A creative essay by Lara Lillibridge

I had not seen my father in several years, and I had no aching desire to change that. When I thought about my father, I felt nothing. He wanted to visit this past summer, and I didn’t know how to say no, for my children’s sake, if nothing else. Dementia was overtaking him, and the minute-hand of the clock was stealing the person I used to know—every day he was a little less the man I remembered. But I still did not want him to come. Whatever he had or had not been to me, it no longer mattered—I was a parent now, no longer in need of parenting.


When I was a child in my mother’s house, my brother and I spent our summers in the backyard. The grass was thick and dense beneath my bare feet, and the dark brown dirt always stained the pads of my toes. We carved fingernail x’s into our mosquito bites, in an effort to remove the itch. The cicada buzz reverberated in my ears, the tinny radio-static soundtrack of summer. I found their discarded robot/alien shells as clinging detritus on the tire-tread bark of the maple tree. The exoskeletons were the color of toast, slightly translucent. It took me a long time to realize the shells were empty and could not bite, and when I mustered the courage to touch them, they crackled into broken shards beneath my fingers.


I had spent a year plotting my father’s death when I was fourteen—I was going to push him down the brown carpeted stairs of his condo, and then inject alcohol into his veins and make it look like an accident. He was a doctor—syringes weren’t hard to come by, and I was overly confident in my ability to push a needle through someone else’s skin. In the end, I didn’t have hands that would push my father down the stairs, no matter how much my rage instructed them to. My hands were useless wounded birds controlled by my heart, which still yearned for a Daddy who loved me.


The years of unrequited love drained me of all emotion towards my father. I haven’t even been able to muster up anger in longer than I can remember. I have been full-grown for quite some time now. It is too late for him to requite my golden-retriever- like love, to fulfill all those hastily-made promises, or take me to the father/daughter dinner dance. Whatever I hadn’t gotten from him I no longer wanted. But his impending visit made me think I should try one more time, at least to appease everyone else. The night before he came into town, I thought about his attachment disorder diagnosis. Was it fair to shut him off if he was inherently incapable of feeling emotion? Hadn’t he tried the best he was able, small though that had been? He sent me stuffed animals each Christmas, weird ones, granted, like a three-foot- long snake made out of neckties or a weasel instead of the husky I had asked for, but he made time to go to a toy store and bought me something each year. He wrapped them up and wrote out a name tag with his favorite black pen. His handwriting was more familiar than his face. My father was always excited to see me, scooping me up in a tight bear hug and crushing my child-soft cheek against his black-and- red plaid Woolrich jacket.


He didn’t think it mattered that I only saw him twice a year as a child, and I have learned how quickly time passes when you are an adult compared to the never-ending feel of a child’s summer and the eternity of fifteen minutes when I rubbed the toes of my shoes in the brown-gray dirt and tried to guess how much time had passed. I decided to attempt to loosen my shell. Perhaps I could learn to see him through adult eyes. Maybe his attachment disorder really did explain all of his past failings, if only I would stop judging him so harshly. I knew we could not make up for the lost years, but perhaps it was not too late to develop some affection for the person he had become. Maybe a relationship could be had on new terms.


My father and I sat across the table from each other from each other and said nothing, like strangers at a train station. I looked at his eighty-year old hands, ropy with thick blue veins and corroded with deep lines. His fingernails were thick and clean and longer than mine. I felt nothing—not sympathy for an old, tired man, not remorse for all he had never been. I was no longer a daughter-abyss needing to be filled. We sat in silence and he looked into the distance blankly. I knew I was supposed to say something, but I had nothing left to say. My father just stared out towards my garden with unfocused eyes. When I tried to make small talk, he responded with words like, “oh,” words like air, words like emptiness. The cicada had flown, and the empty hard shell I had tried so hard to penetrate as a child was all that remained of my father.


My father peed on the toilet seat and I sat in it. My children asked why Grandpa got mashed potatoes all over the table when he ate. He tried to assemble a simple wooden toy with my seven-year- old and glued everything together backwards. My father, formerly an airplane pilot, boat captain and pediatrician, could no longer distinguish between his left and right hands, could not translate a map, could not follow a conversation to completion.


He asked to have a “heart-to- heart” with me before he left. I tried my best to avoid it. There was nothing he could say that would mean anything to me, and I hoped he didn’t expect reassurance of his parenting or proclamations of my love and appreciation. I just didn’t have it in me to pretend any longer. He stood up from the table where we were all sitting and asked to speak with me, and I could not come up with any more reasons not to. My father and I sat upstairs on my balcony, away from his wife and my family.

I could still see a tinge of brown in my father’s gray hair. His face was foreign to me. He had shaved off his beard when I was twenty, and had looked like a stranger ever since. Even though I had known him clean-shaven for more years than bearded. I always saw him through the eyes of a child, and his face was no longer the face of my childhood. I wondered if his front tooth had always been longer that it’s mate. I noticed how the extra weight he put on over the years filled in his wrinkles. He stared directly into my face, as he always had. I did not see him blink once. I could not sustain that level of eye contact, and looked at his hands instead.


My father told me about his dementia, his Parkinson’s Disease, and his relationship with his wife. He was sorry he was moving closer to her children than to me or my brother. He was afraid I felt spurned. He told me that he knew he couldn’t function like he used to, couldn’t carry on conversations or walk with his old, easy gait. His cicada words bounced off my daughter shell. I just wanted him to go home. I stared at his folded hands and made reassuring, meaningless noises, as was expected of a good daughter. But I was no longer a good daughter.

My father’s hands curled loosely on his lap, so I could not see his talon-like nails. The metacarpals rose in sharp ridges above the wrinkled red skin, his veins were bluer than his eyes. The skin on the backs of his hands was made of some material different from mine, something thinner and less opaque, like the skin of lips, that would chap and tear easily. The eighty years of his life didn’t show in his face, but were betrayed by those red, fragile hands. My body remembered his hands teaching me to tie off the boat at the dock, sew a patch on my jacket. My hands balled up so I would not reach out to stroke his fragile skin. I made an excuse to check on the children, and he followed me mutely down the stairs.

Lara Lillibridge is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College’s MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. In March of 2016 she was a top 5 finalist for DisQuiet’s literary prize in Creative Nonfiction, judged by Phillip Graham. She has had essays published in Pure Slush (Vol. 11), Vandalia, and Polychrome Ink; on the web at Huffington Post, The Feminist Wire, Airplane Reading, Thirteen Ways to Tell a Story, Weirderary, and Brain, Child Magazine‘s Brain, Mother blog. Some of her recent essays have been published in Hippocampus and Luna Luna. You can view some of her work at her website,, catch up with her blog at the Huffington Post, and follow her on Twitter @only_mama.


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