Everyone has a safe place.
A place where they can go to feel secure. To feel comforted. To feel like the world is right. And even years after that place is no longer within reach, if they close their eyes and imagine it, they’ll find that same peace deep down in their soul.
For me- that place, my place, is on a wooden swing hanging from a tall Oak tree in the backyard of my childhood home.
This swing, while only made of a slab of polished wood, and rope- was created by my father’s two hands and without a doubt; I know he would never let anything happen to me. On that simple swing, that never failed me once, I would do all my dreaming. All my make-believing. All of my writing in string-bound notebooks. All of my never, never lands ended up dangling from that sturdy rope tucked behind trees in North Carolina.
It has been a while since I’d given much thought to that swing or needed to escape to a safe place, but for the last three nights, I’ve dreamt about an Oak tree. Each time, I’ve been hidden behind its branches, protected and secure in its shadow, and in search of something…although I’m not quite sure what.
Never one to take anything at face value, I dug into my Dreamer’s Dictionary (placed easily accessible next to my bed) and looked up what dreaming of a tree meant. Underneath Oak tree, it said: a symbol of faithful love.
Of course, now it makes sense.
What could be more faithful in terms of love in my life, than the love between my father and me? In that father/daughter bond that no one can understand unless they’ve experienced it, and many long for if they haven’t.
My dad, much like an Oak tree, is tall and strong and always wants to shade me from any harm that may tempt to cause me trouble. I’ve hidden behind his branches, both literally and emotionally for such a long time. And I’ve hesitated introducing him to this blog…or to my life, for fear it would stir up too many emotions that I’m not sure I want to feel yet.
But, if this is about honesty and about going through significant relationships- there is no relationship more important, more impactful, more devastating and hopeful, than my relationship with this man.
So…here it goes. This is for you, daddy-o.
Up until I was fifteen, my father could do no wrong. He was my partner in crime, the man who took me on every risky adventure my mom said “no” to, but still kept me safe if I was afraid or worried. My childhood is filled with countless vivid and irreplaceable memories of growing up in the sweet south- hanging around with my dad. If given the choice, I would have picked him as someone to spend time with over anyone, even my very, very best BFF.
I idolized my dad in a way that I don’t think was wrong. To me, he was this tough fireman who made my mom laugh and tickled me until I begged him to stop. He let me put makeup on him and when I asked him if he would “pretend to marry me” he gladly accepted. He told me I was his darling lovely little girl and that he would always defend me against the big bad monsters or scary things that lived under my bed or in my closet.
With my dad by my side, I could do anything.
Then, he retired from the fire department the end of my freshman year in high school. Because he wanted to get away from the ‘busy” city of Asheville (c’mon dad, try NYC), we moved to our lake house- far away from all of my friends and familiar settings. Of course, I was angry, but I typically adjust well to new situations and people- so I knew I’d be okay.
And I was- but he wasn’t. He ended up getting a cyst that caused him to be immobile for a while. In those weeks, he started to feel the onset of depression, which led to therapy and medicine. At the time, my mom and I thought it would pass, just as it did for her and for me, but we really had no idea of what was ahead of us.
For the next five years, right up until the week before I moved to New York City (no exaggeration), through my high school and college tenures, my dad was sick. There were extreme ups, disturbing downs. His lungs would suffer from past fires he fought. His heart would get weak because of the constant anti-depressants and uppers he was on to try and combat whatever illness the doctors decided he had that week. He spent time in the hospital and I’ve seen my dad in states saying things and acting in ways that no daughter should have to witness. We literally couldn’t get him to smile for a picture, regardless of what it was for.
He became someone I didn’t know- lifeless, hopeless, and cold. One week, we’d think he was bi-polar. Then we’d think he just had a heart condition. Next, we’d think maybe a brain tumor. No doctor could figure out what was causing him to be without any energy and so far from himself that my mother and I didn’t recognize him. And there is no pain more real than missing someone when their body is right in front of you, but who they are…is gone.
And through all of this- I learned to be strong. I learned to be independent. I learned to be the shoulder my mom needed when she didn’t have anyone else. I learned to push myself through anything and to not ask for recognition. I learned to put my dad so far out of my mind that I could hide from the hurt.
But most importantly, I learned to trust in myself because I lost my trust in my dad.
I didn’t know who he would be the next time I saw him. I didn’t know if the voicemail he left me would be the last time I ever heard his voice. I didn’t know what to expect, what to think, or how to feel. I didn’t know if I should relish in the ups or to mourn in the downs.
Being me, the journalist, I looked for the answers. I looked for the answer in a slew of men who I desperately wanted to love me. For me to be able to trust them. I looked for the answer in books, articles, and websites that claimed to know. I looked for the answer in the arms of guys I knew didn’t care about me in the way I deserved. I looked for the answer by telling Mr. Idea absolutely everything, unlike I had ever told anyone before, and then was disappointed. I looked for the answer in every place but myself and my dad.
And then, out of the blue, with one test- the answer was there. Of everything they could have tested my dad for; there was one thing they left out. And my dad, by looking on the internet randomly one day, found the solution himself. The doctor did as my dad said, and within a few weeks…my dad was back.
He was laughing. He was smiling. He was giving me a hard time. He was calling me his butterfly, his angel, and wanting to actually hug me. He started remembering things when I told him and paying attention to what I was doing. He wanted to be part of my life again, and he came out of this shell of hell that defined the last five years of my life.
…and then, within a few days, I moved to New York. I packed up two suitcases and headed for my dreams. The dreams that hadn’t included my father for such a long time. And now, I’m left with this ongoing battle between my heart and my mind, what I hope for and I what I fear, and what I should do and what I should protect.
The thing is- I realize he’s better. And the second I felt like I had him back, that man he always was to me, I forgave him in an instant. All of the negativity and all of the resentment and all of the awfulness that consumed my life for so long…vanished. But that fear, that nagging sting in the back of my heart isn’t gone. It’s the fear that warns “Just wait, it could all go downhill again.” It’s the fear that keeps me from getting my hopes up and from truly trusting him period.
So maybe I have trust issues- it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve considered it a possibility. And probably a huge part of my desire to just want to meet someone worthwhile is so I can lay my trust in someone…without the fear of them changing right before my eyes.
Everyday, I make myself call my dad. Hearing his voice and his laugh still makes me so thankful that my prayers were finally answered. And each day, that smile that comes on my face when I think of him becomes a little less hesitant. We write to each other in a journal, since that’s how I express myself the best, and mail it back-and-forth. I’m gradually starting to tell him more things about me that he missed in the last five years, and we’re getting to know each other again. The process is slow and extremely painful and difficult- but it brings me so much happiness to just have my dad back.
He will always be my hero, just like I’ll be his butterfly no matter how old I get or where I live. And while I’ve left the shade of his protection and his branches can’t hold me back- it’s from his roots, his faithful, unrelenting, and unconditional love that I draw strength and hope.
The hope that says…just believe. Because sometimes, when you least expect it, when everything else is lost, and nothing could seem more impossible- a new seed, a new leaf, a new beginning…blooms.
PS: If you know a middle-aged man who suffers from symptoms similar to depression, bi-polar disorder, and experiences loss of energy in addition to bone/muscle issues, please go to this website. It changed my family’s life.