This month I have a new goal: to clear out my writing room. While I'm tossing reams of paper, old bills, piles of books, I'm finding buried treasures -- the cigar boxes my daughter Jesse gave me when she was 11, for instance, filled with her poems and her pipe cleaner people. Things like that I keep.
But the most important thing I've found is my father. Which is only fitting, since I know he is somehow to blame for this mess -- how can you write when you can't make your way to your writing desk? No way you can write your loves, your passions, but most of all your fears -- if you have buried them. So similar to my feelings about my father.
So now I am sitting on the floor, sorting out junk, next to a table piled up with the things I have to get to next: odds and ends, moldy books and boxes of papers from the basement that survived the flood brought by Hurricane Isabel -- and next thing I know, something -- I see it's an envelope -- floats through the air and lands at my feet. I recognize the angular, crabby writing of my father.
He died a year and six months ago. This spring I'd find myself waking at 4 a.m. and I'd end up writing him letters. I wanted him, of course, to write back. This letter at my feet feels like a strange deus ex machina maneuver, worthy of my dad, who always acted a little like he was a god. I was in awe of him as a kid, listening to his endless stories -- "When I was a little girl," he'd begin a story sometimes, and my 4-year-old self would stop, confused, but then think -- "Well, why not? He could be anything!" When I was older and we still couldn't talk like regular people, just master performer and captive audience, I'd get letters from him -- they were always, in my memory, about something dramatic and important he had to tell me.
When I was 17, for instance, and grieving that my family was about to move from Louisiana to some impossible place called New Jersey, he wrote me about how change was constant, how meeting change was courage, and about my Northern mother's bravery when she moved with him into the small-town South. When I was 35 and wrote him all the questions I was still too afraid to ask him in person -- Are you happy with your life? Do you believe in an afterlife? Are you glad you had kids? What do you think (my real question, of course) of me? -- he wrote back about my mother's breast cancer, and the cold fear that paralyzed him when the doctor told him that she had less than a year to live. "The Coldest Day," he called it, when he turned that letter into a story and published it. I read it at his funeral. My mother, having fooled the doctor, cried.
So I've been trying to find my father in his stories, in his writing, in his letters, all my life. And now here is a new one -- or an old one, the postmark says 1965, on this stained brown letter from out of nowhere -- or no, looking closer at the postmark, I see it's from New Jersey. I open the grubby envelope, read the familiar writing, look at the date at the top: September, a few days after his birthday. He liked the shirt and read the book I sent, and hopes I'm okay at college. My brother is recovering from a concussion, the doctor says one more and he's off the football team. My 5-year-old sister has been barking like a dog all day. My mother is making him eat fish so he will lose weight. He tells me the news from 1965.
And I can't say it comes like a flash from heaven, with some star-studded "aha," but a kind of peace seems to settle over me. As I read this everyday letter he seems more my size, somehow. He wrote back, on my terms, not his. As a comfortable-size person, not awe-inspiring, just a man. Who could sit on the cleared-out floor next to his daughter. And in this clean new space, after he's been dead another year, maybe this time we could even talk. A few more years, we could say "I love you," and look each other in the eye. I'm going to make enough room here for anything.