I can just see you sitting there now, thoughtfully rubbing your forehead, racking your brain for the gift that I might be talking about. It was very obvious to me, even as a little girl, that you never thought that you were a good father. Part of that thinking was your own mind and the liquor and drugs talking, whispering evil into your ear about what a horrible father you were. The main reason why you thought that you were a bad father, as far as I can tell, is really because of Jennifer. She was always trashing you to me and she didn't stop there. No, she had the nerve to trash you right to your face, and proudly so.
But you weren't a bad father Dad. No, you were a terrific father, in fact. The best father that any child could have. The best father on Earth. Sure, you had your issues, but who doesn't? And, whether you believe it or not, you gave me many gifts that I still cherish today, long after you are gone.
Love is certainly one of the gifts that you gave me. Not just any love either. It was strong, unbreakable, unconditional love that nobody else in the family gave to me. Love that, even now, eight years after my loss of you, it is still tangible and it still gives me that warm, contented feeling inside whenever I think about it. Your love, Dad, is what shaped me to be the self-confident woman I am today. I'm not thinking about that particular gift right now, though. In fact, I didn't even discover this gift until very recently.
The gift that I'm talking about runs deep into my core. It is a gift that not very many parents are able to give their children. It is a gift that many people aren't strong enough to give. It is a gift that only a very few percent of the people in the whole wide world have the capacity to give to another human being. The gift I am speaking of, Dad is the gift of bravery. Now, I'm not speaking about just any bravery. I'm not talking about the kind of bravery it takes for a blind person to jump off of a wobbly diving board into a deep swimming pool for a school project or the kind of bravery that many people think I have for simply using my cane on a daily basis, traveling with it confidently, taking sure, confident steps as I move along. No, this kind of bravery runs way, way deeper. I'm talking about the bravery that it takes to not be afraid of certain people. Now are you catching on?
I thought so. The gift I'm talking about that you yourself gave me Dad, without even realizing that you gave me, was the gift of not being afraid of my mom. It took me a very long time to discover this gift and to begin applying it to my life, but finally, after twenty-four years, I've finally figured out how to use it.
Your gift to me was unlike any gift I have ever received. With a normal gift, the gift is presented to the person as a whole, meaning that the person gets all of the blouse or all of the house or all of the kitchen silverware and dish sets, not just part of them. Nobody really gets a part of a gift. At least I've never heard of that happening before. I'm pretty sure that the majority of the people all over the world would consider it impolite and rude to give someone only half of a gift. Many others would even find the idea of it outright offensive. Your gift to me, though, came to me in small increments. The increments came to me in perfect amounts and exactly at the right time.
It wasn't like I just woke up one day and said, "Oh hallelujah, I'm not afraid of my mother anymore! She's never going to hurt me again! In fact, I'll see to it that SHE becomes afraid of me for once. You know, give her a taste of her own bitter, sour medicine and then watch in satisfaction as she chokes on it!"
No, it didn't happen that way at all. In fact, as much as I hate to admit it, I am still a little afraid of her. Actually, I'm sometimes a lot afraid of her. Some days I'm practically fearless of her. I feel invincible, like, no matter what she tries to do, she won't succeed. On those brave, confident days, I imagine myself grabbing a large handful, maybe even two or three handfuls, of the gift. On those precious days, which are starting to come more and more frequently, I sometimes feel like, finally, FINALLY, after all these years; I am safe from her vicious temper and immune to her frequent, impulsive stunts. Other days, though, I dread her presence, cower at the very idea of being confronted by her one day when I am alone and not knowing what to do. On those days, I only get a pinch of your gift, a pinch no bigger than a Braille letter A. I still don't really know what I'd do if I ever did come across her lurking in the alleyway or watching me from a far and then, very sneakily and quietly like a snake, slithering over to me, just waiting for the right moment to strike.
I'd like to think that I would be able to find my lungs and scream, scream, scream as loud as I could for help, for someone to call the police and make her run away, bewildered and totally shocked by my sudden act of courage. I'd like to think that I'd simply take out my own cell phone and call 911 before she did anything to me, like drag me in her car, covering up my mouth so I couldn't scream, and drive me who knows where. By the way, Dad, if I ever do wind up missing and Chris can't find me and nobody else can, make sure that Jennifer gets caught. I'm not sure if you really do have any spiritual abilities where you are or the ability to haunt her, but if you do, make sure she gets busted and make sure I'm unharmed and traumatized as little as possible by the whole ordeal. I've told Chris time and time again that if I ever go missing to alert the authorities immediately and tell them to track Jennifer and her mother down, and any other members of my family for that matter. Mom and Grandma should be the main suspects, though, that's no joke. I told him that they should be the first suspects of my disappearance if it should ever happen that I disappeared mysteriously and without a trace.
I'd like to think that I could outrun my mom and get into a business and tell the workers to call 911. But sometimes I doubt my ability to do all those things. I don't doubt them as much as I used to but sometimes I still do. I fear that my lungs would be impossible to find right when I needed to scream, that my legs would turn to jello, and that I'd have the horrible displeasure of hearing my mother make her shrill, catlike laugh of satisfaction as she did whatever to me as I stood helpless, wishing that someone would stop the situation before I was really in trouble.
The fear of her used to overwhelm me. I used to walk quickly, chin down, hoping that she wasn't lurking somewhere, just waiting for the right moment. When I lived with Mom, she used to tell me that she saw me doing this or that when I was in school, which meant that, she was watching me without me knowing it. One time, when I was going to Green Lake to celebrate my friend Sara's birthday, Jennifer said to me, "Don't take a canoe out there in the lake without supervision. It's too dangerous."
"Okay," I told her but silently wondered how she would really know if I actually obeyed her order or not. I didn't really plan to go rowing on the lake but I still couldn't help wondering how she would really know.
As if she read my mind, she answered my silent question. For a moment I thought I had accidentally uttered it out loud, but I know that I didn't. I wasn't stupid.
"I'll know if you disobey," she said, an air of arrogance to her voice.
"I'll be watching."
Some people think that I am very paranoid. Many have even accused me of having a paranoid personality disorder. As far as I know, I don't have one. My fears are valid and they were created by Jennifer herself telling me that she was watching me when I didn't know she was and without my consent. Jennifer knows it, too, though she will never admit it. Her precious reputation would be jeopardized if she ever admitted it and, oh my Satan, the world would just end right then and there if THAT happened! Oh no, we can't have that!
The more time away that I've spent away from her, though, the fear has subsided some. There have been many times when I lay sleeplessly in bed, wondering how people could not be afraid of Jennifer. I wondered countless times; still do wonder sometimes, how YOU were never afraid of her. At least I've never seen you afraid of her before. Angry, yes! Depressed about the way she treats you, yes. Lovesick over her even, which, by the way still makes me want to puke whenever I think about it, yes. Never, though, in my entire life, have I seen you afraid of her.
A couple of weeks ago, while Chris and I were lying in bed together, I told him, "I wonder how it was that my dad was never afraid of Mom. I mean, she did some pretty horrible things to him."
"Like what?" Chris wanted to know.
"Well, I can't remember this because I was just a baby but, one time, while Mom was still pregnant with me in her womb, she tried to run Dad over with the car."
"Yeah, she did. Mom told me about it, bragged about it, in fact. I can't remember if she actually ran him over but I think she might have pushed him over with the car a little. He didn't get hurt, though, as far as I know."
"Why did she do that?"
"I have no idea. I guess, as usual, her temper got the best of her. Who knows."
"So, you've never seen your dad be afraid of your mom before? Ever?"
"No, I really can't think of a time when he feared her."
"Tell me about the times that you remember him not being afraid of her," Chris said as he gently wrapped his arm around me.
"Well, there was this one time when Mom came over to pick me up from his house," I started to tell him.
"I remember we were sleeping and it was noon, maybe even a little later than that. I wasn't expecting her to come over because I thought that she was flying into Miami, Florida visiting Tim. That's where Grandma Giovanna told me she'd be anyway. I don't know why she thought that's where Mom would be, but whatever. Normally she would fly into Miami or Fort Lauderdale or Fort Meyers and then either drive herself to Naples or she would have Tim pick her up at the airport. He was living in Naples, Florida then and Mom and I were still in Washington. She didn't call before she came over, she just came. I knew it was her even before she got out of her car because I could hear the gears making that awful grinding sound that always signaled her awful approach whenever she came to fetch me. She turned off her car, got out, and a few seconds later, she knocked on the door. Dad made a groaning sound, stretched lazily, and then just laid there in bed. Mom knocked again, harder and more impatient this time. Dad got up and answered the door.
"What are you doing here?" he asked her, his voice deeper than usual because he was still sleepy. He would have kept right on sleeping peacefully if she hadn't showed up. I would have, too. I think I had been somewhat awake when she came over but just barely. When I heard the grinding sound, though, and the sound of that familiar car engine, it had jolted me completely awake. I knew I would be in deep shit for sleeping in so late.
"I'm here to pick up Ashlee," Jennifer said angrily.
"Why else would I be here?"
She stomped up the steps that lead inside of the trailer and marched to the bedroom where I still lay in bed, frozen with fear.
"Ashlee, get up!" she yelled.
"Get dressed and go brush your teeth! For pete's sake, half the day is gone!"
"Okay," I said, grinding my teeth in anger at how my voice trembled.
I got up and rummaged around for clothes that I could wear that were clean. When I found a pair, I started taking my pajamas off. Mom snatched up the shirt that I was about to put on and took a big whiff of it.
"Phewwwww!" she roared.
"It smells like smoke! Don't you have anything that is actually clean in there? Come on, hurry up! You should have been dressed hours ago!"
"The shirt is clean," I told her.
"No it's not!"
"Well, that's the last shirt I have. Everything is going to smell like smoke to you because Dad smokes. I'll change when we get home."
"You'll take a shower first!" she snapped, yanking my chin up roughly, causing me to bite my tongue.
"You're hair's greasy! When was the last time you took a shower?"
Before I could think of what to say, she snatched a pick out of her purse and began plowing through my hair with it, ripping it painfully as she kept raking through it, not bothering to stop even though I was in obvious pain.
"OOOOOWWWWW!" I finally yelled when the pain became unbearable.
"Shut up!" She hissed at me.
"Go grab a hair tie. We need to get this filthy hair up in a ponytail."
Relieved by the prospect that she would have to quit ripping my hair out of my head in order for me to get a hair tie, I started walking to the bathroom.
"I thought you were going to Florida," I told her.
"Well I didn't," she snarled.
By this point, Dad had had enough.
"Jennifer," he said quietly from the living room where he was lighting up a smelly cigarette.
"What." Her voice had softened, too. It had lost all of its sharpness and all traces of evil intent vanished. It was like she was afraid of DAD!
"Come here," Dad said to her, his voice choked with fury.
Mom walked the three or four steps over to him.
Her voice became more frantic then, like she saw something in Dad's eyes that scared her then, or at least made her think twice before yelling anymore nasty things at me.
I could hear the door open and then Mom and Dad's footsteps as they walked outside. I wondered if Dad was dragging Mom outside by the arm or if she was walking on her own accord.
Dad closed the door but only a little. I stood very still in the bathroom, listening.
"Don't talk to Ashlee like that," Dad growled at her. Slowly, very slowly, I inched the bathroom door open so that I could hear what he was saying better. The door made a creaking sound and I cringed, not wanting to attract attention to myself. That was the LAST thing I wanted and needed at that point.
Miraculously, Mom remained silent. Dad took advantage of that and kept talking.
"I don't know what your fucking problem is but you will NOT speak to her like that. EVER! Just because you're a miserable son of a bitch doesn't mean that you can take it out on Ashlee. You'd better watch how you treat her bitch or I'll come after you."
What Dad meant by "coming after you" meant I'm not sure. I hoped that it meant that he would take her to court and fight for custody of me. Full custody without the possibility of visitations for Mom. But first he'd need to get clean and sober and that alone, I knew, would take a very long time. I tried not to let that discourage me and told myself to focus on the present. As it was, the present was way more exciting. Mom had completely lost all traces of bravado. Now she just stood there with my dad silently, watching him smoke.
I came to Mom with the hair tie then and noticed how much gentler she was at handling my hair. I wished I could thank my dad, hug and kiss him, but now wasn't the time. He smelled terrible because of the cigarette smoke and I was in too much of a hurry to comply with Mom's orders so as not to set her off again.
"I still have to brush my teeth," I told her. I was hungry but I knew my mom wasn't in the mood to wait around for me to eat breakfast.
"No, you need to eat breakfast first," Dad said kindly to me, gently brushing my cheek with his flaky finger. His skin was always flaky and peeling off, especially during the winter months when it was bone chilling cold out and there was hardly any sun. Cold weather was hard on his entire body but especially his skin.
"I don't think I can have breakfast with you," I said sadly.
"Mom won't let me I'm sure."
"Yes she will." My dad's voice was stern. It sounded very abnormal coming from him. Rarely did he use a firm tone when he spoke to me, so much unlike my mother, who was always barking stern orders and commands at me like I was some sort of wild, untamable animal.
"Can I?" I asked Mom, afraid that if I took Dad's word for it there would be hell to pay once we got home.
"Yes, I guess so. You have to eat, don't you?"
Mom's voice was cold and clipped. I knew then how much difficulty she was having keeping her temper in check. I could tell it was taking almost all of her energy. I wondered if she would manage to contain it during breakfast and thought that I had better eat it in a rush so as not to risk it.
Dad poured me a big, round bowl of cheerios all the way to the top. Normally I wasn't crazy about cheerios but, since Dad himself was the one who poured them and because I was too scared to protest about anything because Mom was so close to me, I ate them without complaint. If Mom hadn't been there, Dad would have surely made me a much fancier breakfast and he would have joined in the feast with me. We would either have had French toast with cinnamon and maple syrup and scrambled eggs with sausage links. We might have had egg sandwiches with Miracle Whip and Mayonnaise and Ketchup with the sausage links and maybe some fruit. Sometimes Dad would have cantelope and watermelon around to munch on with breakfast. Or we would have had cream of wheat, filled with lumps of sugar and butter and milk. Most people don't like lumps of sugar in their cream of wheat but they were my favorite part. For today, though, there would only be cheerios. And today, he would not be eating with me. I guess he was too angry to eat.
Dad turned on the TV and he and Mom began watching it without talking. I think the Simpsons were on but I can't remember. I do remember that it was a TV show that Mom would not have watched if she had control of the remote. But, since it was Dad's house and since he had given her a good, hard scolding for treating their daughter like crap, she kept her tight, rigid mouth shut.
As I ate, the tension in the room subsided a little and Mom and Dad started making small talk. Mom and Dad laughed a little but I could tell it wasn't really genuine. If I wasn't under so much stress I might have enjoyed the fact that Mom and Dad were sitting together, watching TV and laughing, even though the laughter did sound forced. The anxiety in my stomach was unbearable, though, and I knew that the instant that Mom was in the safety of her car, all that pent up, held in wrath would come loose with a boom. And since I was the only person in the car with her, it would only have one thing to focus its attention on. You already know what THAT thing might be."
Chris and I lay very still for a while. I didn't go on to tell Chris what happened once I left the safety and security of the trailer. I knew that if I did tell him, my own anger would be very hard to reign in. And since the baby was asleep I didn't want to wake her up by filling my brain with negative thoughts. Amira is very sensitive. If I am having a panic attack or am feeling angry or sad, she will wake up from the deepest of slumbers and will wail until I have managed to calm my racing thoughts and think of more relaxing things, like the lazy dogs. I'll tell you about them later.
"Can you think of another time your dad was not afraid of your mom?" Chris asks gently.
I think for a moment and then tell him.
"Well, Dad used to call Mom when he was drunk and chew her out. He used to yell at her for being such a whore. He'd call her horrible names like tramp, cocksucker, scoundrel, and cunt. The messages would make her really mad and that, in turn, would make me smile. I don't know if it was the alcohol in his system that was making him brave or what. I do know that, whatever it was, there was no room for fear in the hate-filled messages that he left my mother."
This letter is not finished yet but I must go. I don't really know why but it's hard to write about all the thoughts that the Disgusting Project is bringing up for me. I do plan on finishing this letter, just like I plan to finish the Facebook Story and the Home Bitter Home story. I guess our gifts to each other are very similar. Like father, like daughter. Your gift of courage comes in little doses, just right for each unique situation. My gifts to you, which are my heartfelt letters, also come in little drifts, like little summer breezes on a sunny day on the Indianola beach on a low tide.
I love you Dad. I wonder if you can remember the story I told Chris, too. Whatever made you not fear my mom, I'm not sure of. All I know is that it's slowly being passed on to me from you, and I love it, need it even, to survive and run my own life, something I've yearned to do for as long as I've lived on this earth.