My father was a gruff guy, to say the least. He could also be cutting, condescending, and almost cruel in his putdowns of us and any displays of emotion, aside from anger, were subject to ridicule. He was also brilliant, very funny, occasionally charming, and eventually, mentally ill. Once our family had dismantled and scattered, he furthered the distance between himself and the world by literally erecting walls: walls of paper and expired food and junkyard finds. After years of practice and missteps, I became able to navigate the balance of coming close enough that he could lay some claim to me and my little family, but not asking for or expecting more than he was able to give. My sister, who had boots on the ground of this battlefield for years, made sure I knew the joy it brought him to receive cards from my kids and to hear stories of our goofy Lab, and it was she who found precious bare space to hang pictures of the life my father chose to watch from behind his fortress of trash.
The day after my father passed away, my sisters and I rifled through some of the many piles of papers that remained, despite their best efforts to create a peaceful environment in which my dad could pass his last days. In his bedside table, I found an envelope, bent from many foldings and unfoldings in and out of the drawer. In it was a photo of my husband and me at JFK airport holding our new son, on our way home from Moldova; a card that my middle son had made to the grandfather he barely knew, promising a fishing trip as soon as my dad could visit; and another photo I had never before seen. This picture is of my daughter, perched proudly on my father's lap and he is nuzzling her chubby cheek, seemingly about to kiss her. I remember when it was taken at my sister's house; we had traveled to CT about 7 months after our youngest came home to introduce her to the family. The new princess appears unabashedly confident of her role in the hierarchy as she beams directly into the camera. The genuine joy on both their parts in this moment was to me, unmistakable, and the most tangible evidence I had of my father's capacity for love. That picture is now framed and sits in an open space on a (mostly) clean shelf; proof that my dad indeed sometimes ventured out at least part way to meet us and is still somewhat present in our lives.
Today would have been my father's 81st birthday. Happy birthday, Dad.