Today, my father would have turned 68. Birthdays were painful and challenging reminders in the last years of his life — of absence, of things lost, of broken dreams and a body giving way to frailty. They were often difficult for me, too, knowing he felt there was little to celebrate but wanting to float some bright ribbon of joy across the ocean that separated us. Now that he is gone, there is, of course, a different kind of sadness, sometimes shaded in regret. But there is also love, so much love.
This piece, which was published in January 2013, three months after his death, by Calkins Media, where I wrote a column for many years, captures what was always there but often so blurred by struggle.
I share it now because I’ve written a lot about my dad over the years but this is my favorite story, and one that brings sweet solace, especially at this time. Happy birthday, Dad. There will be mangoes today.
The memory surfaces repeatedly.
Since my dad died last October, it is the one to rise, always, like a skyscraper, from the mind’s clogged and disappearing roads. When people tell me to hold onto the good memories, when I think they’ve all deserted me, this is how my father comes to me: in cut-off jeans and worn plaid button-down, the dark moon of his face a sheen of concentration, as his calves, sleek and sinewed, flash through branches bearing a heady fragrance.
Every now and then, his head pokes through a leafy patch, breaks above the green gloss, and he grins, as if to reassure my brother and me though I think it is because he likes this hero’s task, this mini-adventure that has pulled us from the lazy routine of Saturday morning cartoons.
I am about 9, my brother 7, and we are standing in the yard in St. Lucia, under the mango tree my dad has scaled. The fruit has ripened, honeyed oblongs of velvet orange that are heavy, fat with sticky promise, and slightly soft to the touch. I do not remember why my dad decided to climb the tree on that particular morning — we bought mangoes aplenty from the market in weeks past and could have easily waited to retrieve what fell to the ground — but I do recall his strength, the nimble grace with which he measured his weight on each branch, our teasing Tarzan reliving a boyhood sport.
My brother and I follow his every move, rushing forward with open arms when he clambers down with laden hands or laughing as we jostle each other to catch the one or two tossed from lower branches. Some thump to the ground before he can reach them and we gingerly inspect the flesh, deciding if they are good enough to add to the bounty in our cardboard box. Of course, our dogs, Agent and Tina, want their fair share, as well, and keeping them from sinking their teeth into the fruit is an amusing kind of nuisance.
Occasionally, my dad’s voice, brisk and stern, filters down to us with some instruction or warning for the dogs, but mostly he is jovial, relishing these stray moments of rolling laughter and ease. And then the first ant stings, and suddenly, it seems the tree is swarming with them, a red and angry colony bent on scaring him away. But despite his grimace, and our worried calls, he persists, picking every mango he can, as if reaching not just for the nectar and pulp but for some joy, sweet and impossible but stunningly close on that day.
When he finally emerges from the deep green canopy, it isn’t to tend to his puckered skin or bemoan the bitter ants. No, there are mangoes to be eaten. And so he chooses a succulent handful, and the three of us sit under the tree, tearing into the smooth, thin skin, the fibrous flesh, letting the juice dribble down our chins, the lushness crown a morning’s rare and wonderful enterprise.
Sometimes I wonder if memory has imbued those moments with a magic that wasn’t there, if I have pilfered details from a fabled rapture or solace. But it does not matter, for in that snapshot of time, I see my father. Not the man beleaguered by misfortune and a failing body withered to bone at his death, not the one who’d spent his last two decades raking through the detritus of dreams. I do not see the father I wanted but didn’t get, the man I learned to love past the gaping longing, our collisions of wishes and hopes.
Through that lens, I see him in all the splendor of his most cherished role: clever and playful, capable and determined, devoted beyond whatever peril may come. There, he is a sheltering arm, a sun fixed not on the stain of sacrifice but the sweetness that lifts its dark spread. And I know this to be an extract of his essential self — the way he wanted to be seen, even when physical distance and chronic hardship contorted him into a phantom of that man.
I think that is why I keep turning that memory of our mango-picking over in my mind, resurrecting it from a recall barren of such carefree enchantment, such bright spontaneity in the years swallowed by illness and regret. Though we loved each other through those years, our attempts to express that love often felt like a clash of foreign tongues, both of us using the same words but speaking a language freighted with yearnings undecipherable to the other.
For years, I wished my dad would see me, not the framework of a life I’d built or the colors and details he longed to fill in himself. I wanted him to look beyond expectation and the markers he’d set as I followed one childhood achievement with another, to stop dreaming of the future politician or international businesswoman, to find me somehow complete in being a woman making the most of gifts such as kindness and joy, optimism and faith, the one who saw her successes reflected in the bonds she’d forged, the circles where she moved.
But it seemed I was forever falling short, stacking up in ways that kept us locked outside a genuine fulfillment.
Then, in 2010, my dad sent me an unusual four Christmas cards, and as I read each one, I could imagine him repeatedly returning to the racks in the card shop, thumbing through card after card, searching for the one that would read like an echo of his heart. I imagine he found the simple and spare one first — “Christmas wishes to a special daughter” — and then stumbled upon another — “A daughter is a blessing to be proud of …” — before finding at last, perhaps in another store, two so fitting, he had to get them both.
In them was every acknowledgment I’d ever hoped for, every awareness of the gifts and talents uniquely mine, of the light I tended within.
On the back of the one I cried the most reading, he’d hastily scrawled: “Why so many cards? The truth is they convey in words what I’m unable to demonstrate often in person!”
It was the first time I’d felt received by my dad in the fullness of who I was, my first realization that he knew me in the ways I’d ached to be known.
And so when I picture him climbing that mango tree, all cheerful intensity and resolute commitment, when I remember the scent of sugar and sunshine and feel the pleasure welling from our syrup-stained lips, I am receiving him, too. I see him, my father, really see him. And I love him. As he was, as he remains, in the role of a lifetime — proud, unstinting and true.