*Editor’s Note: This piece is part of a series—lucky you. Head to the author’s profile to continue reading.
I sat down to write, but my eye was once more drawn to the three-inch clay pot perched on the windowsill next to my bed.
Its shimmering blue and purple glaze, the result of a special Japanese firing process called raku, not only captivates my gaze, but brings a lump to my throat.
This is my “dream jar.”
The day it entered my world, Mark, my biological father, had called to me in the gift shop in which he, his wife, Alice, and I were browsing, just a few miles from Sea Ranch on the California coast. “Sweetheart, what do you think of this?” he asked, holding up the mini clay pot with a lid. It took me a moment to focus on the object that he was showing me, as the word “sweetheart” reverberated in my ears and cascaded through my whole body.
How had I earned this term of endearment? We were only on day four of his visit. Could he already call me “sweetheart?” Maybe it just slipped out. Maybe he called everybody sweetheart. I felt a flutter, a warmth, an uncomfortable melting sensation in my heart.
Then my internal alarm sounded: Yellow alert! Guard down, guard down! Seal the gates!
“Do you like it?” he asked me. I tried to focus on what he was saying, in spite of the mutiny within. “It’s a little dream jar. I was thinking that you and I can each get one and we can write down some dreams and put them inside. What do you think?”
Orange alert! I could feel the pressure in my throat, tears rushing to my eyes. No, not now. Not here, I pleaded with my Central Command. Let me keep it together!
Mark couldn’t possibly know the internal mutiny he was triggering. He had no way of knowing that he’d just unlocked a secret passage to my heart as he held up the small raku jar with a big grin and childlike enthusiasm.
I was suddenly 12 years old again and sitting on the edge of my bed, in the bright yellow-wallpapered bedroom that I shared with my sister. I saw myself eagerly pulling open the bottom drawer of the wooden dresser. It was here that I kept my treasure trove: a paper See’s Candies box in the form of a house, white with gables and rust-colored shuttered windows. It was the box that housed my dreams and desires. I’d been inspired to make an addition to the box; on a small scrap of notebook paper I wrote with my favorite blue-inked pen: “Travel all around Italy.”
I could feel the fluttering in my stomach as I did so. I’d just finished reading A Room with a View and could now hear the siren call of Italy. I slipped the paper in through the slot on the roof and shook it up. As I listened to the gentle rustling of dozens of dreams, I felt excited about my future. “Apply to be an AFS exchange student”; “Be the next Barbara Walters”; “Win the lottery”; “Meet a best friend”; “End the nuclear arms race”; and “Go to university” were among the sequestered desires.
Nearly two decades later, my mom presented me with my long-forgotten See’s Candies dream box and I’d marveled at how many of my written desires had come true. Somehow “Find biological father” never made it into the box. Nor did “Be called ‘sweetheart’ by father.” But I felt as if this was my lottery win—the lottery the deeper recesses of my being had desired.
All of this flashed through my mind as Mark held up the two dream jars for me to select from. After choosing, I averted my gaze in the hopes that he wouldn’t see the tears that had welled up in my eyes, in spite of my orders to Central Command. How could I explain these tears to him? How could I explain in that instant just how meaningful his gesture was?
There had been many meaningful gestures in the course of the previous days. They may have appeared mundane, but they were fertilizing my heart: the simple act of walking into Trader Joe’s with Mark on day one in order to pick out cheese to accompany the red wine he had bought. It tickled me that he deferred to me to select the cheese; it tickled me even more that we concurred on our love of Manchego. (I couldn’t wait to tell my sister, as it’s her favorite cheese.) The fact that Mark shared my love of red wine, and that I didn’t have to be the one to initiate the bottle opening that evening, tickled me even more.
Then there were the touching moments when he, knowing that I’d lived in Italy many years, tried out his Duolingo-derived Italian phrases with me. And when he was observant enough to notice that I was in physical pain and expressed his distress about it. And that first morning around the breakfast table in which he patiently indulged all the questions I had about our biological mother, Cecilia, and their teen romance.
And as the days and the delight unfolded, I also found myself feeling so raw. The different parts of me were all taking their turn on the inner stage: there was the exuberant little girl, thrilled to receive a present from her father; there was the wonder-struck part that marveled at the commonalities that were being revealed; there was the confounded adult who asked, “Who is this near-stranger before me, offering presents and calling me sweetheart?”
I’d been raised by a father who was far more at ease with disciplining than with gift-giving. He had served in the army and then had a career in law enforcement before he retired. In fact, he had found it quite amusing when he trained my sister and I to “stand by” just as we teetered our way out of toddlerhood. When our behavior was displeasing to him, he’d shout, “Stand by!” and my sister and I would instantly stand at attention against the wall with our arms behind our backs, until we were “dismissed.”
So the five-year-old in me was doing gleeful pirouettes as this new father paradigm presented itself. And in the course of the visit, I noticed that the more joy and laughter surfaced, the more those closeted parts of myself pounded at the door, seeking liberation: the little girl who had felt rejected by her father; the disillusioned part of me who had been losing her belief in magic; the part of me that was so weary of going it alone; the part of me that had lost hope about the landscape of my life ever looking different. I didn’t dare let those parts out! How could I? After all, I’m spiritual, and a coach, and someone who strives to be an uplifter in the world!
But it was as if in the beholding of such goodness, such joy, the body suddenly found the safety to really feel all the sorrow and “negative” emotions that had been carefully tucked away. So this epic meeting with my biological father also turned out to be a healing maelstrom, marked by gusts of laughter, hope, grief, playfulness, and purging all at the same time.
But I couldn’t have anticipated any of that as I nervously waited to greet Mark and Alice at the airport on day one. Part of me was anxious, wondering if a week was too long for a first-time meeting. But another part of me trusted that, if it would be anything like our first FaceTime conversation, the week would be characterized by ease and flow.
And it was! From the moment we embraced at the airport, Mark was warm and chatty. And Alice, from the get-go, made it her mission to hold a supportive, loving space for this father-daughter encounter to unfold. As the week progressed, I began to feel as if I’d found the glass slipper. That voice in my head kept asking if this was real.
But the friends who came to meet Alice and Mark assured me that it was real. And I certainly felt every single pinch that they delivered at my request. He was truly turning out to be my BFF: my biological father forever. This was the acronym coined by my friend Eve in the first days of my email exchange with Mark, when we struggled with how to refer to him. “Mark” had felt too—well, too un-familial, while “father” or “dad” sounded too—well, familial!
And now, Mark has coined a new acronym for me, as I discovered when I read his first post-departure email to me:
We’re still floating. Can you believe this joy we never anticipated? Finding you, discovering our commonality, the ecstasy of sharing a future together, and finally awakening to this mystical bond privy to the parent/child relationship. It humbles me. Thank you for your quest to find me. I’m so enriched. You’re my LDF, “loving daughter forever.” What an amazing journey before us!
Yes, what an amazing journey ahead; I’ve discovered not only a friend I respect and with whom I’d like to hang, kinship notwithstanding, but I get a “do-over” in experiencing a father-daughter relationship.
I don’t know who handed me the glass slippers. But I’m ready for the ball.
I’m unabashedly putting my first dream in my new dream jar: “Live happily ever after…”