My parents divorced when I was 6-years-old and the only grandfather I ever knew died that same year. Due to my dad’s intense struggle with Bi-Polar Disorder, my relationship with him was fully severed by the time I turned 10. My dad’s death in 2013, erased all hope of ever reestablishing a connection with him.
Funny how you think you’ve worked through your painful past, and then, one smell can catapult you back in time. Generally, therapy, and perspective have produced a fossilized, impenetrable balm over my fatherless childhood. But then, one sensory trigger, and the scab that took decades to form is yanked off once again….
My husband hopped in the front seat of the cab we’d ordered to take us to the airport. While chatting about our plans for vacation, my son and daughter shuffled into the back. As I sank into the vinyl seat next to them, the unique blend of unbathed flesh, filthy clothing marinated in spilled food, and neglected teeth set my neurons on fire. The stench was unmistakable, it was my father’s trademark odor. Images tumbled into my consciousness; a thick layer of dust on ragged furniture, piles of unwashed dishes sitting in an overflowing sink, a blue toilet carpeted with black mold.
In a sliver of a second, I am 7-years-old and sitting with my big sister on the floor of our dad’s apartment. The worn, dishwater-gray carpet is so thin, that thorns of splintered wood poke through and scrape our bottoms. Towers of tattered, dog-eared books cover my father’s dresser where his diplomas hang neatly on the wall above. Why did he have to display those diplomas? Was it to remind us that once upon a time he was a brilliant scholar with a boundless and bright future? Or to remind himself?
Even at 7, I knew my dad would never put his advanced degrees to use. I didn’t understand mental illness, I just knew he wasn’t like the other dads. I hated visiting him in his unheated apartment with no hot water or even a television to fill the torturous hours that stretched before us. My sister and I would read or play with the Barbie dolls we brought from home. These distractions helped us ignore our father’s erratic behavior.
My own children negotiate who will get the coveted window seat on the airplane and my husband happily makes conversation with the cab driver. They all seem oblivious to the horrendous odor and our driver’s obvious hygiene shortfall. I am a million miles away excavating the labyrinth of my memories. My father’s stink evokes a visceral queasiness that bubbles up from my soul. I want to leap out of the cab as it barrels down the highway to escape the stench invading my nostrils. His signature scent chisels through layers of time to the fear, shame, and disappointment that remain cemented to my core.
The cab hardly comes to a rolling stop before I open the rear door and greedily inhale the glorious airport exhaust fumes. My husband, laser focused on getting the luggage and paying the driver, fails to notice the expression on my face. We check our luggage and navigate through the security line, while I silently try to reel my way back to 2018.
Once through the X-ray and metal detectors, I hear my husband, son, and, daughter debate over what snacks to buy for the airplane ride. I’m a slow walker and always a few paces behind them when we’re in a hurry. Nobody notices when I trail farther back.
My family is now a full gate ahead of me. The space between them and me is growing. I strain to keep them from becoming specks in the ocean of people dotting the maze-like airport. My husband walks swiftly in the middle of our two kids. There they are—my loves, the stars in my sky. My whole world is wrapped up in those three dots. My kids are laughing with their father as my daughter holds her daddy’s hand. The small gesture portrays a closeness I never knew with my own dad.
I think about how my husband’s scent will forever trigger cherished childhood memories for my daughter. As she grows older, the clean fragrance of plain white bar soap will nourish her with recollections of father-daughter dances, tandem kayak adventures, nature walks, strolls through farmers markets, sunsets over the lake, towering tomato vines planted in our backyard, and cooking gourmet dinners with her dad.
I see my son walk shoulder to shoulder with his dad. The smell of roasted peanuts will remind him of summer baseball games with his favorite scorekeeper. Long after he grows into a man, my son will remember playing basketball in the backyard after dusk, tossing a baseball around, going to the movies, and studying the stock market with his father.
It was in that moment, as I struggled to push my way through the crowd and reach my family that it hit me. Daughters don’t get to choose their fathers, but we do get to choose the father of our children. I know this is not some original earth shattering revelation. Yet, I do think it’s a magnificent part of the human experience; our future need not be determined by a painful past.
I can’t go back in time, but I can honor my father’s memory by openly talking about mental illness; a topic that was shrouded in secrecy in my family (and our country) for decades. Equally as important, I can show other girls enduring fatherless childhoods that they too may one day have the chance to choose a father.