I spend lots of time at my kids’ school.
They’re fortunate to go to the type of school that encourages active parental involvement. One of the benefits of spending so much time on campus is learning new things about my children. For example, I know from other parents and teachers that Talia is clearly a social butterfly. There are third-graders who know Baby T — she’s all of three years old, BTW — and I have zero idea how. That impresses and frightens me.
I also know that Alexia is somewhat of a teacher’s pet. All the teachers love her, which is nice, especially when you consider her father was a constant thorn in teachers’ side for most of his educational life.
Last night was Open House night, essentially where the school puts on its best face and shows what your children are up to after you drop them off in the morning. We visited classrooms, saw science displays with wires and LEGOS, art projects that ranged from surprisingly creative to downright bewildering, and various notebooks on specific topics.
The big surprise was when we were in Alexia’s class. We saw her immaculate desk and a cute art display that showed what Alexia’s mood would be like if she, like Jonah, were swallowed by a whale (spoiler alert: she was not happy about it). It was all adorable and cute and fodder for many cute Instagram collages.
And then I saw what was on the east wall of the classroom.
Alexia and her classmates were asked to write and illustrate a special wish for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year (my girls go to a Jewish day school). Alexia’s wish touched my soul like nothing has in a very long time.
A bit of context, and apologies in advance for the rambling nature of this post.
My father died quite a while ago. A lifelong smoker, cancer claimed him in the summer of 1994. My relationship with my dad was a bit complicated, for a number of reasons. My parents separated back when I was 11 and I was mostly raised by a single mother of exceptional fortitude and effort, Senora Luisa Avila (Hi, mom!). My parents actually reconciled in the early 90s. By this time, I was away at Florida State University, working to become the first college graduate in my family.
I was of course thrilled my parents were back together, but still kept my relationship with him…at arm’s length. I was at a point in my life where I was bound and determined to make my own way and had tunnel vision. I needed to become my own man, always looking forward and not behind. At least that’s what I told myself.
It’s taken me many years to understand that part of my standoffish attitude and resistance to my reunited parents was resentment. I have a great many friends who are/have been blessed to have been raised by both parents. I saw it with my own two eyes, how having two caring parents working together could make a real impact on a child. And ultimately, I missed out on that. And it bothered me. It took me years to realize and accept that. And that knowledge fuels me now as a parent on a daily basis.
Back when my father fell ill — and his disease came hard and fast, and without mercy — I reacted like most people who hear of a parent being gravely ill. I came home a bit more often from school, and tried to lift his spirits by indulging in the things my dad and I loved to do together. We went to Dolphins training camp (he worshipped Dan Marino), took him to a Marlins-White Sox exhibition game so we could boo Michael Jordan in the outfield…and talked about old movies. I even remember driving him home one day and a song comes on the radio. “My Hometown,” by Bruce Springsteen.
My mom actually turned me on to Bruce’s music and even took me to my first Springsteen show. But I had no idea my dad liked him. When the song was over, Dad said quietly, “Man, I always liked that song.” Hmm. He liked Springsteen. I could work with that.
It felt like a corner had been turned. But his health declined rapidly, and within a few weeks, he was gone. A lot of my memories from the summer of ’94 are quite jumbled, because I was in a fog for a few weeks after his death. I couldn’t process it well. It actually felt like I was in shock, now that I think about it.
About a year ago, Alexia first asked me about my dad. Why wasn’t he around, daddy? Where is he? Why have I never met him?
Any parent can understand the terror that seized my body by these questions. On the list of Least Desirable Parent-Daughter Talk Topics, talking about death with your five year-old daughter ranks just below dating conversations. We spoke about it, and I talked gently about her grandpa becoming very sick and going to heaven, and that was that. She’s never brought up to me again.
So to walk in to her classroom and see her handwritten wish nearly made my knees buckled. The only reason I didn’t burst into tears right then and there is because Alexia was tearing up watching me read the message. I had to gather myself to help my little girl, because I could see it was suddenly becoming overwhelming to her.
All I’ve been able to think about since then is, how does a six year-old manage that reserve of compassion and affection for someone she’s never met? I expected a wish for a new toy or a trip to Disney World. But to visit the cemetery to pay respects to her grandpa?
To see how much family means to her, and how important it is to her to maintain some kind of connection even to those relatives who she will never meet in person, was incredible. The fact that it also means my dad still has some place in our family, even though he’s been gone more than two decades, also means alot to me.
I’ve already promised to take her to Dad’s gravesite to lay flowers and have a little conversation with him. You always want your children to grow up and do better, be better, than you. That wonderful message right there told me Alexia is already well on her way.
That was a great day (sniff, sniff).