There was this picture in my dad’s house. It hung on the wall to the left of a window he never looked out of and just to the right of a little bedside table that held my Great Grandmother’s diaries. (Those he looked at often.) The picture that was there—Well, it still could be, come to think of it. I haven’t been inside his house in years.—was of this little duck family. It was a high-contrast, amateur photograph of a mother duck warming her eggs, a couple of baby chicks poking out from under her breast.
Or at least that’s what he told me it was.
I always had trouble seeing it. The ducks. My dad would point his thick carpenter’s finger at the picture and trace the birds’ delicate outline. He’d say to me bordering on exasperation, “There. There’s the mama duck and those right there are the babies. See?” But it was pointless. The picture was like one of those Magic Eye books and I could never see the hot air balloon or the sail boats or whatever it was supposed to be for more than a fragment of a second. I’d trick myself into seeing it by agreeing with my friends—a unicorn, yeah, I see it, uh huh—only to lose it again.
And with that picture, for one teeny tiny moment after he pointed them out, I could see the ducks. My mind would grab on to them and there they were: a little family. But inevitably, almost as quickly as I thought it, my mind would let go. Their edges slipped and blurred out and it was nothing more than shapes and shadows again. An abstraction.
Now I’m older and though it happens less and less, every once and a while I trick myself into thinking I have a handle on it. Not the ducks. My dad.
I trick myself into thinking I can see him and he can see me. Here we are: two people who love each other very much and would do anything for each other. It is all very clear. Black and white even. And in that moment I breathe a little sigh of relief because we’ve done it. We’re a normal father and daughter. We’re the same as my friends and their dads. The same as my uncles and cousins that look so happy in their perfect family Christmas cards waving to us from the fridge.
Then though, something always happens.
Maybe we’re back in the driveway and he turns to me and says coldly, “You don’t believe in the Bible anymore. Is that what you’re telling me?”
I think on it for a moment and then say quietly, “Well if you’re telling me that the Bible says Gramps is in Hell now because he didn’t say ‘I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior’ on his deathbed, then yes, that’s what I’m saying.” I make sure to emphasize the Hell bit, hoping he’ll realize how ridiculous it is.
But he just makes a disgusted noise. Somewhere between a grunt and a cough. A phlegm rattle. It’s thick. He could probably spit it out on to the sidewalk if he wanted to, and there the snot would spell out d-i-s-a-p-p-o-i-n-t-e-d. And of course he is. I’m disappointed with him too. I turn my face away from him so he can’t see me getting red and my eyes going all glassy. I’m angry. I’m sad. I’m another word I can’t even think of right now because he tricked me into believing that we were okay, and we’re not. He ran his finger over the outline of us and I saw it plain as day.
And then the inevitable.
The edges of our relationship slip and the picture of us I have held on to for just a fragment of a second blurs. The thing that I want more than anything, the moment where he warms me and keeps me safe and my little head pokes out from underneath his wing and I look up at him proudly, that is just another picture that I can’t see.