HIS NAME'S NOT DAD - Steve Daugherty
My stepmother called the house. “Hey Steve, have you seen your dad?”
He’d come over to the house that morning and sat down at my kitchen table, flopping open an old photo album. I looked at my watch. One page and ten seconds in to the photo album and I’d looked at my watch.
Dad turned the creaky pages and pointed to people I generally didn’t recognized or who had been dead for so long I couldn’t conjure up any emotion about them. But my dad was clearly moved. I could only bother to look. He was remembering.
“This is Grandpa,” Dad said of a creased image that glowed in that worn seventies yellow. He explained his grandfather was the man who made dad feel like the family favorite as a boy. Took him fishing and cracked silly jokes.
“This is Grandma.” She donned a terrific hat.
“This was my aunt,” he said of his grandparents’ daughter.
“This is my mom, your grandma.” In this photo, a lady I have no memory of was holding me, a baby in a diaper, while she smoked a cigarette. Dad caressed this photo with his calloused fingertip.
“There’s Dad, your grandpa.” He tapped this picture and reminded me that the man had been on the team at Bell Labs who invented the pushbutton phone. I nodded at the familiar story, glancing again at my watch.
Turning the page revealed my dad in his new uniform. He’d just graduated the police academy, his sleeve tight on his arms, his jaw square. My young mother stood beaming at his side.
I took a deep breath like one does when they hope to signal a scene change. I had shit to do.
But then Dad flipped back to the beginning of the album. Like one of us had missed something.
He explained, if even just to hear himself say it, that his grandmother with the terrific hat had died suddenly in the early 70’s. It had devastated the family. And then just a couple years later Dad’s aunt died. The family’s grief hadn’t merely doubled because grief isn’t like math. A pain had descended, changing for a long season what it felt like to share this blood.
My dad’s grandfather, his biggest, most joke-cracking, most fawning fan, had lost his wife and his daughter, and then his mind, and then his will to live, and crawled into the bathtub with his shotgun, and took his own life.
We sat motionless at my table, staring at the glossy page.
And then there was that picture of me being held by his own mother. This moment had been captured in the thick of these tragedies. Dad caressed the picture again. His mom had died of emphysema about a year after the photo had been taken.
And then four years later, his father died too.
I’d done all the math before, but the calculations took on a new significance. Wait a minute, I thought to myself. My mother is only 16 years older than me. I was far from a plan developed by clear thinking adults. My parents were grieving children when they began accidentally having children.
I leaned forward to look at my dad’s face in the picture of him in his new uniform. Dad had begun, as custom dictates, working as a rookie state patrolman on swing shifts. A life where you do your duty as an armed insomniac, but almost no one is ever glad to see you. A life that left a widening gulf between my dad and my mom before they had the time or experience to address such fission. The tension, the exhaustion, the depression, the alcohol.
They made their relationship limp down the road for just over a decade. But then my mother and my father called it quits. The back half of the album didn’t portray “family” the way it seemed to toward the front. And if it were possible, the pages had less shine on them.
I watched my dad weep with restraint as he continued to turn pages.
There in that album full of faces who meant the world to my dad, I noticed pictures of my brother and I sprinkled in. Frankly, the album included me, but it wasn’t an album about me.
I don’t know if I was slow to realize this, or if I realized right when I was supposed to—but I realized it all the same:
My dad’s name isn’t Dad. “Dad” is the title two people on earth call him. That’s a sacred privilege for sure. But it’s only two people’s angle all the same.
His name is Jim.
Jim is an entire world of context and story that doesn’t revolve around me and whether or not I was raised as well as my therapist and I think I should have been.
I was struck with a new review; “You did a damn good job,” I told him for the first time in my life.
Jim, James, was a boy and a man, a father and a husband and a son and a brother and an ex-husband and half of a custody agreement and a human being who got his ass handed to him over and over and yet managed to do a pretty good job all things considered.
I sat at the table feeling reintroduced to the man. Jim isn’t an extra in the harrowing movie about me, a red shirt ensign to my Captain Kirk. I’m better understood in the grand scheme as an extra in a movie about him. Jim is a story with depth and nuance and meaning and isn’t quite captured in my trifling review called “dad.”
We hugged. Of course we hugged. What other choice is there between two people than to embody contact once lack of appreciation is removed? He closed his album and left. And the phone rang:
“Hey Steve, have you seen your dad?”
“Yeah. Only just now.”