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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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Nonfiction, Parenting, Uncategorized

Letting Go of Graceland.

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In 1996’s Crooklyn, Zelda Harris (l) plays a daughter who doesn’t quite understand but deeply loves her father (Delroy Lindo).

The house was airy, small, like other old homes on side streets in northeast Grand Rapids: set on hills of uneven earth, floors of hardwood, walls my father had painted and trimmed in warm, thoughtful contrasts. It smelled of his soap and his cologne, of the dog he’d sent away in preparation for my arrival. By my early 20s, everyone took for granted that I was afraid of dogs, but my childhood cynophobia was starting to wane then. My father’s family had always taken it seriously — insomuch that I often stayed in their homes instead of his, in part to insulate me from the 60-pound breeds he preferred. When the terror seemed real — at some point, all dogs bared their teeth, gave chase, growled with unnegotiable menace, didn’t they? — I was grateful for their fastidiousness. But over time, all the special arrangements made me feel both guilty and quarantined. Over time, I wondered if the dogs weren’t an excuse for us to spend even more time apart.

The scent of fried fish or ground beef would commingle this air, but now the rooms were crisp and nearly antiseptic. My father loves to cook, his thin fingers skittering on the air over a skillet, drizzling minced garlic into it like rain. It is only after he’s done so that I can imagine any space I share with him as a kind of impermanent home.

I had been told before entering this house for the first time to expect my own bedroom. My aunt said it was lovely, just off the living room, and here it was to the left of the front door. She was right. The walls there were purple, because he knew it was my favorite color. The shag rug matched the walls and the bedspread was zebra print, a species I never would’ve imagined inhabiting a room I’d call my own. It wasn’t quite what I’d call my style, but in truth, I did not have a style. For years, I did not live in homes that allowed tenants to alter the colors of the walls or carpet. Instead, I made collages I rarely hung and slept under comforters I hadn’t chosen for myself. Though the room my father designed for me was not what I might’ve created for myself, it was thrilling to stand in, all the same. It was summer and sun soaked every inch of the space. I basked in it but offered a measured smile. “It”s really nice,” I said hoping I sounded pleased enough, impressed enough, happy enough.

He was between marriages. His first was when I was 20. I sobbed in a bathroom stall at the wedding. The marriage lasted just under two years; during it, I spoke to him on the phone maybe twice. It ended badly, but now that wife was gone and along with her a Great Dane my father had brought into the union and had loved at least as much as he loved me. She had convinced him to have the dog euthanized because its torn claw had bled onto her white carpet. In the dissolution he had also lost some of my childhood photographs. I wasn’t aware that he had been keeping any to begin with. It wasn’t that I didn’t think him emotionally capable; it just hadn’t occurred to me to ask, and now, before I could see for myself what he’d held of me and looked at during our long stretches of silence, they were gone.

The house was on a street called Graceland, and this was fitting — not because of any relationship to Elvis, who my father detested, convinced the crooner was a stone racist, but because I could already tell it was a landmark — a place fit for laughter and reconciliation, with a backyard just big enough to bury all our bygones.

I am accustomed to burial. I don’t remember anything that truly aches. It is all locked somewhere, entombed. I suspect this is why, even at my most joyous, I am also vaguely sad; my subconscious has been hefting a graveyard of suppressed memory.

1973's 'Paper Moon' features real-life father and daughter Tatum and Ryan O'Neal. His character spends the entire film denying he's her biological father, even as the cross the Dust Bowl running cons on country folk and warming to each other.

1973’s ‘Paper Moon’ features real-life father and daughter Tatum and Ryan O’Neal. His character spends the entire film denying he’s her biological father, even as they cross the Depression Era Dust Bowl conning on country folk and reluctantly warming to each other.

I don’t remember my father before I was seven. We lived hundreds of miles apart from the time I was four until I was 27. I saw him during summers. And sometimes I only saw his mother and sisters, even when he was right in town. He didn’t call or write much. Some years, I spotted Friend of the Court check stubs in my mother’s bedroom. Some years, I did not. I remember the amount of the checks; it changed. Most years, it was not enough to feed me for a full month, not enough to buy a prom dress or two full new outfits at the outset of a school year. It may have been enough for a sturdy pair of sneakers — on sale — and, perhaps, one dinner entree at a family-style restaurant — with a coupon. No one complained about this. I knew early the cost of such complaints. Some men were jailed. Others ran when they saw their children on the street. They blamed the mothers, blamed the child. The better men also blamed themselves. (The best only blame themselves.) But all this blame was far too large a barter for a few extra dollars in a monthly check.

We kept quiet, and I learned, like most children whose names appear in family court cases, that what a man spends on you is no measure by which to gauge his love. It is no measure of love at all. Men rarely spend much on me. I’m afraid to want it, afraid to accept it. I never ask. And if he does spend more than I can afford for myself, I offer to pay it back. The men I choose tend to accept that offer.

When I was little, my father spent years without consistent access to a telephone. He said he didn’t like them, but what I heard was that he didn’t like me. If he was fine not having a phone, he was fine not talking to me. I have come to consider time as the more telling expenditure. Those with whom you choose to spend yours matter most.

We are still horrible about keeping in touch. We both have phones.

He was only renting the Graceland house, but for the right long-term tenant, the owners would consider a sale. Against my better judgment, I fell for the place, with all its evidence of my father’s enthusiasm to enfold me in his new life’s sanctum. Me! who’d never had a room in a home where he’d lived in all my days. Sure, it had come after I was grown, in the aftermath of a divorce, but perhaps this was best. I was still young enough at 22 to learn what it felt like to be the kind of only child who could, at any moment, command her father’s undivided attention. Here, I could experience him at his least encumbered, his most hopeful.

Dad beams when he’s done something right. Puffed-chested and preening, he pretends in those moments that he is a man who never gets it wrong. His voice can shrug on a cloak of dismissive confidence. Of course. Absolutely.

But when the braggadocio has been rubbed raw, his voice can also quaver, his eyes turning glassy and brimming with watery hope. I’m sorry. I should never have. I won’t again.

He is an actor. I have seen him play any number of leads. Flawed, hulking men who scoff at and cheat on their understated wives, heaving the great sighs of fallen heroes, convinced the whole world has done them wrong. He has been Jelly Roll Morton. Walter Lee Younger. Coalhouse Walker. Troy Maxson. Audrey II. He can pitch himself into any posture. This is a skill that only serves to make his true feelings more inscrutable.

I stayed with him in the Graceland house for an uninterrupted weekend. We fell into our easy pattern of watching rented movies and movies on cable and movies in theaters. He prepared our ritual meals: taco salad, expansive breakfasts, fried seafood. I am always most certain he loves me when I taste the food he’s cooked for me. There is a care, a precision, but also something daring, untraceable, perhaps the singular spice of his hands.

Like many black men, he is an insomniac, nocturnal. On the rare occasions I stayed over with him, I wanted to match him minute for waking minute. We could stay up till 2 a.m. before one of us dozed; it was usually him. And I talked years into those minutes, all those missing months we’d spent apart. I wanted to make him laugh, to keep him current on who I was becoming and what I was accomplishing. I wanted to keep him. On those nights, I sounded most like my mother.

My mother’s voice is a marathon; she is talkative in a way that can be physically exhausting. As a conversationalist, I am more of a leisurely jogger. It is hard to keep up. I am not conditioned to listening or speaking at length. My father is much more like me; when a room has emptied of everyone but us, he doesn’t say much at all. He is comfortable with silence. I suspect he wishes he had more of it.

It’s rare and has been more recent, but I have seen him take off his outside self, the pelt of him that laughs raucously and recounts all the fights he’s gotten into and survived, the actor’s self. And I have found him in a chair, spectacles set low on his nose, peering at the pages of a thick trade paperback, wearing a frowzy sweater. In those moments, he looks ten years older than he is, but happier than I’ve ever seen him.

If I had known that he could be so much like me in that way, I would not have worked so hard to fill our silences. He did not need to be entertained. And I never felt that my performances were good enough, anyway. They served only to teach me another wrong lesson: you cannot expect your love for someone to reroute the trajectory of his life — and it is possible to be deeply loved by someone with whom you will always feel your wants hold too little weight.

Toward the end of the weekend in the Graceland house, my father told me he didn’t know how long he could keep it. He had lost a job shortly after renting it and the payments were beginning to overtax him. Oh, but it’s only a matter of budgeting! I said, sitting up straighter in my chair. We can do this, I thought (and may’ve said aloud; I don’t remember). If you want it enough, we can keep it.

I suppose I knew by the time I walked out of the house that this would be my only visit. I had had enough similar experiences with him to know what he would see fit to hold and what he would turn loose.

After the summer, he moved in with the woman who would become his second wife. I did not sob in a bathroom stall at their wedding. When I sleep in their home, it’s in a guest room next to theirs. Their two dogs are always present. I am not afraid. They refer to the three of us as their children. Now, they both cook. It is different, but nice.

I have long since let go of the Graceland house; I wasn’t there long enough to grow attached to it. But letting go of the glimpses my best moments with my father gave into what might’ve been a different life, what might’ve been a healthier relationship with him, is much harder. Years ago, we could’ve been capable of more. We could’ve coexisted in that quiet home where what we needed from each other stood a chance of being better understood. And if this had been so, it would be easier now for me to leave other men whose expressions of love feel delayed or intermittent. How hard it is has been to reconcile that which I once knew was possible with that which currently is.

And even this is a lesson: as long as there is life, new grace can be extended and accepted. But we cannot restore what has been left too long to rot. The rot must be discarded, its girders leveled and gutted. It is rigorous work that so many of us are less inclined to undertake in our advancing age. But say we do begin. Say we were to both agree to bruise ourselves, rebuilding again. If new blueprints are drawn, they must be rendered with steady, unflinching hands. Every need — space and time and true forgiveness — should be made more explicit and all that has been buried must be bared.

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