Between needing to be a mature father to my two children and a responsible son to my aging parents, it's time I stop losing my temper.
by Frank South
Where I left off in my last blog, my 14-year-old daughter, Coco, who, like me, has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD), had just had an encounter with a cockroach. She came to tell me this while I was on the phone with my brother, who had called to tell me my dad had had a stroke and had fallen. I lost it and went verbally nuclear on her. Later I found her upstairs in our new house in Georgia, crying.
“It’s not what you said, Dad. I was… It’s just…” Coco wipes the tears from her eyes and pulls out of my comforting arms. We’re sitting cross-legged on the carpet of a nearly empty bedroom. Coco and I are the vanguard for the move from Hawaii to Georgia -- setting up our new house for the rest of the family who arrive the day after tomorrow.
She stops me with a level look. “Just listen, okay?”
I sit back and shut up.
“I was reaching under the kitchen sink,” Coco says. “And, I don’t know, I felt this thing, like maybe just a piece of paper fall on my hand? But then … then I saw it was this huge cockroach. Like super huge, as big as a mouse, wiggling its antenna, and bugs don’t bother me all that much really. They didn’t in Hawaii -- but I don’t know this house or this place. Anyway, I froze -- and it started crawling up my arm. I freaked out… It was on my arm, crawling on me. That’s all I was yelling about.” Tears well in her eyes again, and she looks away. “I know it’s stupid, but you’re my dad. I wanted you to make it all better.”
When I was 12, Dad, Mom, my younger brother Rob, and I moved from Chicago to Colorado. Dad said he hoped the move would be a chance for me to grow up some. (He’s never stopped hoping for that.) When we moved in to our new house on a hill near a farm, our parents warned us about going too near the deep, wide, fast-running irrigation ditch that we could see flowing on the other side of a neighboring alfalfa field. The next day, followed by my brother Rob and our dog Sam, I snuck across the field to see what could be so dangerous about a stupid little ditch. As soon as we got there, Sam slipped off the muddy edge into the ditch and couldn’t get out of the rushing water pulling him fast downstream. I’d have rather died than tell my dad that I’d drowned our dog, so I jumped in to get Sam, and Rob ran to get help. The walls of the ditch were too slippery and high to hold, and the rushing muddy water kept pulling me and the dog under. Eventually my Dad came (maybe he knew instinctively I couldn’t fight the temptation not to leave well enough alone?) and pulled me and our dog out and took us home to safety. I was terrified beyond reason. But it was the moment when my father looked down from the edge of the ditch that I remember most. He wasn’t angry. He smiled. “Don’t worry, you’ll be okay,” he said. I believed him. And that made it all better.
I tell Coco there’s nothing stupid in wanting help from your dad. That’s what dads are for. I tell her that I love her and I promise I’ll always try to make things better for her in any way that I can.
She nods. “You know, Dad, your temper is as bad as mine is -- another ADHD tornado.”
“Yep, we’re a lot alike,” I say.
“Of course,” she says, “I’m still a kid. Someone your age should be way more mature.”
We help each other to our feet and I notice the strength of her hands in mine. The evening sunlight through the window catches her smile, and I promise myself I’ll remember this day with my daughter for the rest of my life. This day when she forgave me without saying it, when she flipped from being a young woman to a little girl and back again and took my breath away without knowing it. No matter where she goes in life, I’ll have this gift tucked away, safe.
“Come on, time for pizza and Gilmore Girls DVDs,” Coco says, and bounds down the stairs. Not wanting to confuse the issue, I’d avoided saying anything before, but now I have to tell her what that phone call she interrupted in the garage was about. While we wait for the pizza delivery guy, I tell Coco that my dad had a bad accident. He fell and hit his head. He’d had a stroke first, but in the fall, he’d fractured his skull and so they had to operate on his brain.
“Grandpa? Oh no … Is he going to be all right?”
I tell her it’s pretty bad, but nothing’s certain, and if anyone can pull out of this kind of mess, it’s her grandpa. Later, I pause a Gilmore episode and I tell her that the day after tomorrow, when her mom gets here, I’m going to leave for awhile to help my dad and mom through this. “You have to go,” she says. “They need you.”
I don’t know what my parents could possibly need from this son who can’t focus, remember anything, or ever grow up. Coco’s strong young hand squeezes my uncertain fingers. With my other hand I push play.