other, of hiding behind long hours at the office buried in paperwork, of hiding in the arms of the wrong boyfriends who offered a replacement for his love and attention for so many years, shutting each other out because it was easier than giving in, easier than tearing down the barriers we’d built around our hearts to keep each other safely locked out.
And in those years, so much was lost. So very much was lost.
Slowly, we are finding our way back to each other, defrosting after years of iciness, returning to that place we once shared hamburgers and french fries on sunny afternoons, me at five with my tiny plaid uniform skirt, skinny legs in knee high socks, him in his mid-thirties, his starched white shirt smelling of spray starch and sandalwood, two awkward, shy souls rediscovering each other and saving each other at the same time, all over again, before there’s simply no time.