None of the Father’s Day cards were right this year. They weren’t right last year, either, or the year before that. There are never any cards for dads in-between, the “Hey you could have beat me but you didn’t so points for that I guess” dads.
And yet I persist in trying to find a card for him so that, in some small way, he can feel like a normal dad and I can feel like a normal daughter. It’s a small thing to try and make up for the big things. For instance, I can’t even pretend that he’s going to walk me down the aisle on my wedding day.
This was supposed to be a wedding invitation, but I can’t invite you to my wedding, because there isn’t a wedding, because I can’t even tell my boyfriend I love him without mumbling and leaving out important pronouns.
Everything I am is because of you, Dad.
He would know it, too. If I got him a “You are the light of my life, dear old Dad” card, we would both know it wasn’t true. He still might attach it to his fridge with that grad school university magnet I bought him for Christmas last year, but we would know.
“My father raised me a Cowboys fan,” I tell people when sports comes up. Then I wait a beat before adding, “even though he claims to love me.”
I stop there, waiting to see the person’s response. I’m hoping it will be laughter, and about half the time, it is. I’m relieved by this, because if they don’t laugh, they’ll probably just stay silent. Maybe they’ll stare at me.
That quiet could easily signal confusion. My mind knows that, even when my body doesn’t.
As a kid, the bad nights were the silent ones. It meant me, my mom and brother grabbed the dogs and took refuge in my brother’s room, because that was as far away as we could get from my dad without leaving the house. Occasionally we did leave the house, and that meant my brother and I went straight from the Best Western to first period social studies or math.
The house was still and chilly on nights like that. My brother was infamous for keeping his room cold enough to cure meat, yet the rest of the house felt icy in a way that didn’t involve room temperature.
Silence is guilt. It’s the fear that I’ve already fucked up, that saying something else will just magnify the original offense.
I’m not a kid anymore.
So now I browse the greeting card aisles at drugstores and supermarkets. I tell myself I have nothing to feel guilty for. I should break the damn cycle already. I should just say something, anything. Awkward but well-meaning sentiment is better than nothing.
There are no cards about the Cowboys, no glossy paper stock with a shiny blue star embossed on the front.
Or maybe there are, and I’ve just never looked in the right places.
The Dallas Cowboys were my father’s first, and perhaps last, true love.
He grew up in the poorest part of Oklahoma, among the pot holes and chicken houses of McCurtain County. Texas lay just across the Red River, and so the local radio station carried Cowboys games every Sunday. My dad was glued to the radio every Sunday during the glory years of Roger Staubach and Tom Landry. The team won two Super Bowls in the 70s, the first when my dad was in junior high, and the second when he was in high school.
When my older brother was born, my dad must have pictured watching Cowboys games with him in front of the TV, then cheering him on as he took to the football field Friday night as a starting quarterback, or at least wide receiver.
My brother showed a brief interest in football, but it passed quickly. He lined up at tight end in seventh and eighth grade, but left the team around freshman year, later telling me he was turned off in part by the coach proclaiming they would “play football for Jesus!” My brother must have decided that if he couldn’t play and enjoy the game for himself, he certainly wasn’t going to do it for God.
One year for Christmas, I picked out a blue and white Cowboys hat for my brother from Walmart, and he wore it occasionally, but he never really took to the team like his sister and father. He gave it a shot, but in the long run, he just wasn’t very invested in watching men clobber each other until they were concussed, or worse. He preferred to play video games and read books about dragons and sorcerers.
So that left me. Perhaps even then, I sensed that while I could disappoint my father, and so could the Cowboys, he would always be back the next Sunday, or the next season, watching them play, telling himself this time would be different.
The other ways he expressed his disappointment weren’t nearly as predictable. Sometimes he exploded, like the time he left a hole in the wall by the front door, or the time he pushed my mom to the ground when she was pregnant with my brother.
Years later, I know my father had to have been proud of his kids occasionally, even if he made it to adulthood with no real idea of how to express such a thing. He grew up in a family situation so deprived and combustible that there was no room for error, especially with a father so violent that he would fight his children. My dad escaped and worked his way through college as a fast food manager. He raised his children to be solidly middle-class. We knew of no other way to live, and yet to him, it must have seemed like we were constantly on the verge of blowing it, constantly on the verge of wasting all those chances he worked so hard to give us.
That doesn’t explain his anger at my mother, though, or why she disappointed him the most. Things would be fine one minute, and the next minute he would be angry, and wouldn’t know why. My mind would start racing even before he slammed the door to his room – not his and my mom’s, but his – as I tried to go through a list of ways it could be my fault. I started to wait for it, started to feel anxious when four-thirty in the afternoon hit and my dad walked through the door.
I could usually hear his Ford Explorer coming up the gravel driveway. Then I would hear the door open and creak close, sometimes without him saying a word. He was never the “Honey, I’m home!” type.
If the dogs barked, he got irritated, calling them “damn dogs” or maybe even “damn demon dogs.” He hated the four poodles we had, even though he was the one who drove us to the breeder and bought them. One of them, a chocolate toy poodle named Candy, was a Valentine’s Day present for my mom. Since my dad was the one who paid for the poodles, that gave him the special right to use them as a grudge against my mother for wanting them in the first place He seemed to dislike them for their smallness, for the pink and purple bows in their hair, for the red nail polish the groomer painted on their nails. But mostly, he hated them for how much my mom cared for them and spoiled them.
A lot of things could irritate him, from the meal my mother had cooked for dinner to my grades in algebra. “I know you can do better than that, Lareign,” he’d tell me, frowning. I finally got tired of telling him that actually, no, I couldn’t.
When I look back, I can’t remember most of our offenses, only the frequency with which we committed them.
And yet, something clicked when it came to football. I don’t remember the first time it happened, or when it went from a thing I did occasionally to a habit, but on Sundays after church, I sat on the couch a few feet away from Dad’s ratty yellow Laz-y-boy, listening and nodding as he told me about Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin. It was usually easier to listen than talk. Safer.
It all must have started as a way to make him happy. I don’t know when that instinct stopped, or if it has.
I’ve tried to imagine what would have happened if I didn’t start watching those noon kickoff games with him every Sunday. It’s true that, as an adult, I follow all sorts of sports with varying degrees of passion. I started following the Mavericks in high school, which was around the same time I fell in love with a floppy-haired Canadian point guard named Steve Nash.
I probably would have gotten into the NFL eventually. But who knows what team I would have pledged allegiance to? It might have still been the Cowboys, since I did grow up in Texas, but it could have been the Saints, or, God forbid, the Patriots.
Nearly two decades later, when we’ve run out of things to say to each other, there’s always something to say about the Cowboys. We will never agree on politics, or the events in Ferguson, or even on the existence of climate change caused by man.
But there’s that team in North Texas, whom we both love even though we should know better by now.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones will always be delusional, both about his abilities as a general manager and the team’s abilities to win. Tony Romo will always sling interceptions late in the fourth quarter. The defense will always be terrible and always surrender touchdowns at the worst possible time.
It’s almost comfort when they lose. They’re the same as ever. When they win, it’s almost worse, because we’re just waiting for the bottom to fall out. That it will fall out isn’t a question. The only question is just how long and spectacular the descent will be.
We could get a new team, but to even want such a thing feels disloyal. The Cowboys are one of the things my dad gave me that I could just accept without constantly examining or worrying about, wondering what it meant and what kind of emotional debt I had unknowingly incurred.
When the clock struck zero and the referee blew the whistle, the game was over, regardless of if we liked the result or not.
My mom finally left my dad for good when I was sixteen, and I went with her. My brother was away at college by then, although he came back home a few weeks later.
The divorce launched a period where I would try to have a relationship with my dad, then give up, then try again, then give up again.
Then try again.
I graduated high school and enrolled at a state college, asking him for help making up the gaps in my scholarships.
He declined: “I feel like that would be putting conditions on our relationship.”
Four years later, when I was a semester away from my bachelor’s degree, he was proud of me for graduating college, because “I thought you’d be the one to have trouble with college, because you were so close to your mother.”
So it wasn’t the conditions that were the problem. As an adult, I know he didn’t owe me any money for college, even if I hate to think that it was all because I seemed like a risky investment in relation to my brother.
The market kept shifting. Later still, my dad asked about my brother, and when I told him about my brother’s new job, he replied, “I never thought my son would grow up to be a security guard.”
Even now, a part of me is still waiting for the catch when he tells me he loves me, which is often. Ever since he’s figured out texting, he says it often. Every few texts, whether we’re talking about the weather or the price of gas, it’s “I love u, Lareign” or “Love u, Lareign” or just “Love u.”
When my dad first started texting me that he loved me, it made me so anxious that I almost turned off my phone. Sometimes I cried, while other times I just panicked, my throat getting tight as my breathing became shallow. I knew there had to be fine print, bright red letters that would become legible only after I violated the terms and conditions.
A few years and a couple thousand miles later, I often, but not always, respond with “I love you, too.” As if even now I can ration out my love in such a way that it won’t hurt me, won’t come back to blow up in my face. I keep my distance, physically and otherwise. We talk on the phone only a few times a year.
Greeting cards should help me here. They’re all pre-packaged expressions of affection, the perfect solution for people who don’t know how to talk to each other. I don’t have to write much of anything in them, unless I get one of those blank cards.
If I did get one of those, maybe I’d tell him that I know he loves me. From the time I was old enough to remember anything, I remember how he would pause at my doorway before he went to sleep, then say, “I love you gobs and gobs, Lareign. Gobs and gobs.”
I knew I loved him, too, even when he didn’t deserve it. More than once, I tried to pretend I didn’t have a father, or that any father I might have had died a long time ago.
But I knew that he was still alive somewhere. I knew that on Sundays, we were both parked in front of our respective TVs for the Cowboys game. The players and Jerry Jones’ face changed, but the routine never did.
To stop watching the games, to turn away for good, would have meant turning away from the last thing that connected us. I’ve never been able to do that, and so the TV stayed on.
I didn’t get him a Father’s Day card this year. Instead, I sent him a paperback nonfiction book about the Dust Bowl, one he called “good but depressing.” I didn’t haunt the Hallmark aisles again until fall rolled around and my dad’s birthday approached.
I have to be careful around the cards with flowers and butterflies, the elegant, understated blues and yellows. They say things like “Thanks, Dad, for helping me follow my dreams. You always let me know that you were proud of me, and that’s given me confidence that I carry with me wherever I go. Your support means more than I can say, and I hope you know how grateful I am for you. Happy birthday.”
Occasionally one of them will sneak up on me, the flowery prose disguised by something cheap-looking with neutral colors. I’ll mentally mock the rhyming couplets, resisting the urge to grab the center of the card and rip it in two.
I’m in my thirties now. I’ve got what I’ve got.
A few weeks ago, I got off the city bus and walked through the park-and-ride to my car. The park-and-ride is right under the freeway, so slats of light shone through and reminded me that my car’s silvery-gray finish almost glitters in the sunlight.
My father bought me the 2005 Chevy Malibu. I’ve tried to name her Penelope, but it never quite stuck, as though she prefers to remain nameless. She accompanied me as I moved from Arkansas to Texas, and then all the way to Washington. It has more than one hundred and twenty-five thousand miles on it, but it’s still going, even after a couple of recalls from GM and an oil leak that seems to be slowly getting worse over time.
On this day, I unlocked my car and climbed in. The older it gets, the more grateful I am when the key turns in the ignition and fires the engine to life. Once that happened, I turned on the air conditioner and plugged in my car charger. The doors were locked, and the outside world couldn’t bother me.
Even though my father was the one who handed the car dealership a cashier’s check with his signature, the car is still mine. If it didn’t feel like mine, if I was constantly waiting for him to appear in my front yard and reclaim it, I would barely be able to drive it, much less relax completely inside it.
He bought it for me in 2008, when I was in my early twenties. My first car, a once-totaled white Chevy Corsica my mom bought me, was at the end of its second life. I had student loans and a job at a newspaper that paid twelve dollars an hour. There was no way I could finance a car on my own, not without going to someone with a name like Repo Ronnie.
So over the course of a few weeks, my dad and I went car shopping. He would walk out of the dealership if he felt he was being “disrespected,” and I would follow awkwardly, looking back almost apologetically at the rows of vehicles. The car salesmen drove a hard and often sleazy bargain, but I still felt conflicted about my dad’s demeanor. I felt conflicted about the whole endeavor, actually. I needed a car, though, and I was grateful that my dad wanted to get me one, even though I wondered what that gratitude would cost me.
I found out in late November, as my father and I sat in a dealership office. I want to believe it was a sunny day, just like the sunny day in the park-and-ride, but maybe not. Maybe my brain wants it to be that way, regardless of the truth.
The nervous feeling in my stomach gave way to excitement as my dad and the car salesman went over the final paperwork. When my father handed over the check, I realized this was actually going to happen, and that I would no longer need the Corsica – its name was Bumpy –that I had left parked in my father’s front yard.
Later that day, as I was going through the paperwork at home, I must have taken a closer look at the title and realized my name was the only one on it: Lareign Michelle Ward.
Or maybe there was an exchange in the office. I would have liked there to be. In my head, the car salesman, a thirty-something guy in a shirt and tie with a name like Mike or Steve, looked at us, but mostly at my dad, and asked, “What name do you want on the title?”
And my dad pointed at me and said, “Her name. It’s hers.”
And I smiled and whispered a “thank you” as Mike or Steve asked for my full name.
Regardless of how it happened, the car became my legal property. My father couldn’t take it from me because I disappointed him. More importantly, he didn’t even want that option, and my name on the title was a way of telling me that I was his daughter, not a disappointment.
He was getting me a car because he wanted me to have it. Maybe he was also trying to make up for some things in the past, but that was OK.
Once the car was paid for, washed, and fueled up, I got to drive it off the lot, the finish gleaming in the sunlight, my feet crunching on the paper floor mats as I switched between the gas pedal and the brake. I steered the car –my car- towards the interstate and my apartment. When I got there, I called my dad and told him about the ride.
“It drives really good,” I said. “The air works great. Even the radio sound is really clear.”
“That’s good, Lareign,” he said. “I’m glad. I’m glad you’re enjoying it.”
Even today, sometimes he’ll give me money on my birthday or Christmas, and I’ll take it, although sometimes I still wonder if he secretly thinks I’m a screw-up for going to grad school, for choosing a career that offers even fewer guarantees than my former career in journalism.
I used to fear he was trying to buy my love, but surely he knows by now that it’s both impossible and unnecessary.
He doesn’t criticize me. Instead he’ll say he’s proud of me, and that he hopes I use the money “for something fun.”
So I thank him and say that I will.
On your special day, I’m hoping you feel surrounded by love, even though you have to admit you fucked things up pretty bad there.
Happy birthday from the one child who still talks to you occasionally.
When my father tells me he tried to wish my brother a happy birthday but he isn’t answering the phone, I say I’m sorry and that I know my brother’s been busy lately, and that the cell phone reception isn’t so good at his new house. But I don’t tell him where, exactly, that new house is, because I already feel guilty for giving my dad his phone number.
When my father tells me his fiancée left him for the second time, I tell him I’m sorry, pretend like I have no idea why that might have happened, just like I have no idea why the Cowboys went 8-8 for three years in a row.
But I think of a moment almost a decade ago, when I sat in the passenger seat of his Ford F-150 as he drove me around my hometown – we were probably on the way to or from the bookstore — and mentioned that he and his fiancée had broken up.
I must have asked why.
“Well, you know Lareign,” he said as the arrow went green and he steered the car into left turn, “sometimes I’m pretty hard to live with.”
In the off-season, we’ll text two or three times a month about things like free agency or March Madness. Then fall arrives, and I might send him a text on Wednesday if Tony Romo is held out of practice with a back injury, but otherwise, from Monday through Saturday, I stay in my corner of the world, and he stays in his.
Six days a week, he is my father, and he deserves all his losses. He is all the bad things he has ever done.
Sunday is football day, and it goes something like this.
Starting around noon his time and ten a.m. my time, someone sends the first text.
“They are wearing blue?” my father asks. He hates when the Cowboys wear the dark blue uniforms at home instead of the traditional white ones. He thinks it bad luck.
“Guess so,” I reply. “And they’re giving up a touchdown fast.”
“Not a great start,” he writes back.
We’re both concerned. I chalk up the tension in my fingers as I type to the stress of the game, nothing more.
Then, a little later in the first quarter, he says, “I’m wearing the shirt.”
“The shirt” is one I got him five or six years ago at Christmas, size XXL. At this point, I don’t remember where I found it, but it had white block letters and says, “How bout them Cowboys?”
“Cool,” I write. “That’s neat.”
“Neat” is as far as I can go. It’s that old instinct that’s never left, the feeling that any further expression of how moved I am could be used against me later.
Yet I think about him, sitting his La-z-boy, wearing a shirt that must have long since gone from a vibrant dark blue to a dingy light blue, the letters barely visible. I entertain the possibility of buying him a new shirt in the future. My dad would probably wear anything I got him with the Cowboys logo on it.
In the second quarter, the Cowboys’ lot improves. Tony Romo finds his rhythm and starts making beautiful passes all over the field, and the wide receivers and tight ends catch them every single time. Me and my dad allow ourselves to think that maybe the Cowboys can pull this game off and maintain the lead in the NFC East division.
Then, DeMarco Murray fumbles the ball inside the 10-yard-line, and the other team jumps on it. The TV cameras pan to the coach, Jason Garrett, who looks displeased on the sideline, then pan quickly to Jerry Jones in the owner’s box. Jerry Jones has a sour look on his face that not even multiple rounds of plastic surgery performed by the best doctors in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area can hide.
“Shit,” I text my dad, because I’m an adult now, and I can curse around my parents as long as I choose my moments carefully and don’t take either the Lord or Ronald Reagan’s name in vain.
“Not good,” he writes back. “I won’t tell you what I said.”
By the second half, the Cowboys are still in the game, but just barely. Defensive players keep making dumb penalties and giving the other team yards. On offense, all the receivers seem to have dipped their hands in vats of melted butter on the sideline. It all looks like it’s about to unravel. It looks like Dallas will go 8-8 for a fourth straight season, if they can even manage that.
Then, something beautiful happens at the last possible moment, something that would have been impossible even a couple of years ago.
Tony Romo takes the snap from the shotgun. He looks downfield, but there’s nothing. He scrambles to avoid a beefy linebacker, but there are three more lumbering to take him down. He has nowhere to go on the ground and no receiver to throw it to in the air.
So he launches the ball anyway, just before a 350-pound defensive end slams him to the ground. The ball spins through the air as a player in blue with a star on the helmet comes into focus and pulls the ball in, away from the safety trying to intercept it.
And then the man with the star on his helmet hurdles and leaps his way a few more yards, refusing to stop fighting until he crosses the goal line. Dez Bryant, the talented but mercurial receiver, has scored and put the Cowboys ahead with just a few seconds left in the game.
“Wow!!!!” I text my dad, hitting send at almost the exact moment a message from him comes in that says simply, “Yes!!!!”
Then we both watch as the entire Cowboys offense rushes to congratulate Bryant. The camera pans to a jubilant coach on the sidelines, then, of course, to the owner’s box, where Jerry Jones appears to be cackling with delight.
My dad and I won’t say anything for a bit. We both know how happy the other is, and we figure we’ve deserved a few minutes to bask in it.
We tell ourselves all we need is one magical season, and all the disappointing ones that came before it won’t matter anymore. That they’ll be erased so effectively we won’t remember they ever happened in the first place.
Year after year, we come back for this hope.
A week before my dad’s most recent birthday, I once again stood in Walgreens, confused and weary. I had narrowed my decision down to two greeting cards, both ridiculous.
In the first one, Captain America and the Hulk stand beside a tree. The Hulk looks distressed, while Captain America wears a stoic expression. “It’s OK, Hulk,” Captain America says. “We can always buy a new piñata.”
Inside the card is an image of a smashed piñata soaring through space, with the words “Hope your birthday is out of this world.”
The second card has three panels on the front. In the first panel, a horse stands on its hind legs just inside the front entrance of a house. Next to the horse stands a man wearing jeans and a white shirt. “Your barn door is open,” the horse tells the man. In the second panel, the man says, “Ooops” and zips up his pants.
In the third panel, the horse uses one hoof to gesture behind him. “Seriously, your barn door is open,” the horse says. “I walked right out.”
Inside, the card reads, “Here’s hoping your birthday is a barn burner.”
The first card felt slightly safer, mostly because it didn’t deal with unzipped flies, as I’ve tried for nearly three decades to avoid suggesting to my father that I know what a penis is – for his sake, not mine. But the second one struck me as far funnier for reasons I still can’t articulate. So I took that card to the checkout and paid for it. Over the next two days, I tried to think of what to say. I wanted to keep the message simple and light.
I thought of the football schedule. Two days after my dad turned fifty-five, the Cowboys were slated to travel to Seattle and play the defending world champion Seahawks. The Cowboys were a surprise 4-1, and had improbably developed a strong running game. Even more surprising, their defense had stiffened up considerably after being one of the worst in the league last season. Even so, it was going to be a tough game, as Seattle wasn’t known for losing on their home field.
With that in mind, I took out a red pen and started writing:
“Here’s hoping the Cowboys surprise us Sunday.
Artwork designed by YesterdayCafe
Photo source: Rough and Rede II