Daughter finds the strength and legacy in her father’s disability
On the outside of the card was a bouquet of flowers dusted with silvery glitter, and a sentimental poem in a script style font. On the inside, the girly pink tri-fold said:
“Congradulations! Love, Dad.”
I probably looked at the card a hundred times, the miniature metallic flakes of glitter sticking to one of my cheeks, or the palm of my clammy hands. The glitter never seemed to go away, a reappearing sparkle that stuck with me, just like my father’s handwritten message.
Back then we lived on the East coast, and my father lived in a place as far from us as the pyramids in Egypt. A distance that for the minds and imaginations of children was great and romantic, in a “father off at war” kind of way—living in southern California, our daddy was rubbing shoulders with celebrities, and riding around in convertibles, down boulevards lined with palm trees—but he was never too busy to remember us. He never forgot one occasion.
I can’t recall exactly what the card was for. Good grades. Becoming a woman. Getting picked for the team. It was somewhere in there between the long summers of playing ball with the neighborhood boys, and lying around the wave pool with my girlfriends, painting
our toenails and working on our tans. Though it was a crucial point in time, because it was when I realized I had become more educated than my father.
I hadn’t noticed it before: his childish scrawl, his simplistic wishes, his misspellings and misuses of common words. But I felt ashamed when I did. Guilt too, for feeling embarrassed.
I pointed it out to my mother. Maybe it was a mistake? Maybe he was rushed? We all do it every now and then; forget a letter or two.
My mother’s response was: “Your father has always had a learning disability. That’s why he never finished high school.”
I didn’t understand. The man I looked up to couldn’t possibly be incompetent. To me he was the epitome of a grounded and protective father figure—one who believed that the defining character of any man should be measured by his willingness to do hard work, and his display and level of ingenuity. He himself knew a little about a lot, a wisdom that came from years of cumulative experience. But what I hadn’t known then was just how hard it had really been for him.
Our parents were only married for four years before they divorced, yet their individual approaches to parenting dually revolved around our studies. However liberal they let on to being about certain matters, both parents were firm when it came to their daughters’ education.
My sister and I loved to read. We read a lot; anything we could get our hands on. It was encouraged in our household by our mother and on the telephone by our father. Our favorite classes had to do with the English language, and how to use our creativity to strengthen our literary capacities. We also didn’t have television, which my father supported, the substitute being a family room filled with books. This was long before we started writing—as a hobby at first, then later as a passion and vocation. This was when I first learned the truth of my father’s condition.
“Your father is dyslexic,” my mother told me. “Schools weren’t the same back then.”
At the time, my mother was just beginning her career as a special education teacher. She worked with kids at the junior high and high school levels with mild to severe mental and physical disabilities. It was hard to believe my father had been “one of those kids.”
When I went back to my room, I dug out the tin where I kept all my cards. And as I went through the stack, one after the next, I realized that my father’s quirk had been there all along. It was me who had changed.
From about five years old to around ten, my grasp on spelling, developmentally, was the same as my father’s. Then by the time I had approached early adolescence, I had surpassed him with my abilities.
What my mother did, which I’m so grateful for now, is helped me to have a better understanding of my father. Not only did she have enough respect for him to put my sister and—starting at ages nine and seven—on a plane by ourselves to Los Angeles every school vacation, but she would also tell us stories of the remarkable things our father was capable of doing, despite the obstacles he had in his youth. She never spoke a bad word of him, and he was always the kind man she made him out to be.
My father had one proficiency in particular: he was mechanically inclined. During his only two years of high school, he had worked at a car repair shop before he enlisted with the armed services. At Fort McClellan in Anniston, Alabama he specialized in heavy artillery and explosives, and was training as a Special Operations Officer, when he met my mother who was going through the Military Police Academy. It was love at first sight, and they were married outside of Fort Bragg in North Carolina, three weeks later.
My favorite story and image of my father, which I very vaguely remember, takes place in the first house we ever lived in. I was about two years old, and my parents were a young couple in their early twenties. My mom was pregnant with my sister Kate and they didn’t have a lot of money, just enough to get by, and they learned to be thrifty with what they could afford.
Renting the second floor of an old house, above a newspaper journalist and his wife, the garage quickly became my father’s workbench for his many projects. He spent a lot of time at the town dump and the car junk yards, and was always bringing home another lawn mower or chain saw, or the pieces to some machine.
Most of the time these things didn’t work, but with his skill set and a little tinkering, we would hear the roar of an engine every couple of days, and we knew he’d been successful with one of his latest undertakings.
What he couldn’t use around the house, he would sell for money on the side. He was the bartering king when it came to machinery, and often there was a new motorcycle or truck parked out in front of our house—a jalopy of rust to us, but for him his latest pride and joy, until he would stumble upon another great find.
As a little girl, I wanted to be close to my father. The smell of wool and gasoline and woodstoves, became associated with his comfort. And I was a curious one when it came to the various shapes of alloy scrap metal or oily boxes of bolts and screws; sometimes crawling beneath the low undercarriages of cars with him, much to aggravation of my mother, who scrubbed hard to get the grease out of my Polly Flinder’s dresses.
After only a few months of living in that house, my father managed to build a 1963 Volvo from the ground up, from used parts he had dug up at the yards. He built it for my mother, as she read to him the Chilton manual, page by page.
Written instructions were lost on him, and diagrams were only as good if he didn’t have to read the assembly steps. He could conceptualize arrangements and blueprints as well as any college-taught engineer, but the only place he could process and record this knowledge was in his head.
He learned to compensate for his impairments, and over time learned to not just get by in life, but use his hands-on intelligence to his benefit.
Next month, I will receive my master’s degree in creative writing from Southern New Hampshire University, after having recently finished my first novel-length manuscript. I could say my father couldn’t be prouder and he has been my biggest fan, but all that is obvious statement-making.
What I can say is that some of my dearest moments spent with my father have been reading to him things I have written, and how his eyes smile when we can have discussions about the different ways in which we view the world around us. Some of these very conversations end up continuing late into the evenings, after dinner has been scraped from our plates, and the whisky cabinet is unlocked. I read to him essays and poetry, and he loves to hear me talk about art and history.
“I’m kind of an artist too,” he tells me. “These hands can do a lot.”
I know this and I’m proud of him being who he is.
Through the years, I’ve learned a kind of useful mechanics from my father, very different than the grammatical kind taught in schools. In turn, I have helped to familiarize him with a computer, and how to surf the web like a pro. Sites like Craigslist keep his side business of selling fixer-uppers going, and Facebook has given him more confidence in communicating with written words.
There are still mistakes here and there that Spellcheck doesn’t quite catch, but then I remind him that I’ve been studying English as a student for years and I still don’t always get it right the first time, and that seems to give us a nice laugh.
Lately, we’ve been going over legal, financial, and medical documents together. I see him getting older and I’m the only one he trusts these days to handle such important personal information. I’m glad I can assist him, and he knows he can depend on me.
At thirty, I still have that card somewhere. Just like I know he’s kept every single birthday or Father’s Day card my mother would have my sister and I sign before she stuck them in the mail to send to him.
As I think about why I write, why I love doing it, it occurs to me: I write for him, in part, and for the people who can appreciate a story, but can’t necessarily put it down on paper. It’s because the irony in having a father who can’t read and write shapes me as a person and an artist. And it’s because with all the words I have learned and retained, and for how much I aim to explain how my father has inspired me, I know that keeping it simple is the best way of saying what I really mean.
And what I mean is there will always be the little girl inside of me, looking up to my father.
—Photo by Collector Car Ads/Flickr