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Paper Heart

My career as an eavesdropper started early. I single-handedly ruined my own belief in Santa and birthday should-have-been-surprises on many occasions due to my insatiable desire just to know. Some may (and did) call it sneaky. I called it curiosity. In later years, I see it as a desire to control my circumstances through garnering as much knowledge as I can in order to navigate a situation. But one night, when I was 12, it was still just trying to figure out things. This is how I found myself once again quietly perched at my usual position on the stairs outside my parents bedroom door, opened just a crack to my listening ear. Maybe my mom knew I was there all along, because she opened the door, lips in one straight line, and told me not ‘go to bed’ but to ‘call the prayer chain.’ The old gray phone barely reached to my position on the stairs, so I had to strain close to hear their voices. “Calm down. Just relax.” Her tone was soothing, the voice she used when I broke my foot, or when my lip was split in two after an accident in the lake. But, I’d never heard her speak to my father like that. I held the phone tightly, undialed - with my instructions to call the first person on the prayer chain hampered by not knowing what the request should be. Then my father started laughing, whooping (I never knew what that word sounded like until that night), jumping all over the house, with eyes that wouldn’t blink. So, I reluctantly surmised, I can tell them to pray for my father who has gone crazy. They walked down the stairs and outside to the car, and I wondered a little why my mother was leaving with my crazy father, leaving her daughters all alone. Then I saw her best friend, creeping out from behind the bushes in bare feet and holding a baseball bat. But there was never any real danger from all that laughing, so the baseball bat just seemed like a big overreaction, a wild guess made by an outsider of what might be needed that night. She embraced me in a hug that felt like it was supposed to erase things and cried. I didn’t know what to cry about yet, so I just waited. The day I visited my dad in the psychiatric ward – the wait was over. I ducked my head in that chronic pre-teen mortification as we passed into the mental health wing. No one I knew was there, but I think I was just embarrassed to be me right then. What if someone saw me walk through that sturdy metal door with the one-way key? He had a perma grin and un-blinkable eyes, and his lips kept sticking to his teeth because his mouth was so dry from the medication. I didn’t know where to look – especially when he looked at me, with blue blue eyes and pin-prick pupils. So I looked down at the card he had made for me out of construction paper, and at the one he had made for my mother, red, with a pink heart. My sisters were young enough not to know that this art project was something terrifying. I tried to smile back, for him and for them, but died inside, right there. And I didn't see anyone I’d ever known before. He was a stranger with a paper heart. I had a father I knew once; who would swim with me way out past the breaking waves at the beach until our toes tingled with the thought of what could be beneath us, who walked around Disney World in 90 degree weather with an old video recorder, the kind that held the full-sized cassette, strapped around his neck for three days straight so he could capture every second, who stayed up with me till 2am so we could figure out the fifth key of Zelda’s Castle on Nintendo, who helped me make a hot-dog cooker for my science project when my mother said I would just have to get a zero because I waited until the night before, who sat on the edge of my bed and told me that his father had died – and I didn’t know what to say, because it was the first time I had seen him cry. He taught me how to climb a tree, but we never did build that tree house we had talked about. So I built it myself, and it wasn’t very good at all. (To be continued...) - - - - - - - What qualifies me to write this story? Nothing more than the fact it’s mine. For a while, it was just mine, a private, quiet story - until I started searching for resources to help me understand it better. Specifically, I Googled: “books for daughters reconnecting with a father who has bipolar disorder.” I didn’t find much. But I thought there must be someone else out there who wondered how their story ended, and wanted to get off the sidelines and back into the plot-line, like I did. Because if you can’t play a main part in your own life, what’s the point? So, here we go - I’ll write down what happened in my life, and the road I’ve taken to understand it better, and maybe you’ll see a glimmer of your story here. Or at the very least, experience a successful Google search. And I keep thinking about that awkward adolescent girl, hiding behind a curtain of hair ducking through the doors of the hospital. I want to find her, and tell her not to be ashamed, not any more ashamed than if she was visiting her father who was in the hospital with cancer, or complications from diabetes. Because, you see, that shame will follow her, and turn in on her as she directs it at herself for all the years she allowed to be lost. Most importantly, I asked my father if I could tell our story, with his blessing. He gave it. And so, I’m digging deep into a box of childhood treasures - and finding hope, and faith renewed... and a heart that, though sometimes quiet, never stopped beating my name.


Paper Heart 3/15/2013 3 Comments

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