I was twenty-nine and in Berlin for Christmas. I called my father in Maryland on Christmas day. For some reason, his number was blocked from receiving international calls. So I tried the number for upstairs, where my aunt Jeannie lives with her two children. It just rang and rang and rang. Finally my Dad answered the phone. “Why is your line blocked from receiving international calls?” I asked when he finally picked the receiver, “Who’s calling you internationally?”
“It’s all those mail-order Russian brides,” he answered.
“Why didn’t anyone answer upstairs, isn’t anyone home?”
“Oh they’re probably all in their rooms. We went shopping at the mall and ended up getting into a fight. They decided to cancel Christmas. When are you coming home?”
“Never. I can’t believe you just asked me that.”
My Dad just laughed. After I got off the phone, I wrote him a postcard. I told him to apply for his passport and that next year we’d spend Christmas together in another country.
When my father turned 50 and I was 30, we spent Christmas in Paris. It was the first time my father traveled outside the United States. He had often talked about wanting to travel but had never done it. When he turned twenty I was born and my half-sister, just two years older than me, my mother’s child from another marriage had come to live with us. Then my mother left when I was a year old, leaving my father with the responsibility of two young daughters. Looking back I realized the reason my father could never travel was because of us and now I realized that I could be the reason that he could.
On the plane my father asked me where the closest bathroom was, even though I hadn’t been to the bathroom yet and was sitting in the window seat, “I don’t know, look to the right or left or ask a stewardess.”
“Well I thought you would know, you’ve traveled a lot more than me, I thought you‘d know the layout of the plane.”
“I haven’t been on this plane or this airline before, how would I know that?” Christ.
The first time my father had ever flown on a plane was the first time I flew. We took a two-hour flight to Florida to go to Disney World when I was in middle school. I had long since been over such things but my father seemed to be unaware of the strange adultness teenage girls possess. It rained everyday and my father seemed exhausted, the entire weekend a failed attempt to give back the childhood he had taken from me. Often too little, too late was never enough.
In Paris, my plan was to have a really busy itinerary, to basically tucker him out like a toddler. We went to Versailles, where I took a picture of him being attacked by a seagull. It swooped down towards his head; he said birds always attack him. We went to the Louvre, the Grand Palais, the Petit Palais; the Petit Palais was his favorite. On Christmas Eve we went to midnight mass at Notre Dame. We climbed to the top of the Sacré-Coeur, the Arc de’ Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. In the evenings we would write postcards.
By the second night we had already gotten into a terrible fight. It started when my father asked me to make him a sandwich. I told him that he was a grown man and he could make his own sandwich and “this is not the 1950’s.” I do not remember my father ever making a sandwich for me. It felt like an insult to injury that this man who never took care of me wanted me to take care of him. I refuse to enable him like his sisters or his mother.
He said he didn’t like my attitude and my sarcasm. I told him that he was behaving like a needy man-baby and that I wasn’t going to take care of him. He said, “You just don’t seem happy. “
“Thanks for the news flash!” I yelled back.
We were staying across from the Gare de Lyon, a train station that has many street exits. I couldn’t convince my father to get a Paris phone chip for his cell phone and I was concerned that if we ever got separated he would get lost. He has always had really bad short-term memory, never able to remember what he ate the night before, etc. I had been trying to get him to remember our address and the correct exit to take from the train station so that he could always find his way back to the apartment. After teaching him this for about a week, I asked him “so what exit do we take?” and he thought about it and couldn’t recall. Exhausted, exasperated I said “Everyday is new for you!”
There was a pharmacy on the corner of our street that my father liked to visit because he is a hypochondriac and they spoke English and he was lonely for conversation. We would stop by every night and he would ask them some questions and buy some medication. At some point I mentioned that they probably think he is a hypochondriac and that put a stop to his daily visits. My father got pink eye in Paris. He told me that an old woman with swollen red eyes stared at him on the train and that’s how he got infected. I tried to explain to him that you could not catch pink eye from someone looking at you. Back to the pharmacy we went.
My father had recently become diabetic, as a result of being hospitalized for three months with Pancreatitis. He had both his gall bladder and pancreas removed. His body is no longer able to create insulin and he has to take digestive enzymes when he eats because his body cannot breakdown fat. I reminded him several times to pack all his medications, along with any special diet stuff for the trip.
“I just can’t believe they don’t have iced tea.” My father would order a hot tea and explain to every waiter how he wanted a glass of ice, a side of lemon and a sugar substitute so that he could fabricate his own iced tea. I tried to get my Dad to make iced tea at the apartment that we could bring with us during the day. On the subject of sugar substitutes, “I can’t believe they don’t have Splenda.” No wonder people hate Americans.
Every morning my father would complain about the clock on the mantle. He said it was too loud and he would lie in bed awake at night, listening to it ticking. I teased him with, “The Tell-Tale Heart?” One morning I found the clock hidden between some towels in the bathroom cabinet.
After a particularly exhausting day my Dad said “Good night” in a singsong tone, like a child that has misbehaved does just to stick it to you. Completely deadpan, I answered “Rest in peace.” My Dad just laughed.
We went ice-skating at the Eiffel Tower. During the winter they have a small skating rink on the second tier. As children we always wanted to go ice-skating but the rivers and ponds by our house never froze during winter. My father fell through the ice once as a child when he was ice-skating alone. He managed to pull himself out of the freezing water. His sister Jan recalled laughing at him when he turned up at the house soaking wet.
My father is a husky, stocky man, with a Fu Manchu. He appears to most a hybrid of redneck, pirate and construction worker. Matching faded jean jacket and relaxed fit Levis and construction boots is his usual attire. On the ice, he is graceful, like Baryshnikov. He can even skate backwards. I stumble and struggle, having only ever skated once at Rockefeller Center when I was in college. I stood there, maybe taking photos or shooting video of my father, just watching him glide across the ice effortlessly. This man who made his daughters walk single file behind him on the sidewalk, this violent man that had blackouts and bar fights. Who once incredible-hulked, throwing a television set into our backyard because I didn’t answer the phone. He was at one with the ice. Seeing my father in harmony with something, with nature, with life was something I had never experienced.
My father is a physical man; he has made a lifetime of defining himself through his strength and abilities. As a teenager he hauled vending machines for the family business. I his early twenties he worked high-rise construction in Virginia. In his fifties, he still works doing physical labor everyday.
Now my father is afraid to go places alone. He never liked being far from home but he didn’t use to be like this. He needs someone to ride with him in the car to doctor’s appointments, to the store, to run errands. He said he could go anywhere as long as someone he knows is with him. He doesn’t seem to understand the toll that takes on the other person.
His sister Jan booked a plane ticket to join us in Paris; I think just to take care of him. She gets after me, saying that I am mean to my father and that he “has a disease,” referring to his alcoholism. It makes me sick that she still makes excuses for him but never stood up for my sister or me when we were only children. Lying next to her in bed, I stare up at the ceiling and say, “He’s just so needy.”
Jan says, “All men are needy.”