A Cup That Sums Things Up

This cup belonged to my daughter. It was part of a “The Little Mermaid” set that included a matching plate, bowl, fork, knife and spoon given her as a gift when she a few years old. I can’t remember what for, if it was her birthday or Christmas. I can’t remember exactly when, sometime in the early 1990s. I’ve kept it all this time.

Couldn’t keep her. She’s going to be 35 this year. Whoa: She’s 10 years old than I was when she was born. I haven’t seen her for going on eight years. The last communication was around the holidays. She was living out in San Bernardino and I texted her to let her know I had some Christmas gifts for Aiden. Aiden is her son, thus my grandson. I think at the time he was about the same age as Kate was when I got her that cup.

She texted back that she was coming to visit her mom in the valley. I asked her if she could swing by on the way, but she found that inconvenient. I texted back that I found her lack of convenience lacking in consideration. And off she went on a text tirade, making it plain how little I rated in her book, holidays or any time.

Bridge burned, I texted her back “I hear you loud and clear,” and that was that. Seriously: I immediately deleted her phone from my contacts and promptly brought Aiden’s gifts — nothing major, several Lego sets — to my company’s potluck party and gift exchange where they ended up in the grateful possession of our receptionist who said her five-year-old would love them. Sad that that was more fulfilling than giving them to my grandson, but telling.

Lest you get the impression that Kate and I in our respective triggers combined in the spur of that upset moment to push a perfectly healthy father-daughter relationship off an infinity cliff, that is most definitely not the case. In many ways we were destined for the estrangement that has since endured. I’ll spare you the gory details of a long-form timeline, but her mother and I split in January 1990 when Kate was four months old and since that liberation spent every opportunity both to deny me my parental rights and to poison Kate against me. In 1993, after putting up with my ex’s bullshit of picking and choosing when I could see Kate — and always in her joyless presence — I finally had my day in family court and won, so to speak, if you call a father being awarded alternating weekends and two-weeks every summer, winning. But from there I did my best against a stacked deck and forces aligned against me — borne of an inate desire to be a father that was not the abandoning deadbeat mine had been. Picking her up on Fridays, having her back on Sundays, in that short time between I tried my best to be both a good person, a good friend and a good parent. I succeeded. Mostly.

Which finally brings us back to the cup, which I have kept all these years 30-odd years because it symbolizes so much about Kate and me. See, in the picture above, it looks intact though well worn. But if I filled it with a liquid the leaky reality would quickly be revealed. Look at the video and you’ll see close-up the myriadcracks, which resulted from a shameful episode where I was not a good person, a good friend or a good parent.

It was bedtime. Beginning in 1995 I lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Encino. This was probably a year or so after I’d moved in. Kate slept on the sofabed in the living room. As was part of the ritual, I would tuck her in with an array of stuffed animals and a sippy cup of apple juice on the side table next to the bed. Only this time she asked if she could have her juice in her Little Mermaid cup. I agreed but I asked her to be very careful so as not to spill it. I read her a story, got a hug and a kiss on the cheek and said goodnight.

Not more than a few minutes later from my bed, I heard a clunk and a gasp and rolled my eyes knowing she spilled it, knocked it off the endtable and the juice went all over the carpeting. I tromped in angry and glaring, picked the cup up from the floor and hurled it — I didn’t mean too so hard — into the dining room where it hit a table leg and shattered spectacularly, pieces everywhere. It was the last thing I should’ve done. I turned back to Kate who curled up on the bed looked so tiny beneath me and I saw the tears welling up in her eyes, yet instead of kneeling down beside her and apologizing, I stormed off to the kitchen for the paper towels and cleaner and to mask my embarassment and stormed back, where I got down on my hands and knees and scrubbed at the stain furiously for several minutes until my arms ached, after which I sat back stared into her frightened eyes and only then tried to minimize the damage by calling myself a poopy doofus for getting so mad. That got the eyes to soften. Then I stood up, turned my back and told her to give my butt a whomp for being such a big blue meany. She didn’t so I pushed my hip out further and told her to go on. She landed a tap and giggled and I wondered aloud if that was a butt whomp or if a butterfly had landed on me. The second one was harder and the laugh louder. I urged her to deliver one more and the third was a solid hit to which I howled in mock pain and then smothered her in a hug and kissed to the top of her head. Then I got her some fresh juice in her sippy cup told her I loved her and that I’d see her in the morning.

But my work wasn’t done. It became immensely important to me to return that cup to her in one piece and have it for her the next morning, not under any pretense that it never was broken, but rather both as an act of penance and one of healing. Waiting about 30 minutes, I tiptoed past her into the dining room with a flashlight and searched every inch for any shards, slivers, chunks and pieces of her now disintegrated cup. Once I was pretty confident I had them all, I returned to my bedroom with some glue and for the next hour or so put the cup back together. Did a pretty good job, too, if I do say so myself.

When I woke up the next morning I set it on the end table next to her sippy cup with a Post-It note on which I’d drawn a heart then I went into the kitchen to start her usual breakfast of mini-pancakes, bacon and eggs. She soon appeared at the kitchen with the cup in her tiny hands and asked to have something to drink in it. I told her that even though I had put it back together it would leak if we poured anything into it. She nodded and climbed up onto a dining room chair. At breakfast I told her how sorry I was to have gotten so angry. I promised her it wouldn’t happen again. It never did.

Time passed and we had great times and experiences, it was a joy to watch her grow from a child to a young lady, but eventually I had to make the very difficult decision to remove myself from Kate’s life — for both mine and her well-being. Kate was increasingly being pressured by her mom to make me the bad guy. So much so that an incident in the year 2000 foretold a frustrating future.

Kate and I were at a park kicking a ball back and forth until Kate started being a bit of a butthead and was kicking it far from where I wasn’t. After the fourth time and third warning to stop I simply quit putting up with it, got the ball told her it was time to go home and walked back to my truck. She didn’t follow, instead going and hiding in one of the bathrooms until I came back and found her. That was exaggerated into a complaint of child abandonment made to the Department of Children and Family Services and a couple weeks later I found myself interrogated by a social worker to determine if a crime had been committed. When I confronted Kate’s mom she didn’t deny making the call, but when I asked why didn’t she call me first and find out what had actually happened, she said she wasn’t interested in that.

I saw that such attacks were only going to continue and get worse both to my potential detriment and to Kate’s so I elected to retire from what had become an unwinnable battle. It was unfair for us to be deprived of each other, but to me it was more unfair to leave Kate in a position where she was stuck having a mother so jealous and possessive who’d get upset if Kate told her what fun she’d had with me so instead to keep her mom happy she’d manufacture tales.

Kate tried that with me several times, confessing to me that her mom locked in her room without food or left her home alone for days. The difference was that instead of feeding off that negativity and running with it for selfish nefarious purposes I would say to Kate let’s call your mom and see what she has to say about that. It was funny — and sad — to watch her backpedal so fast. It didn’t take long for Kate to figure out she didn’t have to play that wretched game with me. Too bad she was forced to keep playing it with her mom.

Nine years passed punctuated with occasional email exchanges consisting of me holding out an olive branch and being interested in reconnecting together and her flaming back with amazingly angry, insulting and appropriately teenaged responses, until we finally reconnected in 2010 and agreed to meet for lunch. It went better than I’d expected and we began a series of informal get-togethers and hang-outs that graduated to invites to school performances and even her high school graduation. I even gifted her with my wife’s old car and taught her how to operate a manual transmission. It was a period of greater communication and connection through which I got a deeper perspective of what her life was like and the troubles she endured growing up and she got insight into what I went through and the decisions I made. We seemed to be succeeding at breaking down the barriers between us and instead building a platform of trust upon which to grow the relationship we were never allowed to culivate.

Seemed to be.

Then came the bombshell blindside announcement via email that she had given birth to Aiden (fathered I later learned by some young punk who was almost immediately eliminated from Kate’s or his child’s life), and I was brought back down a couple steps on the reality ladder that I was still well outside the circle of those she felt warranted that type of inclsuion in her life. In the interest of continuing to move forward together I kept any grumblings about that mum and I saw her and Aiden a few times in the ensuing years, staying connected mainly via email, texts and social media.

Just prior to the last time we’d texted I made the mistake of loaning Kate a couple hundred dollars, I think she needed it for school costs, but who knows. I called it a mistake because amounts that small to family members — especially those who don’t really give a damn about you — are better off just being given. That way there’s no repayment plan for them to inevitably fail to make, which is what happened in Kate’s case. I mention that minor monetary matter because I have no doubt it factored into how easily I deleted Kate from my life when she showed herself to be someone for who detouring for a dad visit at Christmas was too much bother. See, I’m just petty and vindictive enough to have been tapping out “I read you loud and clear” while thinking something along the lines of “Wait, you won’t repay my loan AND won’t make time to come get Christmas gifts from your father for his grandson!?”

Before this spirals down into more pettiness, let me rise up and circle back to the cup that I see as a righteous symbol of indefatigable hope. I keep it still not because it represents a past episode of momentary failure, but because it now represents a future that could include my daughter in my life. In short, that which is dashed against a dining room table leg can be reassembled. That which is broken can be repaired. Be it a cup or a relationship.

For Kate’s entire life, I have endeavored to be a part of it and I continue to be open to being her partner in it. Even when she has slammed the door hardest and angriest against me, or I against her, I never lock it. It is always there ready to be opened. But the knock on it has to come from her. The turning hand on the knob must be Kate’s. The point is not if she will ever do it. The point is the opportunity will be there for as long as I am here.