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The keys to life

Sitting in my office today. Remembered it’s my father’s birthday. He would have been 79 years old. I’d be lying if I said I only remembered it because of John Wayne staring at me all day, over my shoulder. All day. Everyday. Here I’m talking about printed-on-carved-wood-and-shellacked picture of John Wayne in a cowboy hat, looking yonder, at a little woman typing at her desk. The picture was a Christmas gift from dad to me and my husband a few months into our marriage. We were at a tavern in Bucks County, Pennsylvania where everybody knew my dad’s name—John Cannon, but nickname was Jack—and knew to bring him a tall pint of something that looked like water but—ah, the piney aroma of Christmas trees!—was surely gin on the rocks. Maybe there was water. Probably not. We had to pick dad up at the place he was staying. He was always staying someplace that wasn’t his own, which is why were confused when he had in his arms a large, wrapped gift for us. When we opened it we didn’t know what to think. (We still don’t.) You shouldn’t have. Thank you. I’ll hang it up when we get back to our home in California, which is exactly what we did—I married the right man—because it was funny to us. Our goal has long been to find a velvet Elvis painting to really anchor the motif. On New Year’s Eve that same year we had friends over for pre-flight cocktails. I’d like to say they were marveling at this shellacked wonder on the wall, a gift from Louise’s dad. Then came the questions.

Did you and your dad used to watch John Wayne movies?


Do you like John Wayne a lot?

Not really. I mean, I never really thought about it.

Maybe it was because Dave was in the Marines at the time?

Maybe. I mean, John Wayne had played one. But not in a cowboy getup, with a horse-drawn stagecoach front and center.

My husband had met my father about a year prior. The introduction: David picked my dad up at a place where he was staying, a different place that wasn’t his own, to bring him to my mom’s house. On the way they stopped at a bar at my father’s urging and would have stayed put, but at my then-boyfriend’s urging, decided it best to get to proceed as planned. David knew how fragile it all was. Dad hadn’t been allowed in my mom’s house off and on since 1984 or so and it took some convincing to allow him to come over. There was a lot of animosity. Still is. I like to tell people that I’m still a child in the middle of a bad divorce, even though one party is now dead. But one can’t blame my mother. It’s hard to watch your kids grow up without things. A father, for one.

My relationship with my father could exist on a timeline—exact points when we were in contact and the spans when we weren’t. Before I moved to California in my adventurous, bewildering early twenties I convinced my mom to allow him to come to a BBQ at her sister’s house. I was moving clear across the country and my brother was enlisting in the Army post-911. Have a heart, I said. That time I hadn’t seen him in five or six years---he called me once while I was in college and my longtime roommate thought it was a friend playing a joke. Everybody knows Louise’s dad doesn’t call. It wasn’t a sad thing for me at the time—that came later, much later—it was more like a joke. A something funny that happened. Like this: my father used to disappear for years at a time and reemerge dressed like an Army colonel. There had been a war and he had been called up. Secret mission. We sat there, all four of us, big eyes. Whoa. The theme to MASH playing in our heads. The record scratch was my mother entering the room for the Scooby Doo moment: “This isn’t Halloween, Jack.” And like this: at the BBQ dad, who had just moment prior embraced me on the front lawn upon arrival, announcing that I look so much like my mother did when he married her (long, straight hair, brown, doe-eyed waif) that he was going to have a heart attack, looks over at me at a picnic table or other and says, “now are you Rolando’s wife?” (Rolando is my cousin and was not married at the time.) “No, I’m your daughter,” I reminded him. I think I laughed for years about that one because it was funny. David thought it was funny, too, when I told him about it when we started dating in California. A word about David and I: we find humor in everything. Nothing is off limits. The more taboo, the funnier we can make it. To us. David has his own sad timeline so, I suppose: coping mechanism.

I last spoke with my father on this day nine years ago, to wish him a happy birthday. It was a quick call from the beach on Lake Michigan, a few blocks from our home in Chicago. The kind of call you have when you are busy doing something else and think you always have more time. I don’t recall what was said. But I knew the greeting: hiya hun. Standard Philly greeting. I can still hear it in my head. I knew nobody else was going to call him. None of his kids, at least. There were eight of us still living. I was the only one speaking to him by then. Everybody had their reasons and, not then and not now, I didn’t judge any of them for that. David had a lot to do with my embracing a relationship with my father in those last few years. I knew, in all the important ways, things had turned out okay for me. I graduated from college in four years with little to no family support. I had my career. I married a great man who gave me a good life: he left the Marines because he knew I needed him with me. He let me stay home with our children so I could be the one to change their diapers, hold them when they cry, teach them all about books—he said I could do what I wanted: work or stay home, stay home and freelance, venture off and write a book. I knew I found a husband who loves me and married me because of me--all these bad parts and good parts. David never asked anyone for my hand. He knew that it was just me and understood that. Priceless for someone to understand you like that. I also knew, and David knew, my father was sorry and had an ocean of regret. (Likely, John Wayne helped me see that. There were also other funny gifts... more later.) It was easy for me to forgive because I was okay and grateful for it all.

I knew by then that girls like me, the ones who grew up without dads, can wind up in pretty dark places. That the line we walk is narrow and there’s usually no one there to catch you—and you will make mistakes. Your self worth, hard as stone in a girl who grows up with a dad, can be Jello. Girls like me do our best with what we know and sometimes we don’t know anything. We can’t see the little man behind the curtain; we sometimes only see the great and powerful Oz. We are easily fooled. Blind. Stupid. I had said at the time it was fate and God that gave me David. (And now say, fate and God keep us together.) I also knew forgiveness was for you. That it wasn’t for the other person. So yes, I knew I could call my dad once in a while. See how he’s doing. Find some more funny stories to tell David over dinner.

Nine days after our last call I received one from some hospital in Philadelphia—the there-is-little-they-can-do variety. The next day I was on a plane to my home city and, hours after landing, surrounded by my brothers and cousins, signed a consent to unplug him. By then I had two babies: an infant and a toddler. When I last saw my dad alive, unconscious, his breath slowing down, all I could think about was my grandmother, the one I am named after, the one who held him in her arms the way I held my little boys. And I thought, this is what became of her son, surrounded by people who at one point or another had told him what a failure he was, what a screw up, what a nobody, and questioned him: what kind of a father…? I felt like something was closing in on me and opening up in me at the same time. Something seismic. More on that some other time.

After he passed away we went to the place where he was staying, some place that wasn’t his, to retrieve his things. It all fit in two trash bags, reeking of Marlboro. When we were leaving his roommate said hold on, there’s some mail. This is when I remembered it was my birthday. There was a pink envelope. Return to sender. Dad had sent it to my previous address. In it, a card: Happy Birthday Daughter. Inside, in Hallmark’s font, “There will never be enough time to tell you how wonderful you are.” Later that day I scored my self-selected inheritance: an old, battered Phillies t-shirt and a set of keys, which I thought—naturally—was funny because he was pretty much homeless and here we had all these keys. Keys for what? Where?

I carry those keys with me always because they make me think of things I want to remember about life.

The keychain is the Serenity Prayer:

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I suppose those keys make me think of things that can be changed and things that can’t. Of John Wayne and other things that make no sense. Of painful paths and pasts. Of the power and necessity to forgive. Of being more grateful for little things and for what made you the way you are. How time can heal if you let it. About being where you belong. And that it’s OK to be a screw up or a failure… and that you can leave that room and enter another because, well, here are some keys.

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