Part I and Part II originally posted August 13 and 14, 2005, respectively
I’m going to see my daughter tomorrow. For the first time in five years. We’re meeting for lunch at the Chili’s on Reseda Boulevard in Northridge — her request.
Coincidentally enough, I’m familiar with this specific Chili’s. Back in the fall of 1993 when I was a journalism student at Pierce College in Woodland Hills I was editor in chief of the campus paper by day and parking lot security guard at that Chili’s by night. Back then my daughter was… what, 5 years old? Six?
She turns 16 next month. Me, nervous? You bet I am. But not facing-the-firing-squad type of nerves, although given the last time my daughter contacted me I may be setting myself up to take a few rounds. But I’m up for it.
I’ve tried to think about what I should say to her, and while any testifying I may do can go in several directions, the song pretty much remains the same: I’m sorry. I failed you. I had my reasons. They were valid reasons. But nevertheless you have every right in the world to hate me. And I have every obligation in the world to try to make it up to you and show you I’m worth not hating. However long it takes.
I thought about bringing an artificat artifact with me from when we had a father-daughter relationship that shows who I was and still am: an imperfect but loving father. It’s a little thing really. A cup. A plactic cup from a “Little Mermaid” meal set I got Katie for Christmas that included a tray, some flatwear.
One night after tucking her into the sofabed in the living room with the cup full of the requisite fruit juice on the side table I gave her a kiss said I loved her and told her to be careful not to spill. A few minutes after I’d crawled into bed, she stood in the doorway of my bedroom with these huge eyes.
“Daddy, I spilled,” she said.
In a perfect world I would have shrugged my shoulders and said “no biggie, let’s clean it up shall we?” But all I pictured was punch running down the arm and side of the sofa and dripping into the carpeting in a nice big stain and I bolted out of bed past her with the stereotypical angry “Didn’t I tell you to be careful?” Sure enough, there was punch on the table, on the sofa, on the bed sheets and on the rug. And there on the night table was her Little Mermaid cup.
“This is beautiful!” I yelled. “Just great!” And then before I could stop myself , I picked up the cup — her absolute favorite one — and hurled it (much harder than I’d intended) into the dining room where it shattered against a chair.
In complete fear all Katie could do was burst out crying and dive under the juice-soaked covers of the bed hoping I would just disappear. I wanted to vanish, too. My reaction was bad enough but I knew my pitching the cup was way over the line even before I’d let it fly out of my hand. All I could do was sit on the edge of the bed and apologize and ask Katie to come out from under there so I could talk to her. Eventually she did and I told her what a butthead daddy is, and how wrong I was for frightening her and behaving so badly. Eventually her eyes dried up and I even got her giggling by having her repeat the following fact after me:
“Daddy is a big butthead!”
A short time later she was fast asleep and I was back in bed. But something wasn’t finished. The cup was still shattered in however many pieces across the dining room and I didn’t want her seeing that in the morning. So with a small flashlight sticking in my mouth and as quiet as I could be so as not to wake her, I crawled around that dining room until I had what I hoped was all the pieces. Heading for the trash can, throwing them away didn’t feel right, so instead I pulled a bottle of Elmer’s glue out of a drawer and by fading flashlight beam spent a good chunk of time reassembling the cup that I’d turned into the three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.
The next morning all seemed forgotten and I served her breakfast of bacon and mini-pancakes and strawberries and a scrambled egg, served on her Little Mermaid tray and eaten with her Little Mermaid fork. Her juice was served in a regular glass, but sitting next to it was the Little Mermaid cup.
“I put this back together last night, to show you how sorry I am for how I acted,” I said. She picked it up and frowned because it was clear from all the glued cracks that it had held its last beverage.
“I can’t take back what I did, but it was important for me to try to put it back together.” She eyed the cup for a few more moments, gave me a smile and an understanding nod and went back to her pancakes after telling me she loved me.
“I love you, too, kiddo.”
When everything fell apart in 2000 and I retreated from my daughter, I purged myself of her stuff. I Goodwill’d clothes and toys and books and that Little Mermaid tray and everything that had anything to do with her — except for that little cup, now more symbolic than ever.
I can’t take back what I did, Katie, but it’s important for me to try to put it back together.
First off, I want to say how much I appreciate the comments of support and good wishes in response to yesterday’s post — especially to the awesomest Shane Nickerson for bestowing hotlink status on his site, and with thanks to Timothy for pretty much echoing my feelings about the pithy spelling error comment Thomass (yeah, the extra “s” is on purpose Tommy, whoever the hell you are) made. I was very surprised to find the outpouring of positive vibes and it really came in handy.
Two of the scariest events of my life have been 1) performing the “gentleman caller” scene from Glass Menagerie on three days rehearsal for Stella Adler during one of her master classes in the late 1980s, and 2) my motorcycle accident of 1994. In the week since setting up this meeting with my ex-wife and even the drive into the valley this morning to see my daughter Katie and her for the first time in five years, I was certainly anxious, but I wasn’t ready to add it with Stella and that night I t-boned a Ford Taurus in Van Nuys with my Kawasaki 1000 CSR at 40 mph.
Until, that is, I pulled into the Chili’s parking lot north of Nordhoff on Reseda Boulevard in Northridge at 12:22 p.m. today. Looking for a place to park, my high anxiety exploded into a batallion of butterflies, and I didn’t even bother trying to rationalize or minimize the fact that I was scared shitless.
I had good reason to be. After all, there was nothing to stop my daughter from taking the opporutnity to continue from where she’d left off when she last emailed me a couple years ago, and there was little to indicate a change of opinion had occured:
William! You’ve ruined my whole life and I hate you for it! I never want to see your ugly face again. You killed my dreams all becuase you felt it wasn’t neccessary to pay child support and now my mothers bitching becuase she doesn’t get any money from you or Richard! I’m gonna change my name when I get older just because I hate remembering that you didn’t want to name me what my mother wanted! You deserved no say in it anyway! Your just about as fatherly as your father! I hate you! I want this email to echo in your hideous ears forever! You’ve ruined everything! Everything! Your not invited to any of my graduations or my wedding or my funeral (i hope u still aren’t around) or my confirmation! I hate you William Campbell! You’re a shame to the word father! And we’re gonna get all the child support from you and this email will echo in your ears and you’ll know that you have a daughter that not only hates you but doesn’t consider you her father! My softball coach is more of a father to me than you are! I drove past your house the other day and I wanted to knock on the door and flip you off! I hate you I hate every bit of you! I hate your laugh I hate your voice I hate that your my father! Your a disgrace to all fathers! I hate you! YOu’re not a father to me anymore! While this echos in your mind remember that ur not my father anymore William not at all!
Obviously opening myself up to more of that undistilled venom was a burn I was ready and willing to suffer, but as I backed up into a parking place, my heart was suddenly pounding at a vision of me sitting inside that restaurant and receiving exactly that kind of reception while my ex just sat next to my little girl gloating at me getting what I deserved. For a moment I wavered. For a moment I though about throwing the truck into gear and getting the hell out of there.
But I am not a coward. And I shut the engine off, exited the vehicle and there across the lot they were. My ex hadn’t changed much, but next to her was this young woman I’m ashamed to say I might not have recognized had we just happened past each other in a mall or on the street.
I waved to them, and my ex nodded, but my daughter, who kept her head down looking at her feet didn’t acknowledge me. Walking over to them my ex pointed out I’d parked in a short-term “to go” parking space, the sign of which I hadn’t seen since I’d backed into the space.
Nothing like a smooth entrance. There I am a few feet from my little girl and I’ve got to retreat to relocate my ride because I was somewhat unaware of my surroundings (but at least it wasn’t a handicapped parking spot). Telling them I’d meet them at the entrance I trot back and move the truck to another entirely undesignated space and I find them waiting for me at the front door.
As I approach, Katie makes fleeting eye contact with me.
“Hey there!” I wonder if I’m begin too enthusiastic.
“Hi,” my daughter says with absolutely no enthusiasm, looking down at the pair of orange Chuck T All-Stars on her feet. Cool shoes. She’s wearing jeans and an orange t-shirt.
“How are you?”
Can this get any more tense and awkward? I cut to the chase.
“Are you as nervous about this as I am?”I
“I dunno,” she flips back.
“Well, I’ll bet I’m way more nervous than you are,” I say. She looks at me and kind of rolls her eyes. Inside I’m doing my best to keep from saying “Not that you aren’t capable of being more nervous than I am. In fact, I bet if you wanted to in a game of nervous you could totally kick my ass. I’m just saying that I’m pretty nervous. I’m not trying to say that I’m better at being nervous than you or that your nervous isn’t as good as mine… OK?”
I bite the inside of my cheek and there was silence. The really awkward kind, fueled by five years of absence ended a few moments before by a few seconds of me trying to tap-dance as fast as I could in front of a tough crowd.
She looks up at me for another nanosecond then back down at her shoes. This is so not going well, but on the plus side at least the first words out of her mouth weren’t “eat shit and die you rat bastard.”
Her mom, thank gawd, decides to mercifully spare me from standing there frozen and dumbstruck like a total idiot for any longer and gets the progress moving forward with “Shall we go inside?”
Oh do let’s.
Once seated, I toss off another improvised beauty: “How’ve you been these last five years?”
Shoot me. Shoot me now.
She shrugs it off with a “fine.”
We get some particulars and details out of the way. She asks about Shadow and I tell her Shadow’s rocks and shares the house with four cats and a tortoise. She’s about to begin her junior year (school actually starts tomorrow), she has a five pound chihuahua named Skippy. We place our orders (Katie just wants mozarella sticks and stawberry lemonade, her mom gets a soup and salad and and ice teaI opt for a Chicken ceasar pita with a lemonade).
Waiting for our food to arrive I do my best to regroup and give her my reasons for wanting this day to happen. I tell her I’m sorry that we missed out on so much of each other and it’s my fault. I want her to know that I’m sincere in wanting to rebuild our relationship. I let her know that she is totally entitled to her feelings and I encourage her to express herself and that she can do so without fear of anything negative coming back to her.
As proof I asked if she recalled some of the emails we exchanged and I told her that she landed some very serious shots but that all I ever came back with was love.
In response to the email from her I posted above, this is what I wrote back in July 2003:
I hear how angry you are. I cannot stop you from your hatred. All I can do in the face of such anger is tell you that I love you and that I will always be here for you as a friend and father. Please don’t ever doubt that. If you ever need help or just someone to yell at or talk to, I’m your man.
If you have decided you do not need me in your life and to blame me for all that is wrong with your life, those are your decisions to make and I respect your right to make them.
You can call me ugly and wish I was dead and compare me to my father and change your name and flip me off, and all I say in return is that regardless of such condemnation, I am very proud of you. You are an intelligent, beautiful, strong, and passionate young woman entirely capable of turning your dreams into reality.
Nothing you can do or say can make me change how I feel about you. I only hope that as time passes you don’t come to regret some of the hurtful and hateful things you’ve said to me. I don’t want you to regret them. I don’t want you ever thinking that I hate you or don’t want to be a part of your life.
Perhaps some day we will be able to build a relationship together that is open and fair and loving and trusting and respectful. I still know that can happen if we both want it.
All my love,
I never heard from her again after that. So to be talking to her across a table at a restaurant in Northridge was a long overdue dream come true — and best of all she was receptive. She never said much and only occasionally nodded her head, but I felt she was genuinely hearing me and recognizing my sincerity.
When our meals arrived, I even got her to laugh — honest to god laugh. See, my pita arrived propped upright and elevated above the plate on an odd metal support structure, like a napkin holder. Skeptically eyeing the weirdness I told her that I’d never eaten a sandwich that came with its own scaffolding. I think I was as surprised at her burst of laughter as she was.
At some point her mom, noticing the wedding ring on my finger asked about the new jewelry and I told them about Susan and how we met on match.com and got married in June. Later on I asked Katie what she might want for her birthday and she ran the gamut from an electric guitar to a kitten. I sat back and just soaked in the conversations she had with mom, very much into singing and music after high school she’s interested in a conservatory in Boston).
There was talk about other pets and her sister Christine being almost as tall as Katie is (5’2″) even though she’s almost five years younger than Katie. There was news that her mom’s very good friend Shelley has lung cancer but is doing as well as can be expected and I asked if Shelley still had Flynn the parrot. When her mom nodded yes I related to Katie the story of when Flynn flew off his perch and bit into my upper lip after getting pissed that I could make a better raspberry sound than he could.
Finally with the plates taken away and the bill paid, at a little after 2 p.m. we walked back outside and I suggested that Katie might like to come wander around the Sunset Junction Festival happening later this month.
“Can I see Shadow?”
“Absolutely!” And her enthusiasm to see the dog and the festival was evident. I told her to let me know via email and silence descended once again.
“Katie, I’m really glad we got this chance to see each other. As nervous as I was this was something I was very much looking forward to,” I said,” and I’d count it as one of my happiest days.”
“Are you glad we did this?”
She smiled and nodded, and I took the plunge.
“Can I get a hug?” And she nodded again and stepped to me and we put our arms around each other. Understandably there was plenty of tension and tentativeness to it from her side, making it a far cry from the wild slam hugs she used to ambush me with when she was just a tot, but man oh man I am not complaining.
Not in the slightest.
I got to hug my daughter for the first time in forever.
Saying our goodbyes, I pulled out and headed south on Reseda. I kept it together until Sherman Way when a Melissa Etheridge song came on the radio. I’m not sure if Melissa had anything to do with it, but I just teared up with a big wave of joy, relief, pride, and some sadness for the five years gone by. But with some work and a lot of hope we’ll have the rest of our lives to make up for it.
When I got home, I recounted the lunch happenings to Susan and she gave me a huge lingering hug.
“It was a very brave thing you did,” she said.
Yes, it was.