September 10, 2015
The Tao of Daddy-O
Sometimes, many times, I worried about what my bond with Schuyler would look like as she grew older. My relationship with my own father wasn't a very good template. He wasn't a gentle person with me when I was young, and as I grew up, my father softened but still never quite understood the man I was growing up to be. I think he wanted to sometimes, but he was perhaps limited in the scope and diversity of his thinking, and I was that walking cliché, the angry and unforgiving teenager. I always thought we'd figure it out one day, but it didn't quite work out that way. Four years after I'd last seen my dad, when I received the phone call from home, he'd been gone for a few hours already. He was alive one moment, chatting with a neighbor in his yard, and then he just crumbled, dead before he hit the ground. He suffered an aneurism in his heart, which I didn't even know was a thing. I was twenty-two. He's been gone longer than I had him now, but I don't think I ever actually had him, not really.
I never had a good example of the kind of father I should be to Schuyler, although I guess I had a pretty reasonable cautionary tale instead, and that was probably good enough. I never knew exactly how a father was supposed to be, so instead I just gave her me.
I didn't know back then if that was going to be enough. I'm certainly not sure now. But I remember a few things about being my father's son. I remember feeling like I wasn't being told the truth, which it turns out I wasn't, and I remember feeling invisible, even disposable, which as it turned out, I kind of was. I recall, in the center of me where the visceral memories live, wondering if my father loved me, and now, only four years younger than he was at his death, I still can't answer that for sure. It's taken me a long time to understand that whether he did or not isn't my concern, not really. Maybe he didn't. He probably should have; I was a pretty cool kid, relatively speaking. So that's on him.
With Schuyler, I've written many times that I could promise her love, and I could promise her the truth. I've probably dropped the ball on that second part more than a few times, but if there's something I think I can say for sure, it's that she's never asked herself if her father loves her. If I were gone tomorrow, she wouldn't spend the rest of her days wondering. And if that's all I ever gave her, I don't know. Maybe that's enough.
I believe Schuyler sees her father for who he is, and that's not always easy for her, I know. She watches me lose my temper, she hears me tell inappropriate jokes, and perhaps most importantly, she sees me when I'm sad. I used to worry about her, deeply concerned that she'd inherit my tendency toward depression. I still worry about it sometimes, but not as much now. Schuyler gets sad, and God knows she's got reasons to. But she seems to be made of stronger stuff than I am. I suspect she's going to be okay.
Schuyler sees when I'm in that little cave. She's observed it a lot lately, and I can tell she understands. We don't talk about it much, but she's cuddlier, quicker to hug and slower to let go. She'll sit next to me on the couch and just take my hand, or touch my shoulder. I don't know if she means to, but I feel like she's telling me I'm not alone, at the moments she senses I feel it the most.
When she was younger, I used to imagine, perhaps morbidly, what she would remember about me if I were gone. As she grew older, I'd be less of a memory and more of a constructed father idea. When I was really down on myself, I sometimes imagined that wouldn't be so terrible for her. She could have a real, live, fucked up father, or she could have a shining ghost, a phantom who would fill that father space, even just in her inventive heart, in ways I probably never could in real life. Tragic, to be sure, the little girl growing up without her father. But the world would step up and take care of her, and I'd be whoever she needed me to be.
Schuyler is now fifteen, almost sixteen. If I were gone now, she'd have memories of me. Actual flawed me, but one she seems to love quite a bit. I don't think I brag very often, and I'm not sure I feel like I have a lot of horns to toot if I wanted to. But if you were to ask me what was truly good about my life, and what I was proud of about myself, I think my answer would be pretty clear. I have a weird and wonderful kid, the very best of all possible daughters, and she loves the fucking shit out of me.
When Schuyler was younger, somewhere she picked up a word that she began to call me. I was her Daddy-O. I never thought it would stick, but it has. And as goofy as it may sound, it's absolutely and truly my favorite word in the world.
Schuyler is unique in all the world, in ways that go so far beyond human individuality. Even among folks who share her polymicrogyria, Schuyler presents in a way like no other. To the neuroscientists who have worked with her, she is a mystery, and a marvel. To them, and also to me, albeit for far different reasons.
There's something strangely comforting now, knowing that if I were gone next year, or next month or tomorrow, Schuyler would have had a me that was real, and one she could remember as a person, as her Daddy-O. She would have walked down a path with me. It wouldn't be a perfect path, and we wouldn't have walked as far together as we would have wanted. But we would have had enough for her to figure out the rest of the way without me. She would know how to laugh and how to love, although if she learned them from me, she would have learned to laugh a little too loudly and to love imperfectly. Neither of those are all that bad, I guess.
I don't know much, either about myself or the future, near or distant. I feel like I know less and less every day, and to be honest, that has been troubling me a great deal of late. Touchstones crumble under our fingertips, and our hearts whisper possibilities in our ears until we hear them as truths. I'm struggling right now, to locate myself and to find my way, like I'm looking for candles in a kitchen drawer during a power outage.
Schuyler knows it, too. I give her smiles and jokes, and she accepts them, but she's the most empathetic person I've ever known. She knows the ground under my feet shifts sometimes, and she responds with love. With love, and with confidence in me, because I'm her father, her one and only Daddy-O, and everything else will sort itself out.
Schuyler believes this. It's important that I try to believe it, too.