I am four, maybe five, years old. I am walking with my father. I think that we are going to the playground or, maybe, to watch my brothers play basketball? I have no real recollection of the season or of the circumstances, but what I do remember is that I reach for my father’s hand, he gives mine a quick squeeze and then releases it. No words, no explanation, just a squeeze of acknowledgement and then gone again. I am struck by how much this feels like rejection. There were other moments when I reached for his hand, either as a young child struggling to keep up with his adult gait or as an adolescent looking for some warmth from an otherwise lukewarm man…each time, the same response: a quick squeeze and then release. Each time, a confusing sense of rejection that I didn’t quite understand.
As I grew into an adult, this became a dance we continued in our long distant phone conversations. We always seemed to connect and yet he was always just outside of my reach. I’d know that he was there, I’d feel his hand tighten around mine, even from hundreds of miles away, and then the distance would return. My father had a stroke when I was in my late twenties and then died a few years later. In the years between the stroke and his death, he stopped releasing my hand. He was present in a way that I had always longed for and I even was able to hold his hand, literally, for longer periods of time. In fact, in the days before his death, I sat and held his hand as he drifted in and out of consciousness, very much aware of how far we’d come since that brief moment when I was a little kid.
I am so much like my father; there are so many ways that my life mirrors his. There is so much work that I have done to avoid being the worst version of him…but I worry that I, too, am the one who lets go of the hands that reach for mine.