Whenever I hear the first few lines of the Tori Amos song “Winter,” I’m 15 again, lying awake in my bed well after midnight. Tori whispers, “I get a little warm in my heart when I think of winter / I put my hand in my father’s glove,” and I can hear my dad working away in his office down the hall. I wish more than anything that he would come and peek into the room, like I imagine he did when I was little. If he did, I might spill everything, all the problems that are keeping me from falling sleep. I might tell him how scared I am about how controlling my boyfriend has gotten lately. I might admit that I smoke pot sometimes, and that some of my friends are using heroin, which scares me too. I might even show him the cuts on my arms, and tell him how I feel like the world is closing in on me. But he doesn’t check on me and I don’t go to him. We don’t have the kind of fairytale relationship that Tori sings about, one that’s full of fatherly encouragements. Our winter is cold, and it feels like there are 10-foot-tall snowdrifts blocking the road between us.
It wasn’t always like this. Both of my parents are nurses; when I was in grade school, my mom worked 12-hour shifts in a hospital, often on the weekends, and when she was gone, my dad was there. He helped my younger brother and me with our homework. We rode bikes and played catch. In the summers, we went to the pool and he’d hum the Jaws theme while making a fin with his hands, splashing through the water after us. My fondest memories are of the nights he treated us to pancakes or popcorn for dinner.
But by the time I got to third grade, he was…“busy.” Every Sunday afternoon, he met with friends to discuss workers’ rights and Marxist theory. I had no clue what that meant—all I knew was that whenever he left, Peachy, our poorly behaved Collie mix, perhaps sensing the lack of authority in the house, broke out of the yard and ran around the neighborhood. But my dad didn’t give up his meetings; we gave up Peachy.
When I was 10, my father was running an organization that he can co-founded that provided housing and social support to people living with AIDS. The year after that he went to grad school. I understood why he was so preoccupied—my parents had taught me the importance of being educated and helping others. But I missed him, and he was missing things that were important to me. I went to three major gymnastics competitions during this period, and he never saw me do front walkovers on the balance beam nor win a regional trophy for my trampoline routine.
On the days when he was charged with a task like taking me and my brother to school, he would run late, and I had major anxiety about walking into class behind schedule and getting scolded by the teacher in front of everyone. He was forever correcting my posture at the dinner table, but he never asked why I was slouched over and grumpy all the time. Throughout junior high and high school, my dad’s catchphrase was “absolutely not.” I’d ask to go to a sleepover, to a concert, out with my best friend and a few guys, and the answer was always no, which would result in my screaming and swearing about how unfair he was being until my mom proposed a compromise. What I couldn’t tell him was that I wasn’t angry just because he wouldn’t let me do things; I was angry because he was hardly ever around except to prohibit me from doing things. He didn’t know who I was or what was important to me, even though what was important to me included him.
My mother was my advocate, but my father was my hero. It was his book collection (Stephen King, J.R.R. Tolkien, Leslie Marmon Silko) that I raided in sixth grade and his cassette tapes (the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Woodstock soundtrack) that I stole in seventh. When we had to do a major research paper in eighth grade, I chose to write mine on the Vietnam-era antiwar movement, so I could interview my dad. He wore black armbands to high school and went to D.C. to protest the war during his senior year, in 1969. He didn’t register for the draft, and he got arrested for picketing a local supermarket in support of migrant workers on California grape farms who were being prevented from unionizing. He was a regular person doing the kinds of things that the near-mythical people I only read about in history books did, and I was proud of him.
When he got involved in helping AIDS patients in the ’80s, many people still viewed the disease as a plague that junkies and gay people contracted because they deserved it. That he was doing good work made it hard to be resentful when he wasn’t around. My best friend and I would go into his organizations headquarters and giggle at the dishes of condoms that were there for the taking, some of which were wrapped like chocolate coins. “Go ahead and take some,” he’d say, and we did even though at the time we would have preferred candy. I used one of those chocolate-coin condoms the first time I had sex. I was a sophomore then and I wasn’t dating a good guy, but my dad and I never talked about that either. Strict as he was about my curfew, he never gave me the “that boy better treat you right or else” speech that dads give on TV.
My junior year of high school, I started publishing feminist zines, and I wanted so desperately for him to be proud of me for following in his footsteps with my own brand of social activism. Once he took me out for coffee and we almost had an incredible conversation—he told me more about his boycotting days, and I told him that the zine I was working on was about my relationship with the guy who abused me. I opened up like I never had before, and I wanted him to get angry, I wanted him to take a little time away from saving the world to save me. All I remember him saying was: “You can’t print his full name. He could sue you for libel.”