There’s no firm protocol for handling a relationship with a wayward parent. I’ve often wished there was, that in certain situations I could have looked at some flowchart optimized for a healthy father-daughter relationship — or at least peaceful coexistence — that would tell me what to do. I could choose from a list of finite options that, once chosen, stayed chosen. Those choices would have predictable, immovable consequences until the next choice is made. Much cleaner than the messes delinquent parents and their children tend to make. In my case, such a map might not have helped much anyway. My father’s delinquency happened gradually. It was a collection of moments whose cruelty was imperceptible and easily excused in and of itself, as I quietly adjusted my own set of choices in response to his.
I’m five, or so. My role as Daddy’s Girl is well-established by now. We listen to music, we watch baseball, he lets me play hairdresser by dipping his comb in a glass of water and combing his already-thinning hair. He trains me to do impressions and bits I don’t fully understand — James Bond, Keith Hernandez doing cocaine — but that make everyone else laugh, which I like. He is a blast, and even though I’m a child, he talks to me like I’m a person. I assume, as children do, his permanence.
I’m eleven years old. Our family has lost a child — my sister, to cancer — and then gained a child, my new sister, who is now four, and fills our new home with much-needed life and laughter and energy. My father has lost his business, and is unemployed. His sullenness, his anger, his drinking means I’m never quite sure which mood I’ll catch him in. This is how he handles the weight of accumulated personal grief and professional disappointment — i.e., not well. We’re still close, though; I spend afternoons with him in his woodworking shop in the basement, and evenings on the couch watching sports. He doesn’t ask me to join him, but he doesn’t have to. Financially, my mom is doing well enough for the both of them. He doesn’t want to do much of anything, and everyone seems basically fine, which only make things worse for him. He cries when he and my mom tell me he’s moving out. He tells me none of this is my fault, assuring me both of them will love me and my sister forever, no matter what. I know this to be true, so I choose to believe I am still Daddy’s Girl.