When I was 5, my parents took me to Mexico on a last-ditch effort family vacation before they got divorced. I remember fuchsia embroidery, photo-op giant lizards, dolls in sombreros, and having to order Coke without ice.
I remember digging my tiny feet into bathwater warm sand on the edge of the beach, watching the aqua foam hide and then expose my toes with every rhythmic wave. I walked in and out of the water, looking for pebbles and shells.
Halfway buried in a blond dome of dry sand a few feet away, I saw something shiny. It was for sure gold. I thought I had discovered Mayan treasure. I could already see the TV interviews and the mansion where we'd move. I picked up the glistening coin and held on to it for a while, knowing that my life was about to change.
After a few breaths of contemplative admiration at my new found fortune, I ran over to my parents who were talking to some Mexican guys, and showed them the loot from my archaeological dig. "GOLD," I announced, like an old-timey Alaskan pioneer.
"Oh great," my dad said. "Now I have enough change so I can do that." He pointed to a paraglider, his body casting a wisp of a shadow on the turquoise sheet of water.
Two things dawned on me:
1. My treasure was worth a few cents.
2. My dad was about to die.
I screamed bloody murder at the idea of him going up that far into the sky. When you're 5, your parents are your entire world, and I couldn't bear to see my world fly up in the Mexican clouds, surely to crash before my eyes into the Gulf of California.
He and my mom tried to reason with me: "It's so safe, look see that man is doing it, he's going to be in a harness like this, please Mari stop screaming."
But I knew. I knew what he didn't know: that I was saving his life, and that he'd thank me some day. After an extended sobbing episode, my dad conceded, "Okay." He looked at the Mexican guys and sighed, "Thanks anyway."
Over the past few years, I've wondered if I should apologize to my dad for anything. I've gone over it a million times: Why is it so hard to love me? I must have done something horrible but I can't think of anything. I could apologize, but I truly wouldn't know what for.
I decided a while ago that, if anything, I'd apologize for not letting him go paragliding in Mexico when I was 5.
I've been getting medical updates on my dad every couple days for the past month. It's very stressful to hear about someone's frequently-changing condition by email. You might know this already. So many ups and downs. So many frantic phrases, tempered by forced humor, concluding in questions.
A couple weeks ago I went to New York with my boyfriend, a person who felt at once safe and exciting--a combo I was beginning to think didn't exist. I'm not much for traveling with others, but I made the exception for him, and he whispered to me how much he appreciated it while we were listening to Louis Armstrong's "La Vie En Rose." We went out for extravagant dinners, we ate brunch at 2pm, we carved out candlelit moments to give each other compliments. "You talk in such a creative way." "You make everything feel like an adventure." "You're a really good dancer."
We held mittened hands down Fifth Avenue as I admitted to him that my dad was present on my mind, and I was remembering all the incredible things he introduced me to: Motown Records, Woody Allen, cuff links, Christopher Guest, the French language, contemporary art, the song "ABC" by the Jackson 5, opera, New York City, vegetarianism, Django Reinhardt, espresso, public transportation, postcards, Ray Charles, gun control laws, Malaysian food, baklava, chopsticks, expressive handwriting.
I told my boyfriend that I had decided what I wanted to say to my dad, after six years of silence: a list of everything I knew and loved because of him.
#1: Sam Cooke.
My man and I danced to Sam Cooke's "Having a Party" in a dimly-lit Upper West Side living room. I remembered doing the same with my dad in our brightly-lit Seattle living room two decades ago.
We broke up on the way home when I learned that the person he had been texting was not, in fact, his brother. A few days later, among medical update emails in my inbox, I found this gem, from the safe and exciting man whose copper beard tickled my face in that dimly-lit Upper West Side apartment a week ago as we danced to Sam Cooke:
"Your broken heart is not my problem."
That punch to the gut amplified the six-year-old question: Why is it so hard to love me?
People tell me the same thing about this guy that they do about my dad: "He's missing out." I shake my head. "No, I'm missing out." I'm missing out on dancing in the living room to Sam Cooke, on adventures in food and public transportation, and relationships I really want with people I really love.
My mom recently gave me her beloved locket--an art-deco, exquisitely-engraved round gold locket from the twenties. I remember her buying it because it was a very significant purchase, and I just adored it. She kept a picture of me inside. It had a monogram on the back in extravagant, illegible script. It had the prettiest lady carved into the front.
I loved it because she's wearing it in all my favorite photos of her.
I wore this locket last week to feel beautiful and loved on my own terms. I was sick of looking for affirmation where it didn't exist. I knew where it existed--from my incredible mother--and wearing her cherished necklace made me feel safe from my only 100% trusted source.
I lay the locket over a black velvet shirt, with my hair pulled back and my cheeks pink. It was my luxurious armor to face the day with the the simple elegance of the person I love most in the world. With it, I channeled her strength, and her sophistication.
I walked to work, as I do every morning. It was a clean, auspicious day. I listened to Frank Sinatra, I bought carrot juice, I saw shop owners opening up and I bought two small cups of coffee for the ritual--not the caffeine.
When I got to my office, I unwrapped my twice-raveled red scarf and draped it over my chair. The gold chain of my mom's precious locket slipped out and fell on the 80s green carpeted floor.
I gasped, and grasped my neck. "No no no no no," I said to the planets or God or the universe. I tore up my office, searching behind books and under lamps and even ceremoniously in drawers. Nothing. It would be the third time I'd burst into tears in my office in as many days.
A medical update was waiting for me in my inbox: "critical," "very poor prognosis," "come now."
I moaned over the loss of the locket. I hunched over my desk and sobbed for a solid ten minutes. I held the chain up to my cheek and ran it against my skin, trying to remember the strength I'd channeled an hour ago. I called the coffee shops, the front desk, clinging on to a shred of hope that maybe it just fell off the chain while I was coming into my office. Nothing.
The next morning, I walked my exact same route, but this time with my eyes on the sidewalk. I looked in leaf piles, in cracks, in gutters.
Toward the end of my walk, I saw something shiny. It was round, and it caught the light of the sun and the streetlight, just like my mom's locket. I quickened my pace and excitedly walked toward it.
It was just a penny.