Anything but Oatmeal

Today I stood in the kitchen and watched my father spoon cold, congealed oatmeal into a plastic bag. It can be very quiet, the moment you choose to forgive someone. The intention doesn’t always announce itself. It creeps in, there’s little calculation. You didn’t think it would be so small, so heartbreaking.

Standing in a room with my father watching him pack gruel for lunch—feeling sorry that this is what it has come to, wondering why he’s never learned to properly feed himself, realizing this is maybe where I get it from—throws certain things into relief. I am a grown woman (sort of—a twentysomething) living in an apartment where my father keeps the last three decades of his life. It’s amazing how strange we still are to each other. How even just this morning I noticed something in him that had gone unrecognized until now; those you should be closest to, so often the furthest away.

I was born in Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan and brought back to this apartment on West 123rd Street. I don’t remember it, but my dad had an old rocking chair where he’d sit holding me late at night. He was finishing medical school; my mom told me that most evenings it appeared I put him to sleep rather than the other way around.

I only see snapshots of what this early life was like—the steep hill down to the corner bodega where I’d buy a long plastic tube of pink gumballs, the tall co-op buildings across the street, the fence in front of them—but there are no moving pictures of my baby New York. When I was four, my mother packed up her kids and moved us to North Carolina for the sunshine and good schools and pretty ladies we wouldn’t have to watch my father try to seduce.

But now I am back. Yes, after childhood and college I returned to West 123rd Street where my father used to rock me to sleep. We have one of those odd living situations that often mark true New York families. A large percentage of college graduates return home to live with their parents at some point. Only, I don’t live with him exactly and I hardly consider it a return as “dad” and “home” are words that never meaningfully connected for me.

He doesn’t sleep here. I don’t know where he sleeps—he won’t answer direct questions. A shrug, a shake of the head, silence; these are powerful tools in the arsenal of evasion. What began as a temporary site to crash while I got my footing in the big city became permanent as my dad slowly started spending less time here; it became clear I wouldn’t have to actually live with him in any significant way. I’d be amongst his things, near his work, a phone call away (though wasn’t I always that?). But mostly, the apartment is mine. I write in the front room, I’ve had sex on the couch, I pace up and down the long hallway during insomniac nights: all freedoms conditioned on the fact that I am the primary tenant.

But he’s here in the mornings before heading to work, deeper in Harlem; fixing what passes for breakfast, brewing his coffee in that coffeemaker that I swear he’s never washed, looking like the day should be ending for him, not beginning. Sometimes it seems mere inconvenience to wake and find him here. I would rather not have to make small talk. Hell, I don’t like talking to anyone in the morning, but my dad? We don’t even know how to talk in general. But I can’t complain. Stilted communication in exchange for a rent-stabilized apartment is a good deal.

On a typical weekday I hear the front door unlock a little after seven a.m., his brown Rockports on the uneven wood floor, eleven beeps as he dials area code 919. My mother. Yes, they’re divorced. Yes, there are secrets. Yes, she is the love of his life. I don’t question these things anymore, though other people seem to need theories. My parents separated because of my father’s affairs. When one day it was announced that I had a half-sister, too—one he hadn’t told us about for years—then it was my turn to feel personally betrayed, as well.

Somehow my parents found a form of acceptance, though, and they still speak every day. The morning shuffle, my dad’s voice muffled in the back of the apartment; I can’t usually make out the words, but I know he is steeling himself for another long day. My mother calms him. She has that effect on many.

This morning was different, though; the murmurings unsteady, the air heavy.

“I told you, I told you, I told you what-what-what was going to happen. No listen, no listen, I, I, I…”

I didn’t know my father stuttered when angry, wondered if it was the pure intensity of his emotion or whether the person on the other end was just talking so much, the points of entry back into the conversation so small, that my father couldn’t slip the words in, had to keep repeating them. Or was he not listening? How could one hear when trying to talk over someone like that?

I knew he couldn’t be talking to my mother; she is the one he turns to for comfort and could never elicit such unpleasantness. It had to do with his new office, I figured. The one we’ve all been nervous about, its opening a year past schedule, a hundred grand sunk deep into its abyss. My father is a doctor and most of his patients are poor. He never turns them away for lack of pay; it’s one of the reasons he himself is always in financial straits.

I had to be up earlier than usual. As I tumbled out of bed, I saw the light on in the bathroom and realized this was why I could hear him so clearly: he was next to my room. I walked past, deploying one of our passive-aggressive tactics. The door to the bathroom doesn’t close. We don’t turn our heads to look, but you can’t help the peripheral vision, the glimpse of a compromised form.

He was in a very heated conversation—money can do that —and there seemed no good time to tell him to get off the toilet. He was doing his business. I walked past again, to reinforce my presence. Finally, I said from the hall, “Sorry Dad, but I’m going to have to get in there soon.” He told the person on the line to hold the phone and flushed the toilet, zipped up his pants.

Later, in the kitchen, he said to me, “Sion the Be-on, that’s your nickname.” He seemed aimless in his tasks, almost stymied by the hot water now cooling, the bowl still wet from washing. Though “Sion the Be-on” is most certainly not one of my nicknames, I felt it would be petty to correct him, he so fragile right then. I think my dad gets nostalgic for things that are hardly real, invents shared connections. Pretends like he’s been more a part of my life than he ever has been.

But maybe he has been, and that’s the rub. Maybe my father has spent hours of his life holding me in his thoughts. Spent years, those silent years when I refused to talk to him, playing conversations in his head that we might have had if only I would share my voice.

“Because your middle name is Sabreen. So, the B…you always seem to “be on” to something…” He stopped and shook his head. “You’ll have to forgive me today,” he said, choking on the last word. His eyes grew watery; they were already red. They’re often red. I don’t think he sleeps much, even as where he does sleep remains a mystery. This would account for my memories of him when I was a young child: the man who came to visit us one weekend a month in North Carolina and passed out for egregious amounts of time to catch up on all the missed slumber, snoring so loud that two closed doors did little to suppress the thunderous noise. I resented those snores. And I wondered what kind of man comes to see his family (one of them?) only to spend so long lying flat on a bed.

“I know, Dad,” was all I could say. I’d have to forgive him today, as he said, and I would. I did. I have. He was only asking for that one moment, I think, for this anomalous morning and his inarticulateness, but maybe it was for everything, too.

We stood looking at each other, and I finally walked over, awkwardly wrapped my arms around him, the process almost mechanical. A hug would be appropriate now, I told myself. Try to provide comfort. It would be right to do this. Whereas it was the bustling city that might have scared me when I moved back to New York, it was actually the proposition of having to forge a relationship with my father I found most terrifying.

Back when I did share the same space with my dad, phone calls came late at night, in the middle of it, even, and I would listen as he asked careful questions, suggested explanations and remedies, ordered prescription refills. His patients are devoted to him and he gives his time generously. It’s as if office hours don’t exist; he answers whenever they need him. Witnessing this side of him, I could understand how to some he is a healer.

Only, there are many things left unhealed.

“If you ever get into anything like this, get it all on paper. If things seem too good…Just make sure you know the people you’re involved with.” Dad was standing in the doorway, holding his cup of cold coffee, still filled to the top.

I nodded.

“Of course, you know that, it’s just…”

“I know,” I said. The fatherly advice—this, too, always seemed awkward, out of place. When I was younger, I told him he had no right to tell me anything.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“No, it’s ok.”

“I was always so proud of you,” he said, his voice breaking again. That was new to me, too. He turned around as he was saying this, walked heavily down the hall. I stood staring blankly at the coffeemaker still dripping black liquid intermittently. My bowl of cereal was now completely mush.

*       *         *

So few words I give to him—staccato sentences, short utterances—and still he intuits something to be proud of. Though I would not say I desire it, I also wouldn’t say I deserve it.

“You have such a silent way of viewing the world,” he said, another time, halfway down the hall again, his back turned. “I have no idea what you’re thinking.”

If he only knew all the words that are inside me. But how do I expect him to? With most people, I am empathetic and sensitive: a toucher, a feeler. With my father, these impulses morph to the robotic, the remote—I hear a cold voice offer monosyllables, my arms hang limp around his back, my mien as unappealing as his porridge. I recognize the worst in myself—for this I am not proud.

It frustrates me how much there is underneath it all, and the inexplicable force compelling me to remain so closed. I guess you could call it a defense mechanism, but a defense against what at this point, I’m unsure. I wonder why I must act as though I’m enduring something. The residue of a perceived insult, the detritus of past misunderstanding.

But we’ve come a long way. It’s better. Getting to know my father as an adult illuminates certain things I had never admitted before. I realize I am not the only one affected. I look at him and I see he is affected, too; no one escapes unscathed. At twenty-seven, an adolescent’s self-absorption has receded. I acknowledge his pain, which I never allowed before. I replaced my youthful rage with a certain measure of indifference, a coating of stoicism, at least. It is my parents’ affair, I say, (literally) theirs, and not mine. Perhaps I’ve swung too far towards detachment.

But I’m not detached, really, which is why I care that it continues to be so complex to stand in a room and love my father. But I do. There are certain facts that history cannot change—infidelity, distance—but facts now seem different from emotional truth.

There is mythology in most families. I can tell you of the woman named Day, the color of cocoa butter, her lover Night, dark as the country sky with no stars, and the strong boys they brought into the world during slavery times—Day’s sons.

But in this case, we are not surnames or genealogy or ancestry. In my brief twentysomething life, my father and I, the daughter, have created our own mythology. Like the rocking chair as artifact. The affectionate nicknames we do not use. The sentiments believed known to the other that were not.

In a way, I guess I am following my father’s advice: I’m getting to know the people I’m involved with, putting it down on paper. Investigating just why I haven’t wanted to admit that having a father is an involvement. Attempts at conversation still hard with his monologues and non sequiturs, me with a flowing pen, but tight lips—but I think we are both learning about give and take. Longings and shortcomings; we all have them.

I imagine my dad coming in one Sunday morning so we can go for brunch; we do every once in awhile. One of us might say, “We should fix the light in the hallway—it’s gone out.” Then we’ll walk down the hill to the corner diner; my dad will order the lumberjack’s breakfast, and me, anything but oatmeal.

-New York, 2005

Sion Dayson is an American writer living in Paris, France. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Utne Reader, The Wall Street Journal, Numero Cinq, and the anthology Strangers in Paris, among other venues. In 2007 she won a Barbara Deming Award for fiction and is currently seeking publication of her first novel. Sion holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She blogs at paris (im)perfect and can also be found at siondayson.com.