One August night, when I was 10 years old, my mom called to say she wasn’t coming home anymore.
That’s how she left my dad and, in the process, my brother and me, too. Know that I offer that easily and without malice. It’s simply a fact in my life.
Prior to my mother’s departure, my dad wasn’t around much. He was a part of our family, of course, but only in that way that let us know we weren’t meant to be underfoot. He was only home when he was tired, exhausted, and empty. He wasn’t unkind; he simply wasn’t available.
In his emotional absence, my mom made up for it all. She made Christmas magical and made sure to include a small can of peaches in my lunchbox because she knew they were my favorite. She’d spread a bit of rouge on my cheeks when getting gussied up herself. She made our Halloween costumes and read books to me. She tucked me into bed every single night and kissed me on the top of the head.
And then she was gone.
I was suddenly left with my father, who had always been too busy learning to be a man to know how to be a dad. And, equally as confusing, suddenly, my brother and I were a mysterious, nearly unknown responsibility to him.
We were both family and near strangers, stranded together in our grief.
I felt alone for a long time.
One evening, a few months into our strange new life, the night air was inviting. In between seasons, the air was cool but lacked any bite and our house windows were open to the world. Passing through the darkened living room, I heard music coming to me, through the windows. Intrigued, I stepped to the screen door to see my dad playing a guitar on our small concrete stoop. I was not aware he even knew how to do that.
Gingerly, I opened the door. Compelled to be with these gentle sounds, I wanted to join him—wanted the music to make me feel something other than all-consuming pain—but was near certain I would be shooed away. My parents were not ones to share time with children. I moved as a timid mouse and was relieved when my father let me sit down quietly on the top step next to him. I barely breathed for fear of moving too much and being sent away.
Grateful, I looked into the deep navy sky, over to the black mountain skyline, the many lights of NORAD blinking, dancing rhythmically, silently.
Sitting on the steps, he cradled the 1986 Ovation guitar. It was the prettiest instrument I had ever seen: lacquered shiny black with inlay, a pearly wreath set in a sea of onyx. Twelve strings.
His voice was thin and wobbly:
“Blackbird singing in the dead of night …”
I looked up at him to find tears streaming down his face.
“…take these broken wings and learn to fly.”
I had never before seen my father cry.
And for a moment, I didn’t feel so alone. For a moment, I felt something between us—this broken thing we shared.
Being alone in your pain is the worst, lowest level of pain. And when you realize that you are no longer alone, that there exists a level of pain deeper than your own? That you do not hurt as much as you could? That is a big moment: that is the moment you are given hope.
Most people can’t say when they began with their parents. They just always were. Fused. To identify their start would be as impossible to trace as their own first thought as a child. But some of us can point to the exact moment it happened. The exact moment when we felt held, becoming family.
I know when we began. I can illustrate our start. Listening to my dad pluck melodies, haltingly, to ease his broken heart—that was our beginning, the birth of us.
That was 36 years ago, and my father, as it happens when we are lucky in life, is aging. Over the years, I watched his heart continue to soften; I have watched his hands become stiff. He can no longer play the guitar without pain, and I find that so ironic—playing was meant to ease his pain.
Recently, my father quietly took that beautiful Ovation off the wall, packed it up, and gave it to me.
One day, I will learn to play the guitar. I will use that guitar as a way to speak to him when I no longer can, to feel the soul of him coursing through my veins as my father’s daughter.
And Blackbird…will be the first song I learn to play.