The Story in the Photographs

My two-and-a-half-year-old son is asleep, tired out after a deliriously hot Miami morning at the zoo. I watch him through the grainy, black and white video monitor and I feel awestruck. I smile at the sight of his tousled hair, slightly damp from sweat, and his little arms wrapped around his pillow. The instinct to love, to protect this tiny being envelops me. I am sure of one thing, and one thing only: I love him.

It’s times like this I wonder if my father felt that same love for me. I wonder if he ever held me close, against his chest, closing his eyes as he felt my little heart beat in the safety of his arms. I question whether his heart constricted more powerfully at my frailty, my smallness. Did he love me, the way I love my son, with a power much greater than himself?

There are photographs that tell a story I don’t remember. These photographs show my father and me, both smiling, both happy. There’s one in particular I come back to. In it, my father is holding me in his arms. He is wearing a long sleeved, brick-colored plaid shirt. His hair is black, thinning on top. He’s sitting on a wicker and mahogany rocking chair, his hands forming a cradle, and I lay there, my mop of dark brown hair resting against his shirt. I must be about two months old there. What draws me to this photograph is the set of the lines on my father’s face, and his eyes; they are soft, and they look at me in wonder. I see tenderness and love in his expression, though I’ve only seen that expression in photographs.

There are a handful of these photographs in the albums which hold my childhood between their leather binds. Like the one where I’m a few months old, cradled in my father’s arms while he sleeps. Or the one where he’s holding me, in a parking lot, and we’re surrounded by pigeons. Or the one where I’m a little older, about five, grinning mischievously into the camera, holding on to his hand. Or the one where I’m sitting on his shoulders, at the zoo, getting close to a pony. These photographs tell a story I don’t remember—a story about a father and a daughter and a deep, shared love.

Instead, however, I remember pain, tears, and a deep void. In the early 1990’s, as I entered the second decade of life, my father’s health turned precarious. He was in his early sixties. His heart weakened, his lungs filled with fluid, and his blood had difficulties circulating his body. He took a short trip to his native country, Colombia, in hopes that his niece, a doctor, could heal him. He came back with patched-up health and an addiction to sleeping pills.

It was during this decade that I felt the absence of my father’s love the most. I remember mostly his face contorted in fury. His fists pounding on our wooden dining table. His voice loud and angry, cursing and insulting. These were regular occurrences, and sometimes, I thought about running away, but then I would think of my mother and my resolve left me as swiftly as it came. She and I were each other’s rock; I couldn’t leave her alone with him.

When I turned eighteen, I took the only chance I could see to get out: I got married. I didn’t go away to college—because “proper young girls don’t leave the house until they’re married”—and I didn’t just move in with my then boyfriend—because, as my father made clear, I would no longer be his daughter. His voice was thick with anger, fear, and disgust when he said this. I shouldn’t have cared. I hated him, or so I had conditioned myself to believe.

The truth is, I needed my daddy, the one in those tucked-away photographs. I needed his love and reassurance and unconditional acceptance. I didn’t hate him; I just wanted him to be different, to be the embodiment of the daddy figure I craved.

But my father didn’t know how to be that kind of dad.

As a teenager, I didn’t understand that he had been pushed into the priesthood and raised in the Church’s holy righteousness before he even realized he had a choice.  I didn’t understand the impact of our fifty-year age difference. He was from another time and another place, where birthdays weren’t celebrated, affection wasn’t shown, and strict moral code was upheld at all costs. And I didn’t understand his marriage to my mother, a union void of any outward signs of affection—no kisses or hugs, or at least, none that I could remember. The photographs, again, tell another story—in one, they are walking, hand in hand, down a grassy pathway; in another, my father is carrying my mother and she is holding on tight, laughing into the camera; in a third, they are sitting on some rocks by a lake, their knees touching, their arms intertwined.

So I did what any teenager does best: I resented him. When my marriage failed, and I moved back home, I blamed him, not for my failed relationship, but for now having the stigma of a divorcee.

For a brief moment afterwards, though, we shared conversations about literature, world problems, and current events. Intellect allowed us to come together and establish a semblance of a connection.

Then, we both got older. He began to recede into an almost childlike state, and the fear and hate that had come to define him became part of a past that was in my memories and my journals. His anger dissipated and in its place was tolerance. Instead of brushing off affection, he didn’t flinch when I kissed him on the cheek or the forehead, and he let himself be called querido. He became weaker, lost a leg, and became hostage to a wheelchair, reliant on my mother and, while I was at home, on me.

It was in this reversal of roles that I started noticing my father did care about us. He worried about my mother—about her working too much or too hard, about her health, about her getting enough time to rest. When I remarried, he came to the church wedding and wore a tux, remarkable acts for a man who had not once set foot inside a Catholic church since he’d left the priesthood twenty-some-odd years earlier, and who had despised formal wear since I could remember. He allowed me to freely embrace him and even held my bouquet of red roses, laughing his full-bodied, contagious laughter into the camera. I have that picture in my office. At home, I have another picture of that day. In it, my arms are wrapped around my father, my cheek pressed against his. My eyes shine with tears, and he is smiling. I remember kissing his forehead and him patting my hands. Those were small tokens of affection that he could now give, and I took them hungrily.

When my son was born, his laughter returned for a while, and warmth radiated from him. Whenever we’d see him, my father would roll to wherever my son was, and he would laugh—it came in three deep chuckles now. Then, he would squeeze my son’s toes. His affection was real but awkward, as if having gone so long without it had hindered his ability to express it. Still, it was the affection I had craved while I was growing up.

Less than six months after my son was born, on February 13, 2008, my father suffered a stroke. When my mother got home from work, she found him laying in bed, crumpled, his arms weighing heavily on his chest, his face disfigured in the classic signs of a stroke. The ambulance rushed him to the hospital, and it was then that I knew how much he loved us, and how much I loved him. As he lay on the hospital bed, incoherent at best, I could make out my mother’s name. If he didn’t hear my mother’s voice, he would become agitated and his heart rate would rise, but as soon as she spoke to him, he would quiet down. When I spoke to him of my son, I swear he smiled. His last word before he succumbed to the morphine-induced coma was my mother’s name. I don’t need photographs of this day because it remains etched in my memory, a sometimes silent film replaying, slowing down as it nears the end.

He died the morning of Valentine’s Day. The irony of this is not lost on me.

He was cremated and we took his ashes to his hometown of Manizales, Colombia, where they were buried alongside his mother’s and father’s, whom I never met; they died when my father was in his early twenties. We gathered together, not only my mother, my husband, my son and me, but his brothers and sisters and their families, as well as two of his closest friends, former priests themselves. The man his friends and family knew was radically different than the man I grew up with. The man they depicted was a loving uncle who would take his nephews to the seminary to show them recently acquired chickens. He was a loving priest who was always giving to his community of Chipre the only way he knew how: with his hands, building the church, fixing cars, and playing the organ. He was a man who loved his family, and who worried about their well-being. He was a man of faith, who loved in the only way he knew how.

When I look back at my life with him, I can’t remember him ever telling me he loved me, but I know he did try to show me. He taught me about art, music, and literature. He composed a song for my ninth birthday, music and lyrics. He taught me responsibility, and appreciation for life. He taught me respect and open mindedness, even when his mind sometimes closed abruptly. He taught me about God, and faith, and analyzing right from wrong, and he taught me to give, to care, and to be accountable. In his teachings, he was trying to tell me he loved me.  And when I look at the photographs of our family, I know my father really did love me in the way I love my son. The photographs are proof of that.

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