The other day I was talking to my friend Carol on the telephone and we were having a good laugh over her Dad’s latest shenanigans.
Her sister was in town for the evening and they’d decided to have an impromptu family dinner at a nice restaurant downtown. They called their dad and agreed on a time to meet up. Carol and her husband arrived in time to meet her sister and they were seated before her dad arrived. After about half an hour they begin to wonder where their dad was. Carol decided that she would give him a few more minutes before she called him. Finally, worried that something had happened to him, she decided to call and check up on him. No sooner than she’d pulled out her phone her dad walked into the restaurant and quickly found his way to their table.
He apologized for his lateness, explaining that he’d fallen asleep after he got back from his rounds at the hospital. He’d woken up and when he saw the time, jumped in the car and raced towards the restaurant. He sheepishly grinned as he told them that in his haste, he’d forgotten his shoes.
Carol told me that she waited for the part where he’d say that he’d turned around and had to go back home and retrieve them. A quick glance, however, showed that her father was indeed only wearing his socks. He laughed and said that he’d made it through valet parking and all the way to their table without anyone noticing. Carol told me that she was exasperated but amused and thankfully was able to buy him a pair of sandals at one of the shops that was next door to the restaurant. Her father thought that the entire situation was hilarious and told everyone around him about his mistake. He gleefully told Carol that he planned to tell his friends, also doctors, and would conduct an experiment where they went places without shoes to see who noticed.
I laughed with Carol, and could see her in my mind’s eye, shaking her head with the memory fresh in her mind. She told me that her dad was crazy, and I told her that it was no big deal, explaining to her that the affluent are never crazy. Rich people were eccentric. We laughed and the conversation moved to our kids and husbands, the regular telephone fare.
The story stuck with me, though, and I’ve been mulling over the conversation ever since. For so long, I was really self conscious of my dad’s mental illness. There would be times when would be having a family outing and my dad would do something that I thought wasn’t quite normal. Mortified I’d always scan my surroundings, checking to see who’d spotted my dad acting not quite right. My mom and my sisters always seemed oblivious, giggling and playing along, while I held back, unable to let go. Forgoing enjoying the moment and instead holding my breath, waiting for the next shoe to drop.
The color of my childhood memories take on a different hue as I look back on them with the perspective of a parent and as I create my own memories with my kids. Playtime at the park is sprinkled with laughter as we run, joke and act silly, oblivious to what others might think. I chuckle as my husband mockingly sings along with the radio, making my 10 year old son groan with mock mortification. I will also tell you, you haven’t lived until you and your kids have re-enacted Wayne and Garth’s Bohemian Rhapsody in your hatchback, with the sunroof open, music blaring. I don’t know, and don’t care, what people may think- it’s fun and makes us laugh.
So many of these moments remind me of my dad and the things that he would do. Sometimes I laughed but there got to be a point where I was unable to live in the moment and enjoy myself. It makes me sad that my fathers illness coincided with my increased awareness of the world around me and really amplified my self consciousness. I wish that I’d hadn’t heard all of the whispers of the family members who “felt so sorry for Juan’s girls.” Everyone who was so sorry and concerned, but never really enough to lend an empathetic ear, just worried enough to gossip when one of us would “act crazy”. I really wish that someone would have pulled me aside and told me that while my dad was struggling, and yes there were some really scary times, not every moment was affected. I wish I’d have known that sometimes parents embarrass you, sometimes parents act silly because it’s fun, and sometimes people think that your parents are weird. I wish that someone would have looked back and told me that some of my life was normal and not every moment was tinged by mental illness. Maybe it wouldn’t have helped much, but maybe it would have.
My attitude about my dad’s illness changed as I got older and started to learn more about people and I realized that everyone has little idiosyncrasies. I started to notice that everyone had little, and not so little, personality quirks that sometimes made other people give them side eyed looks. Maybe it was just my way of coping with the new medicated version of my dad- the man who wasn’t quite the same person as when I was growing up but not quite different. I became more defensive of how people treated him and wonder if peoples attitudes would have been different if his shoes had been a little nicer and the collar of his shirt crisp and not frayed. I know that some people are just assholes and some will treat anyone who deviates from their narrow view of normal badly so it may not have mattered, but I guess that I will never know.
Instead I can enjoy time with my kids, making them laugh, smiling at silly jokes and acting crazy. When they are old enough to get mad at me for embarrassing them I can smile and say, “Sorry kiddo, it’s part of growing up and having parents. One day you will embarrass your own kids”. I will smile because I will know that it’s true.