Today Mom is taking me to see Dad’s lab at Michigan State. It’s his college where he goes to learn about trees. We live in an apartment, and Dad rides his bike to the lab. I am wearing my Spartans shirt like the college kids. I’m almost five. Most kids here are younger.
It’s sunny and Mom is sitting outside our screen door. She likes to get a tan. I watch.
Mom comes from her big chair to go to the bathroom. She pushes her face on the screen. She wants to come in, but she can’t.
“Why can’t you open the door, Mom?”
She kind of laughs and says, “You locked me out. Are you trying to trick me?”
I say, “Are you trying to trick me?” I don’t know how to lock it.
“Were you playing with it?”
“I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
She tells me, “Push the little plastic thing up.” She keeps saying it and I am feeling worse. She’s not mad, but I feel dumb. I feel bad that she can’t get to the bathroom. It feels scary that she can’t help me. I cry. I cover my face. She touches the screen with her hand and tells me to touch it where she does. I like it. A way of holding hands.
Some of my friends and their parents come to the door. They try to tell me how to unlock the door. Too many people are talking. They think I’m dumb. They think I don’t like Mom.
I still can’t unlock it. The people stop talking about the door and just tell funny stories.
This problem is taking a long time. Mom never takes this long to fix problems. She can do anything.
Our neighbor says he can take the door off from out there. He brings his hammer and screwdriver like Dad’s. The door comes off, Mom hugs me and I cry again. I hold on to her.
“Am I in trouble? Can we still go to the lab?”
“Of course we can,” she says. “You scared me!”
“Please don’t leave me again. I don’t like being in here alone.”
Mom looks back at the neighbor, and says, “Leave that damn door off please.”
Years later, when I was nine, I stood with my dad in a crowded hospital waiting room. He seemed mighty then. He was tall and broad, a strong pillar. I was about to get my tonsils out. He had on a heavy winter coat. The room was very warm, but I was clinging to him, so he never took off his coat. He could see I was anxious, so he held my hand. I was always anxious when I didn’t know that to expect—especially when it came to doctors. Would it hurt? Would I get a shot? Would I bleed?
I was starting to feel calm, when suddenly my dad’s hand let go and he fell backwards, crashing loudly into a rack of coats that seemed to swallow him. My small lone hand was stretched toward him and I was standing there alone. His eyes looked weird to me, like he was falling asleep. I had never seen anything like this before. I could not tell if was he was dying. And all these strangers were reacting. It seemed like things stood still, like a long time passed. People were talking but I was inside my head unable to accept what I saw. I was shaking. I was crying. Pure terror!
Eventually I was told he fainted from being overheated, and would be fine. His hand letting go was the hardest. Dad slipping away. A mighty man had fallen.
A growing sense of absence followed Dad’s fall. I was on my own. There was no hand to hold me. I began to see that I was separate, and this introduction to separateness was unsettling. I sensed I was vulnerable to loss, cautious of the many dangers of the world. I realized Mom and Dad would eventually slip away forever.
In college, I replaced my father with older guys I admired. They had answers for everything. I looked for a strong human hand, a confident voice that what would tell me I’m OK, that I am successful. I would not have to stand there alone with my small lone hand in a scary world. I had trouble accepting my separateness, my individuality. Too vulnerable. Too much uncertainty. I was so impressed with their charisma that I rarely questioned their opinions. I idolized them. I tried to please and impress them. I looked to them to speak for God. But they eventually fell like Dad.
Even so, for a few more years I searched for the strong hand. And then each one slipped away. One moved to Portland. I lost interest in another. Around this time, I developed the habit of contemplative reading. The feeling of absence had grown for all those years, and created longing. One morning as I read Isaiah, I felt noticed, known, and invited: “I, the Lord God, hold your right hand… Fear not, I am the one who helps you.” This hand brought a consoling presence into my consuming fear, reaching into that place where Dad let go. But it was also a hand I feared would grip too tight, leaving me hemmed in. So I continue to approach and avoid.
Recently one of the men I idolized for decades appeared in a dream. He was a guy I feared, not a man known for warmth and affection. In the dream he noted one of my accomplishments. His face said he was impressed. I started to retell it, even boast of it. He said, “Don’t tell the story, I know.” Instead, he grabbed my hand and held it. A long and warm handshake with both palms. He kindly looked in my eyes. No words. When he let go, and we parted, I was OK. Not alone.