Baby Dolls

This is a piece I wrote in 2009 about my father:

Once again,  I  walked tentatively down the hospital corridor being careful to not look in any rooms.  We entered Dad’s ward, I anticipated, yet dreaded, seeing him. But today he was smiling and sitting up.  He looked normal to me- the usual thin middle aged man with disappearing hair and wire rimmed glasses.  He hugged me without much attention to anyone else.

“Karen, I have a surprise for you. A friend did a special favor for me. He followed my instructions and he found just the perfect gift that I want to give you.”

There sat a box with a bow.  I opened it quickly and saw the sweetest baby doll pajama set of yellow chiffon and covered with bows! The tears I had kept under control for so long, dripped down the sides of my nose onto the tissue paper.  Rarely had Dad given me a gift for no occasion.  At that moment I was the princess, the center of attention, just where I wanted to be!baby dolls

But the fondness of this time was shoved out of the way by vague feelings of loneliness and being scared. I returned to the present.  There were things people weren’t telling me, what did these things mean? Will Dad die?  Will we move? Will I go to live with my Grandparents? Will my junior high friends abandon me?  I’ll be so different! I didn’t know anyone whose father had died. I didn’t want this change. What feelings are these? What should I do? Who can I talk to?  Emotions came unbidden. I tried to calm myself and tamp down the uncertainty, the rage… the fear.

Weeks passed, Dad was home again. It was Easter morning. An ambulance came and went and I was left alone. I stared at the new suit I was going to wear. Minutes then the hours ticked by.  Too late for church. Too late for Easter dinner. I wept for the first time. I had been forgotten! I couldn’t wear my new outfit!

I sat alone in my bedroom revisiting the broken moments, the chaos, the fullness and emptiness of the recent past. I started with the list I had memorized by now: whispered conversations, frequent grandmother visits, no father to lucidly help with math homework, opening a  can of Campbell’s  tomato soup for dinner… Why didn’t anyone think of  ME?


Finally Mother came home. Dad was sick as usual and needed her by his side at the hospital. I didn’t care about his suffering, my mother’s endless concerns, or even the tragedy that I suspected could come. I only cared about how I had been abandoned, stranded, and neglected over the months. I was angry. I felt betrayed by something I could not control. Mom didn’t have much to say to me except the  usual words of safety and protection. “Everything will be alright. Go to bed. You can wear your new clothes next Sunday. I’ll be up later.”

A few days later, I came down to breakfast and Mom told me Dad died during the night. I don’t remember the exact words, but I do know the blood drained out of my head and I felt weak. There was no experience I had to show how I should feel or what I should do. I didn’t know how to act. I had never grieved anything more than a parakeet. I didn’t know what to say to people.

The funeral was huge. In every room there were so many flowers it felt like living wallpaper. They were beautiful. My father must have been more “popular” than I had known.  My Dad must have  touched so many people during his life. It felt like a celebration. I even heard some people laughing! That  gave me permission to laugh too.  Then from my older brother :“Karen, be more serious. This is Dad’s funeral.” I quieted myself and retreated into silence.

When I moved away to college and for years beyond, I often thought of Dad’s death and where that hole in my life lead me. Many of the unpleasant memories where repressed- much the same way women forget the pain of childbirth. By then my memories of Dad were of him sitting in his chair reading the Penguin  Classic Books and carefully dating them or of him tinkering endlessly in the basement with his big household fan system.  Dad was embodiment of the typical 50’s figure like in Father Knows Best, or  Ozzie and Harriet. As remote as he seemed to me in my youth, there was more to his love than I had the maturity to understand at 14.

At the same time, the loss of him as my support, my consistent and loyal parent, someone who loved me enough to give me Baby Dolls on his death bed, left a scar that, when touched, reminded me to be weary, don’t go too deep, deflect real emotion with humor, and look for the attention of males to  try and fill the hole he left. But no matter where I looked, there never was the strength and security I felt when he was living in my universe.