Today’s the one official Father’s Day, despite the fact that all days belong to him, really, just as they do to Mothers. It’s good to have a special day to express our appreciation, a chance to slow down and pay homage to the man responsible for our existence.
As a day devoted to fatherhood, it’s also a fitting time for a father to pay homage to a child. What a special gift then to be granted an intimate look at a father’s perspective.
Thank you to this week’s guest, award-winning poet and author Philip F. Deaver, for sharing a very tender and telling story about his journey as a father.
My Journey with My Daughter
by Philip F. Deaver
My daughter, Laura, walks up the sidewalk from her house toward the yoga place, and I arrive from a nearby suburb in my car. I park on Edgewater, a three lane street, and watch her come toward me, her hair tied back, carrying her mat and water bottle. She prefers to walk here from her house, a ten minute easy stroll on shady streets. On days like this she might have seen clients in the early afternoon—she’s a mental health counselor just starting. And later she might have been in the local park doing personal training until fifteen minutes ago, then home to get her yoga mat and water bottle, and here she comes. She injured a knee in high school, and underwent three ACL surgeries. It was in the state cup women’s high school finals that she was hurt, as a sophomore. She spent a lot of her high school days on crutches. She was living with her mom. Now she’s thirty, married, and lives with pain in that knee, also some collateral pain in the back and opposite hip. In an effort to address that, in the past eight months she’s added yoga to her physical fitness regimen.
As a soccer player she was the most aggressive of my three kids, and played forward in the early years. She would receive a pass, turn to face the defender, and in a wink be past the defender and heading for the goal. Her passes were slick and where the power came from in her shots I’ll never know. Probably she got it from her brothers. Her early years were spent on a soccer field at her brothers’ games. On her high school team, she was a half-back when she was injured. I won’t forget it. I was in the crowd, high up in the bleachers, and she was very little over there, on the far side of the field. She was making a run along that sideline and was tackled from the side, and when she hit the ground she rolled and grabbed her knee and I heard her voice echo through the stadium. It echoed through the whole place. I still hear her.
She’s smiling as she approaches my car and I hop out and give her a hug. She has green eyes, a beautiful smile. “How are ya, Pops.” I pull my mat from the trunk, and we head for the front door. She’s known there not only because she’s been coming for eight months but because she’s come along very quickly in her practice, no surprise to me because she always has, in anything she devotes herself to, and she never trifles with training of any kind. She has a core seriousness of purpose. I think she entered yoga for athletic reasons, as an alternative to the pounding of running or even of the elliptical at the gym. She’s remained in yoga for healing. That’s why she got me into it.
When I was my daughter’s age, 30, I was afflicted with waves of anxiety and a seasonal depression, and I watch for this in her as I did with her brothers—in case it’s in the genes. I never told anyone about my depressions until much later, after the depressions relented. I self-diagnose that dark time as a kind of delayed reaction to the sudden death of my father and grandfather in a car wreck in a country intersection when I was 17. When my daughter was 11, our family broke. I was the reason for that. And in the following several years, I didn’t see enough of her. It was a crucial time to be so absent and it hurt her. The break hurt all of us, each in a different way, but she was the most vulnerable. She lived with her mother a couple of miles from me, her mother to whom I’d been married 25 years. It was a debacle. Communication lines went down among all of us. It was way worse than I thought it could ever be. Sometimes at night my daughter would call me on the phone crying, wondering why I wasn’t with her, why things weren’t like before, why I never called or came to see her. I was sitting in our almost empty house. Her 12th birthday was held at a Pizza Hut, and many of her friends were there, from soccer and school and the old neighborhood. When I walked in, she burst into tears. For me this was a darker time than when my father died. It was much darker though for my daughter, probably her darkest so far, and she was wholly innocent. I can remember rationalizing: no one died—there is a future; out ahead somewhere our hearts will quiet and we’ll pick up where we left off.
That never happened.
We walk in College Park Yoga, and find our usual spot, to the left of the center all the way to the end of the row, next to a wall of windows. From my mat I can see the sky, sometimes blue and sometimes stormy, but always somehow peaceful. Her mat’s next to mine. Yoga begins, and after a set of sun salutations, we’re in a long hold in downward dog. I sneak a look over at her, and she sticks her tongue out at me and makes us both laugh. She is in perfect condition, and is probably on her way to being a yoga teacher. She can laugh and do three minutes of downward dog at the same time, no problem, but I’m challenged to stay very long in this position—my arms shake and my shoulders burn and if I’m also laughing I might give out and fall on my head in a painful and embarrassing manner. However, because this is my daughter next to me, and because I’ve played through pain in my life, too, I will not cave. I will breathe through the triceps and shoulder burn, and I will try not to laugh except for just a few seconds, I will fight retreating to a rest position, and I’ll break a sweat as profound as in mile three of a four mile run on a Florida summer’s day. I’ll embrace this practice and observe its best principles and do my best with her next to me, and I’ll dedicate it to my project of being there for Laura the best I can from here on out, not hoping to make amends but selfishly because whether we’re having coffee together at Starbucks, or she’s buying me the ideal smoothie “for a person (my) age,” or we’re walking around Lake Ivanhoe having another serious chat about what happened and how we felt, or we’re in the dreaded downward dog—no matter what we’re doing, being with her gives me peace. I want to give her peace, too.
We’re in Warrior One. I don’t glance her way but I sense her next to me as I try to move from Warrior to a posture in which one hand reaches the floor and the other extends straight up. For me this is ridiculous. She moves to it like in dance. Her concentration distances her in a way, but brings her closer in another way, if you think of concentration like a wavelength. We are on the same wavelength. We’re side by side. We’re here, fully, both of us, breathing and alive.
On the way to soccer games or soccer practice, when she was nine, we would sing together. Orlando traffic is not to be believed. She had a couple of Jewel songs she could do, “You were meant for me” and “Who will save your soul?” and we would sing the Star Spangled Banner together. Summer when she was in seventh grade, I borrowed a cabin in North Carolina to write in for 45 days. She mailed me a cassette tape. She’d made it at the apartment where she and her mom were still living, the place they’d moved to the day we broke. It was the two Jewel songs and the Star Spangled Banner, all a cappella. She did little introductions between the songs. “Remember, Dad, when we used to sing this when we were driving to soccer practice?” I still have the tape. It is unbearably beautiful to me.
After our first yoga class together (technically my first ever), we were standing out in front of the yoga place, and she said, “I like being together like this, playing.” She said, “It’s not like ‘let’s get together and taaaallllk,’ so intentional. It’s more like we’re both just here, because we want to be.” At the end of the session on this day, we enter a rest position, flat on our backs, arms away from our sides. We are supposed to close our eyes, but often as I calm my breathing I stare at the sky outside the window. Sometimes an airliner flies straight through my line of sight. Very quiet, my daughter is next to me. We don’t have to talk. These things can’t be pushed, we know by now. We’re present, and presence is healing.
I’m not very good at back bends. After yoga, I tell her that and she says I’m thinking wrong, that I’m thinking comparatively or competitively and that that’s not what yoga is about. I love this speech. I might say something else just to hear her give it again. I’m not very good at twisting moves, moves that twist my spine. She says stop saying what you’re not good at. Just flow from posture to posture, maintaining the breathing, and don’t think about what you’re not good at. She says, you’re getting better. In part of sun salutations we simply “fold forward” in a standing position. My daughter can touch her nose to her knees. I am so hamstrung that if I did that it would be like sproinging a paperclip. I’d flip up reflexively, become airborn and put my head through the ceiling tiles. Just do your best, she tells me. We’re sitting on a bench out in front of the yoga place while I put on my sandals. Also, she says, check out your posture right now.
She was born in a hospital in Murray, KY April 30, 1982, our third child. The doctor handed her to me in a blanket and we, the two of us, after sitting a moment with her mom, walked to the far end of the hall and back and Laura never took her eyes off me. I have always believed she was consciously establishing a level of trust, or maybe via imprinting and ESP making an inquiry into my seriousness and commitment regarding being her dad. Later, to verify trust, and to re-establish it after I broke it with the divorce, it would be a matter of talking, talking things through, walking and talking; a lot of repeat stuff, because that’s how permanent damage works. When she was first born, there was no language. It was pure eye-contact. In a family with two boys and a girl, it was she, the girl, who was the most aggressive on the soccer field. Also the most frank addresser of difficult issues.
We hug, she says “Bye, Dad.” She heads back down the street, nice even stride, and brisk, into her adult life. The 11 year old is gone, in a way, but in another way she’s still with us, still heart-broken, still on an earnest search. I can tell she’s thinking about things as she walks. Sitting in my car, I watch her go until she jaywalks just before her intersection and disappears into her neighborhood. I give her a little wave over my steering wheel. I’m her dad. Namaste, I whisper.
Winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction over twenty-five years ago, it’s safe to say that for some time now Philip F. Deaver has been known as an exceptional writer of fiction and poetry. We know him best as a very kind and generous man. And now, we know him better still, as a loving father. Happy Father’s Day to all our Father friends, but also to children of all ages whose fathers love them and appreciate them in ways they may never know.
The poem below, “Here She Comes,” first appeared in Philip F. Deaver’s book of poems How Men Pray
Here she comes,
heart big as an apple,
the look in the eye from her brothers,
desire to win from Mom.
But my genes, too. She’s
becoming herself out there, feeling
out to the finest capillaries
in the sweetest skin
what it’s like to be completely her.
I watch. And it’s as though
an electric charge passes between us.
She’ll lift whole worlds upward
with a spirit like this, and pass
the grand elliptical dream of childhood
to her own hopeful children. I live
in these eyes of hers, in this picture of her
focused heatedly on the finish line.
She’ll be whole and good enough to bloom
in this grind of adulthood
and I will crave-
wait in my quiet corner,
watch and wait, expectant,
for one true, full, and understanding
glance my way.