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Hope Chest: Ep. 10 – Letting Go of Girl-Dads

1.

The day before Kobe and Gianna Bryant died, I was already thinking of fathers and daughters, already musing over the insularity of their bond and how, once it solidifies, a mother needn’t do much to sustain it. A single mother’s space, in fact, is mostly just adjacent. She makes the two souls accessible to each other then watches them entwine and hold themselves aloft. It is a wondrous work and a lonely one.

I was thinking of this just one day before the sports world changed forever, because I took you to meet your father on your first day of karate. He, of course, enrolled you; it would not have occurred to me that you might like it. This first class fell on one of your father’s weekends with you, so if I wanted to be there to witness it, I had to ask to tag along.

I rarely tag along. On his weekends, our routine is for your dad to pick you up from our apartment and drive you to the house he shares with you and his wife. It’s the starkest demarcation, the cleanest break, a conscious intention — at least on my part — for your parents’ homes to be poles between which you are ferried.

Rarely the twain need meet.

The home life you share with your father is one I know little about. You’ve been building it for over a year, since just before his wedding last December, but I have never been to the house we refer to as your other home. I have seen a few pictures of your room inside it, the one he painted and for which he chose your princess-themed bed frame. I have seen the sign hung on the door and the butterfly decals the three of you — your dad, your stepmom, and you — pressed onto the walls. I have seen where the Barbie Dreamhouse you got last Christmas is stationed on the floor.

But I find it best not to press for anything more, not to nose my way into the interior life you and your father and stepmother have there. It is simply for the best that I don’t know — which is a stance I would not be able to take if I did not trust your dad or the sturdiness of the relationship the two of you have grown.

I am happy to send you to him, where you have more physical space to roam, more freedom and privacy than you do in our often-cramped home. I am happy to spend four days and two nights a month away from you. Your biweekly overnights with your dad separate us in ways that are healthy and bearable. The year you’ve spent living there on those weekends has given us all time to acclimate, but I suspect I am the only one who needed so much time.

I will not pretend that the boundaries I’ve set are not awkward to maintain. Last summer when you spent your first full week alone with your dad and his wife for his family reunion in Florida and two days at Disney World, I didn’t talk to you once. Outside of a single text to the two of them to see how things were going, and to tell them that you could call me anytime if you wanted or needed to, I left you all to your vacation and leaned into what felt like a necessary separateness.

That length of time alone with your dad and his family felt overdue, and so did my continued discipline at not impinging on it.

I am perfectly content to raise you without a husband. It has taken time, but I’ve a decade’s meditation on mothering this way. But I am not entirely accustomed to raising you with someone else’s husband. That’s newer, more numb. It is no longer a wound but not yet a callus. I never know what moment will apply pressure, what prospect will remind me that it’s raw.

This, too, requires its own meditation, a series of mantras my mind worries over like a rosary. Beads of reminder, breaths of resolve.

I tell myself that marriage has made your father a better parent. It gave you the opportunity you now have to live under the same roof with him, to vacation with him in the summer, to be read to and tucked in by someone other than me, to gaze out a waiting room window at your extracurricular classes and find two parents observing you instead of one.

Without your dad, you would not undertake athletics at all. He enrolled you in gymnastics for nine months when you were six, swimming for six when you were seven, and now you are taking karate. I may drive you to most of your classes, but were it up to me, you wouldn’t have been likely to join them in the first place. Growing up, I was not at all athletic. Even now, I cannot say I have regrets.

But I was not raised with anyone who insisted upon it. I was not a daughter with quite so devoted a dad.

2.

You were still at home with yours when the world learned of Kobe Bryant’s passing. For more than an hour, he was the only named casualty. All other details were conflicting. The number of passengers was initially reported at five. Speculation spread about who else may have been on board. We didn’t know yet that the news was broken to us — the distant, pontificating public — before it reached his wife and three remaining daughters. They learned of their life-altering losses alongside scores of strangers.

The number of casualties swelled to nine around the same time that another name was released. The second name was 13-year-old Gianna’s.

When you are grown, you will probably remember this. It will float back to you, distorted, a watery sac of sound: news-anchor snippets and flickering images, your father reacting with his wife. This will have been the first time you ever heard of Kobe Bryant, the first time you saw the image of his face. But I can tell the hardest truth of it will take years for you to register: that a father is as corporeal as he is immortal, that there are dangers, however few, that he cannot quite overcome. There are circumstances, however few, to which you both might unexpectedly succumb.

I hope you will not know this for quite some time. Every daughter deserves that delay.

3.

I was 16 when Kobe Bryant signed to the Lakers. He was 17 and no more able to make adult decisions on his own than I was. His parents signed what amounted to a permission slip for him to begin a basketball career that would net him millions for the next 20 years.

Few cultural phenomena are more memorable to a kid than witnessing another kid become an icon. You may already have some sense of this, growing up in the era of Blue Ivy, but it will crystallize for you as you get older.

You have no right, but you lay claim to that icon; he is your hyper-accessible, untouchable peer, and quite probably he’ll remain so for the rest of your life.

When an icon you’ve claimed as a contemporary dies, something elemental strips away.

It is a loss not easily quantified. Though you never knew him, you were uniquely privy to him, able to overlay what you witnessed of his life with the context of your own. The culture of fandom creates an inextricable fusion, even when you are not quite a fan.

In the space between learning that Kobe was gone and learning that one of his children perished with him, I read all the news that I could, watched all the old video footage fans clambered to share, and visited his Instagram page, the last posting of which was eerily recent, at 16 hours prior to news of the crash.

It was easy to conjure the nostalgia of Kobe as a teenager. Magazine spreads from the 1990s and early aughts splashed through my memory. Tailored suits and oversized trousers, ostentatious leather jackets cluttered in decals, Starter caps cocked to the side, an unchanging gold and purple Lakers jersey, emblazoned, nearly career-long, with 24, kissing championship trophies, giving us the goofiest of grins.

Back then, even people like me who rarely watched NBA games couldn’t escape Kobe Bryant’s ubiquity. For a brief while, at the beginning, he permeated all aspects of popular culture. He modeled, he rapped, he appeared on ‘90s sitcoms. Every move he made was chronicled, every conflict and court filing, every estrangement and … and felony charge.

Of course, Kobe’s wife, Vanessa, also belongs to that era. He married her when he was 21, fewer than five years after becoming a household name himself. We’ve seen her nearly as long as we’ve seen him, remember her rubbing his hand and watching him as he apologized for adultery at a press conference, meant as a public response to his rape charge.

Most everyone who saw it still remembers whatever we may have thought that moment meant.

Because they decided to stay together, even through a public filing for divorce, as recently as 2011, we know we do not exaggerate when we call them inseparable, for separation has come near them more than once, its ravages sparing them nothing.

But it didn’t occur to me to keep up with them. We grew up and grew families and our intense interest in our adolescent icons waxed and waned. The day I learned that Kobe died was the first I ever visited his Instagram page.

It was almost startling to realize that his eldest daughter, Natalia, turned 17 less than two weeks before the crash. I had no idea that Gianna was a basketball phenom, or that she’d already reached her teens, as well. It had slipped my mind that Bianca was only four, born eight months after her father’s final game, her most recent birthday just weeks before the crash.

I didn’t realize that raising daughters made Kobe a fierce advocate for professional women’s sports and a basketball coach to leagues of ambitious girl athletes. I didn’t know that last Halloween, his family dressed as characters from the Wizard of Oz. Even their six-month-old baby, Capri, was Toto. Kobe, fittingly, was the Wizard.

Less than a full day before I set about the very long task of processing Kobe and Gianna’s passing, on their way to Gianna’s basketball game, I was waving you and your dad off after karate.

I resisted the worst that I was capable of imagining, resisted dwelling too long on how close any temporary parting is to becoming quite permanent. And I was gutted, understanding that my resistance was luxury.

There is nothing about the Bryant family’s life that I will ever truly know. None of their experiences are similar, in scope or in scale, to my own.

But I know what it is to start a family. I know what it is for daughters to be close to their dads.

It is to sense that you have played some part in a miracle, the growth or the grievous loss of which you cannot contain or control.

4.

Later this year, you will become a big sister. No longer an only child, you will be the eldest of your father’s girls. I learned this in the waiting room at your karate class, while glancing at you through the glass, and glancing at your grinning dad as he delivered the news.

I met your dad when we were both 21. What he taught me is that you can become as distant from an intimate as you are from an icon, even if he’s the father of your daughter, every conversation carving a deeper emotional chasm so that we can keep everything pertaining to you efficient and civil and light. That distance requires an effort, a quietly carried heft.

I congratulated him and told him to share my well wishes with his wife. I assured him you’d be delighted, an assurance I could deliver with confidence because you’ve talked about the possibility of this ever since you returned home after the weekend of their wedding.

I meant it even as I felt unmoored, imagining how everything may yet again shift and recognizing how little of it is my business if it does. In this dynamic I am meant to be a raft, meant to wrap a heavy rope at the dock when you need me, and to unravel it when you don’t. I am always shoving out on the water, as your family waves farewell from the shore.

5.

It is said that men do not become parents at the same time as women do, that mothering begins with gestation and fathering begins with post-birth practice.

The truth is that everyone acclimates according to their willingness. Some mothers and fathers do not adjust for many postpartum months. Some mothers and fathers never acclimate at all.

Kobe seemed to acclimate quite early, fathering coming to him with the apparent ease that belied his challenges with marriage. In every photograph resurfacing, he is beaming with his daughters. Every bit of recent courtside footage finds him flanked with one or more of his girls. He is talking to them. He is winking at them, sharing secret handshakes, coaching and kissing.

For all his wealth, his daughters were his true embarrassment of riches. They were worth the risk of flying through the thickest of fogs.

It aches to know on how effortlessly he took to fathering daughters, how he approached it with the same single-minded disciple he devoted to his craft, understanding the work as a funnel for his charisma, a way to harness what could’ve become deep restlessness after retirement. Fatherhood inspired him to recede from public view, so his daughters would have more of his time and attention. Fatherhood compelled him to return to it, for the sake of the sake of their front-facing futures.

It is his most meaningful legacy, his most enduring contribution to the culture. And in the final accounting, as the circumstances surrounding his death remind us, it will be your and every other father’s, as well.

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2 thoughts on “Hope Chest: Ep. 10 – Letting Go of Girl-Dads

  1. I feel all sorts of levels of this as someone who raised children while a divorced father and who now has children with a second wife. It’s wonderfully written, and it feels so true that it also breaks my heart.

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