When I was ten I saved my father’s life. At least, that’s what he claims. The essay I wrote with the line, “Red, the color of blood” prompted him to stop smoking. He would quote the line to me often: “Red, the color of blood,” like it was both the most offhand commentary he could think of and the most profound gospel. From that time on, he quit smoking a pipe, the same pipe that gave him throat cancer, and made my mother’s asthma worsen.
I was never a daddy’s girl. At a young age, my father had a manic episode and my mom had to trick him into checking himself into a mental institution. He locked us into a room one night and made us recite the Jewish prayer the Sh’ma. He thought the Nazis were communicating with him through the toilet. Late at night, he would enter my room and tell me the same story over and over, about a red-haired spacegirl. Well, he would tell me different installments of the tale. Then he would sexually abuse me.
I remember my best friend’s mom telling me I never had to hang out with my father. That I should tell someone if he ever did anything to me again. I remember hating these words, hating that I had to be taught to fear my father. I had to go to a place where I acted out what he did to me with dolls. I hated that place because I knew my mom and other people were behind the double-sided mirrors. I wasn’t stupid, I was just betrayed.
I never hated my father as a person, but I hated him as a dad. Even after I testified against him in children’s court, nothing happened. He didn’t go to jail. And I didn’t want him to. All I wanted was for him to give me some acknowledgment of what he did. But he wouldn’t. He never would tell me he was sorry.
For years, I didn’t know what to do or how to act. The thought of him repulsed me, but he was my father, and he had never walked out on us. For years he supported us financially, but he was often gone at work or at night law school. For years, my relationship with my sexuality and with other guys became entangled with the shame I felt from being abused. I would often become repulsed by human touch. I didn’t know the boundaries of giving too much or giving too little. Years later, I would develop an eating disorder, finally following the pattern of abused children I thought I had avoided. Yes, I was angry. But it was for his refusal to acknowledge the encroachment of my childhood, for forcing me to grow up too fast, and never looking me in the eye to admit it.
There was another side to my father. He was one of the smartest people I knew. When I had to build a pulley in science class in third grade, he taught me the dynamics behind a successful mechanism and I won first place. During the school book fair, he bought out the entire store, like it was food. He nourished us with this knowledge and I couldn’t help but admire him for this. I liked telling people in one sentence, “My dad went to Yale, Columbia, Harvard, MIT, and Caltech.” They didn’t need to know that for one year he was instituted for manic depression, a disease they couldn’t yet correctly diagnose back then. My father had extremely rich taste, and would spend money on lavish leather jackets and cashmere sweatshirts. He offered to teach me calculus in an hour. There was another side to this man.
One day, as suddenly as he had quit smoking, he asked me in conversation, “Why are you upset, is it because I touched you when you were litte? Is that why you’re still mad at me? I’m sorry.”
Red, the color of blood. I’m sorry. These lines, thrown out simply. It didn’t make sense, but suddenly bad blood could be washed away.
I’m older now, thirty-one to be exact. I’ve had successful relationships and failed ones. I’ve developed more self-esteem, but I still feel strange sometimes. I can’t say I’m free from what happened so long ago, and I’m not sure if I ever will be. It’s not something I often think about, and it’s very rare that I will speak about it. It’s sort of like a small scar that you look at sometimes. Not red, but more pink and mottled.
Two months ago I hurt my back and herniated a disc badly. These past months I’ve been experiencing a sort of physical pain I haven’t known so far. Sharp, dull, aching, throbbing down my leg constantly. I’m going to have to have back surgery at thirty-one years old. There have been many nights of crying, of darkness, of a wish for death. The worst side of me, coming out. Becoming a person I am ashamed of, that I don’t want to admit is there inside of me. But yet, I see it.
My father calls me every day.
How are you feeling?
What do you need?
Should I come over?
He makes the time pass by, giving me a sharpener for watercolor pencils so I can distract myself with art. He tells me to be patient with my body, that I will be better one day. He comforts me with a story of his dad being fine after having to remove an entire disc from his back. My father pays $2500 so I can get some pain relief from an epidural that I can’t afford. He tells me about the boat he is building, the boat he is making from scratch so that he can live on it when he’s finished. He sleeps in his car, but offers to buy me new tennis shoes. This is the dad I didn’t grow up with. He’s happier now, laughs more easily because he has come to live out his dream of a gypsy lifestyle.
My dad is now 73 years old. I find myself thinking lately about mortality. About the way my body has failed me right now, but how I must continue to thank it for showing up. About how one day my father will be gone, and with him all the mixed emotions of hate and shame and love and gratitude that I have felt about him all these years. This genius, this crazy genius, will one day be unable to comfort me. He will be unable to teach me lessons about patience, forgiveness.
Maybe one day I’ll have a child of my own. I will make mistakes. I will take their words like air, necessary but nonchalant. I will heed their words like gospel. I will hope they will forgive me when I try to make it all up to them.