Monday, December 7, 2009

Punching Myself in the Face [February 20, 2007]

When it comes to things about which I feel great regret and shame, it’s very much pick a card, any card. Name a subject at random, and within 10 seconds I’ll have tied it to a painful memory.

Take cards, since we’ve already mentioned them. My daughter Brigitte has (or at least had, up until five years ago) a dry, fairly acidic sense of humour much like my own. Several years ago she and I and my girlfriend/her de facto stepmom Nancy and I went for a look-around at UC Cal, and wound up, because Brigitte wanted a sweatshirt depicting the campus’s bear mascot, in their campus store. She spotted some in a corner of the store – all in little kids’ sizes. “Well,” she sighed triumphantly, sorting through those that might have fit a two-year-old and moving on to those for their three-year-old siblings, “now all I need is to find my size.” I laughed so hard I thought campus police would be summoned to escort me off campus.

Not long thereafter, we went to visit my mother after I picked Brigitte up from school. My mother had got hold of a carton of oragne juice that had mysteriously exploded when she opened it. (Can you blame her for her catastrophic expectations? (Yes!)) She’d told me about it on the phone, and I’d relayed the information to Brigitte on our way over. When we walked in, Brigitte picked up the orange juice carton on the counter and quite seriously mused, “So this would be the offending orange juice?” I laughed so hard I could barely breathe.

But I don’t laugh remembering how, seeing that Nancy had left a deck of cards out, I asked Brigitte one Saturday afternoon when she was around 10 if she wanted to learn a new card game called 52 Pickup. She said sure. I tossed the deck of cards in the air. They fell all around us. “OK,” I said. “Pick ‘em up.”

I thought she’d smirk at me censoriously in that way those of us with acidic senses of humour do at one another. Instead, she burst into tears and wailed, “I’m so embarrassed.” I felt like two cents waiting for change.

I took her to Disneyland alone when she was around four, and insisted we go on the Matterhorn because my own mother had unwittingly taught me to be afraid of everything, and I’d paid a very high price for it. I remember pretending to be ill one Saturday afternoon when I was 11 because my pals wanted to see the very mildly scary The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, and I couldn’t handle anything much more intense than the sort of Disney stuff that inspired rides in Adventureland. I so wanted Brigitte to think of the world as a joyful, unscary place, and felt sure she’d find the Matterhorn exhilarating if she gave it a chance. When we got off it, she was literally trembling with terror. I remember that and want to punch myself in the face.

I could easily spend the night recounting memories from her childhood that make me want to punch myself in the face. And yet I always imagined, hugely flawed though I was, that I was a fairly terrific daddy.

The fact that she hasn’t spoken to me in five years – hasn’t allowed me to attend her high school graduation, hasn’t responded to invitations to my wedding, hasn’t acknowledged any of my countless emails or letters, didn’t enquire if I were alive or dead after the London terrorist bombings of July 2005, suggests that she feels otherwise.

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