Two-minute thanks but no thanks but thanks

Note: Last fall I found myself tearing up over a Chipotle soda cup, or, more precisely  Tom Perrotta’s Cultivating Thought piece, “Two-minute Thank You”.

If they were terrified, neither of them showed it as they corralled an exhausted and cranky preschooler in a crumpled blue dress while maneuvering three carryon bags down the jet bridge. It was their first international flight, the flight that would carry the three of us to live in another country. I was four and fearless, because they didn’t let on that they had any doubts. They would never tip their hand, not once in fourteen years. Because I assumed they were fearless, I also would remain fearless right up until the moment I got on a plane to move back to the U.S. for good at 18, when I would maneuver a rolling suitcase down a jet bridge, and then freeze in abject terror.

*******

My unwavering faith in Santa Claus carried me through ten Christmases. Perhaps my parents wanted to preserve the magic for me. Perhaps they thought I would grow out of it once my friends started telling me I was wrong.  They didn’t anticipate that, with the fervor of a true believer, I would become a fourth-grade Santa apologist, browbeating skeptics until other children learned to change the subject whenever the conversation turned to Christmas. They didn’t even break the news to me the year I was five, when my father lovingly and secretly designed and built a wonderful doll house, a doll house that, unfortunately, did not match the exacting specifications I had laid out for Santa. When it appeared beside the tree with a tag indicating it was from Santa, I stood indignantly in my underwear, hands on my hips, and spat “This was NOT what I asked Santa for at all.” I was a hateful little monster to my father, whom I adored, and I didn’t even know it. I wouldn’t know it until I was in high school, when I found the video tape of that Christmas and slid it into the player for a laugh. I saw his hurt face, saw him maintain his composure, and my own fifteen-year-old face burned with shame. I wanted to wail at the television, “You should have told me!”

*******

I stopped speaking to them for months at a time, wrapping myself in destructive relationships and pain, reveling in the toughness of a life in the big city that they knew nothing about. I was in a self-imposed exile from the moment she uttered the words “If people found out, your father could lose his job”. I got texts and emails that I ignored most of the time. Occasionally I would jot back a response “I’m fine.” Then I sunk back into silence as the summer slipped away. I ignored father’s day, and my father’s birthday. My mom wrote that he was hurt. I was sleeping on the floor of an apartment I couldn’t afford in a neighborhood that terrified me with a girlfriend who was finished with our relationship. I was hurt, too.

I ignored every phone call after that, deleted every email and every text message without reading them. One day the seminary called. “Your dad was here looking for you,” Sara said, sounding concerned. “He said he went to your old apartment and didn’t know you’d moved.”

I hung up. I dialed his number. “Where are you?” I asked.

“Where are you?” he responded.

“I’ll be home in about an hour. Here’s the address. Come find me.”

He got out of the van as I rode up on my bike, and said nothing about my buzzed hair, my baggy cargo shorts. He just hugged me and said “How’s it going?”
I was so tough. I avoided his eyes, I told breezy lies about how well I was doing.

He took my picture so he could show my mother that I was o.k.

Just more than a month later, he drove the twelve hours once more to pick me up when I once again asked him to come find me.

*******

My mother handed me an envelope just before they boarded the plane to Africa. They looked small, and not quite so fearless as I remembered them.

I opened the envelope, it was a card.

I’ll miss you, it said, in my mothers neat hand. We love you so much.

I’m sorry for the mistakes I’ve made, it said.

I slid it into the glovebox. Six months later, while I was cleaning the car to sell, I found it. I opened it again, let the mistakes wash over me. I closed it. I tossed it into the plastic bag with the rest of the fast food receipts, abandoned soda straws, and work memos.