Monday, June 30, 2014

My Father, Who Art Named Kevin

Let’s start with an informal poll. Raise your hand if you’ve eaten food off of the floor.

Okay, now raise your hand if you didn’t raise your hand and are a liar.

Next poll. Who has eaten “damp” food that’s fallen the floor? Like, a watermelon slice or J-ello?

Last poll. Be brave.

Who’s eaten food that their father found in the gutter on the side of the road when she was ten?

When I was ten, I ate a crushed, but still hermetically sealed Hostess Cupcake that my father found on the side of the road. But there’s context. There’s always context.
Mark, my biological father, had context of his own. He was, on the one hand, a man who married an 18-year -old, dropped out of college, produced a daughter, and was divorced when that daughter’s mother decided that life as a lunatic’s spouse was no longer for her. On the other hand, his family is a real treat. That is to say, growing up Mark was no Hostess Cupcake.

Those roadkill cakes had context, too. My father had been out running when he saw them with their signature white icing swirl, laying in the gutter, practically unmangled. It was not something he’d normally bring me, what with his diabetes and an eternal hatred for both enjoyment and fat people. Add to that that he was also the cheapest bastard alive and there was no way he’d have bought me cake, never mind a brand name snack cake. This was manna from heaven, if heaven were a 24-hour convenience store.

So when he returned to the small apartment he lived in, one I was legally obligated to visit every other weekend and each summer, he gave me his treasure. And I ate it.

When a crazy man brings you gutter cakes, you eat them. You eat them standing in the living room while he watches. You thank him and ask him to retell the tale of how he just found them there and thought, “I bet Nicole would enjoy eating trash!”

I bet you think you’d have refused, but one did not refuse my father. Not because he would have beaten or locked my in a closet, but because I would have had to endure his profound disappointment. His was the kind that could only be exorcised on the wind of a heavy sigh after hours of silence and shunning. Plus, I like cake.

Let’s revisit that poll. Have you ever done something in context that you’d never consider in any other circumstance? Remember: Honestly leads to emotional freedom.

Another thing that leads to emotional freedom is death. When my father died when I was 20, I was free, in a fashion. Free to make my own decisions about what lay before me in adulthood: keg stands, finishing college, dating seriously, diet fads, jobs, legally binding marital union, home ownership, pets, taxes, credit card bills, children, and cable TV service calls. Well, kind of free. Because, for better or worse, the framework laid by my father would factor heavily into my choices. It’s not enough to be on the brink of adulthood with the absence of poor parenting. A young person needs, especially a daughter, the on-going influence of a high-quality parent, especially a father. There’s just something about daddy issues.

But how does one identify a high-quality parent? A high-quality parent smiles often, revels in your triumphs, expects better of you and helps you achieve it, and does not pilot the car with his knees while rolling joints on the highway. A high-quality parent avoids DUIs.

A high-quality parent chooses to parent. This is not to be confused with choosing to become a parent. Idiots successfully make this decision with little more than an available sexual partner and a fifth of vodka. But once that kid arrives life gets overwhelming and precious and wonderful and terrible all at once and we realize that parenting is a series of choices. Constantly shifting, demanding, urgent, choices. A quality parent, one who lets you stay up late to bond over cookies and milk but also makes you brush your teeth before bed, or one who takes you on college tours but remains relatively supportive when you tell him you want to me a mime, is a parent up to the task of choosing. He can be scared and he can be confused and he can even hate it sometimes, but he’s all in. And so, even though he loved me, and he did in his way, my Mark was not up to the choosing. But my Kevin is. Because sometime between the day my mother and Mark divorced and the day my mother and Kevin said “I do,” Kevin showed up and made a choice. He met me when I was 6 and he was Kevin, and by the time I was 16 he was daddy.

When my father was holding grudges against me and giving me the silent treatment because, and this is a quote “You don’t love me the right way.” My Kevin was talking with my mom about having more kids, and saying, “But we already have a daughter; we have Nicole.”

Kevin taught me that boys are indeed checking out my legs and that I should be both proud and wary. He taught me that his disappointment over my actions is not disappointment over my entire being. He taught me to love and laugh and listen to the important people in my life. The only thing more consistent than his love and support is the ticking of time itself.

It occurs to me now, as a parent, that biology has nothing on commitment. The quality parent commits to the whole package and renews that commitment daily. Because even when you start on the road to parenthood, you don’t get to be a parent until you get in there and make do. Long after the diapers have been moldering in a landfill and the tantrums of tweendom have ebbed, there will be an adult child who will look back and remember that you—daddy—were there in the thick of it all and those times will be the touchstones along that all-grown-up child’s path that help her navigate bills, jobs, legally binding marital union, cable TV service calls, and even her own children.

So, informal poll, would you choose a different dad? For my part, I couldn’t have picked a better father. But then, I’ll never need to because Kevin picked me.

I wrote this piece for That's What She Said, 2013. I read it in front of a live audience. You can see the reading on YouTube.