When I was nine or so, I fell out of a tree. It wasn’t the highest branch, but it was quite high. Halfway up the tree, my father had appeared at the window with his arms cross over his chest. He rarely monitored my outdoor activities and it was a rarity. Emboldened by an audience of one, I went higher than I normally did, to a branch more tender (or given that it snapped so suddenly, just dead) than the rest and plummeted several feet to the ground below. In the millisecond that I glimpsed my father’s face as I fell, I saw him lurch towards the glass. Even in a millisecond, I could sense his panic.
|Gustave Caillebotte A Young Man at the Window 1875|
I hit the ground with a thud, muted by the soft dirt and fertilizer my mother kept beneath the tree for her flowers. Had my mother a penchant for small picket fences or cacti, I would have been a nine-year old human kebab. But I suppose that is what mothers think about, when they plant things underneath their daughter’s favorite climbing trees. Feeling slightly dazed but fine, I sat myself up and slowly turned to my father, still at the window. I waved and immediately his posture softened. Fear can freeze you – my father is a man of action, but for the seconds I traveled from branch to ground, he had become a statue.
For years that was the story he and I both told when discussing our bones. Genes are a source of pride in our family, not because any of us are particularly beautiful or talented, but because we are built, for lack of a better word, like fortresses. My father will invariably begin with slapping me on the back as though I were a football player, and say proudly, “She’s so thick! Look at this meat on her back! Look at these arms!” Then he will bend down and measure his knees with his forefinger and thumb, then move the fingers to my knees, adjusting them slightly so that they appear to be the same size.
“Her knees!” He will crow, “Look at her knees! The same width as mine!”
I have a strange relationship with this comparison. On one hand, I am glad to be healthy and athletic (looking) – on the other, it is hard to act or want to act like a lady when your father is constantly comparing you, physically, to himself, a man.
Beyond this, my father is not the type to spoil or coddle. Growing up neither he nor my mother were very generous with praise. I became very good at praising myself and my brother quite adept at changing his report card D’s and F’s to B’s and A’s. Athletically we were never pushed, but I had a hunch that if someone beat us up at school, we’d be shamed if we didn’t fight back. Luckily, no one ever challenged us on that front, though I did once kick a helpless classmate in the stomach when she had already been on the ground. Wisely, I kept this behavior from my parents.
Basically, my father is a straightforward man who only in his older age, is beginning to show his softer side. And even it is not so soft. My father is a critic of the most annoying kind: he zeroes in on your weaknesses and oversights and will loudly point them out at family parties, much to the embarrassment of both his immediate family and those being critiqued. He is very much, the kind of person to say, “I told you so!” And say it again and again and again until your knuckles have turned white from clenching your fists too hard and your teeth on the verge of being ground to dust. You are welcome to jab right back at him, but just know his skin is as thick as his ego is grand. Perhaps it should follow that empathy and emotional intelligence should also be lost on him, and while I’d like to think he is not nearly as attuned to these as I am, he has startling moments of insight into characters and situations, perhaps the product of the only fictions he has ever deemed worthy of reading: the breathtaking sagas of Classical Chinese Literature.
Smart, detail-oriented, excellent at cutting through bullshit and zooming in on mistakes that most people would overlook, my father would make a very good assistant, but for some reason, those that would make very good assistants are usually not assistants. Most curiously, despite being a man’s man, my father can also be a vicious gossip. I see very much of myself in him – but that just makes me a bitch.
But he is aging. As I’d written before about my mother, old age either hardens or softens. In a select few, it does both and in such a way that the person becomes more balanced. More well-rounded.
I don’t know yet what age has done to my father. I am under the impression it is a slow and ongoing process. But on Tuesday night, I saw my father up close for the first time in a long time, only because someone failed to see me at all.
On Tuesday night, I was struck by a car.
(…to be continued, obviously).