My disabled father gave me a different model for success

I remember the first time I felt embarrassed by my dad. It was 1994. I was nine years old, and at a kids’ summer drama camp in New Orleans, where I grew up. This redheaded girl Lauren, who got a part I wanted in the end-of-year play, would tease me endlessly for who knows what reason(s). So she had a field day the day my dad brought me some costume pieces I’d forgotten for our dress rehearsal.

My dad arrived in his beat-up 1983 Dodge Ram, talking a little more loudly than the rest of the people in the room because he can’t hear out of his left ear. I tried my best to ignore the snickers at first, but my dad could see I was upset so he asked me what was wrong. By this point, the popular girls, including Lauren, had locked themselves in one of the other rooms and were laughing loudly. I told my dad that a girl named Lauren was teasing me and hurting my feelings, and he went over and knocked on the door and said, “HEY! Y’ALL DON’T ALL HAVE TO LISTEN TO LAUREL!”

Of course, this made it way worse for me. I was mortified. I didn’t think about how my dad had driven to give me my stuff, or how he’d stood up for me – I thought about how loud he was being, and how he’d gotten the most popular girl’s name wrong. It was on that day I realized my dad was different.

My dad used to work as a cab driver in New Orleans. In 1979, when he was 26, he was held at gunpoint during one of his shifts and shot in the head. Luckily he survived, but he developed epilepsy (though hasn’t had a seizure in about 25 years due to his medication, thankfully). On top of being prone to seizures and being deaf in his left ear, he struggles with math, reading, and writing; hasn’t been able to work since that day; and hasn’t been able to drive for about 15 years now. But after having been in love with this loose cannon of a man for almost 10 years, my mom stayed by his side after the shooting incident when others didn’t, gave him two children, and married him without a second thought.

And so while my mom worked, my dad stayed home with my brother and me. Naturally, he was the “good cop” – I was never once punished or grounded by my dad, ever. I feel bad for my mom a little because of this; I can’t imagine being the disciplinarian was easy. When she would send us to our rooms, he’d slide us snacks under the door and make jokes so we wouldn’t get bored. He played a lot of records, and he’d dance right along with my brother and me. If the record player broke, he’d just make up songs. He was also a ridiculously good finder, and if I wasn’t already positive he was a textbook Gryffindor, I’d totally call him a Hufflepuff for it. But no, anything we lost? BAM. THERE IT WAS, two seconds later. I think he was a magician in another life.

My dad wouldn’t get annoyed when we asked to hear the same stories a million times, because he was patient and he had some great stories. He taught me the basics of the game of chess when I was about five, and to read when I was either three or four. The latter is a subject of debate in my family, because I think at three I was less reading and more reciting from memory of books on tape, given that I was saying “BRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRIIIIIIIIIIINNNNG!” as I turned the pages. He let me sit on his lap and “drive” through City Park in New Orleans (probably not a great idea in hindsight, but YOLO), and he helped my mom throw me a surprise party for my seventh birthday – something I mentioned I wanted a while before that, and still remains my most memorable birthday. I’ve never felt more special.

Also, my dad is, like, Uncle Jesse cool. Up until pretty recently, he was in crazy shape. He used to be a runner, which I guess is where I get my running bug, if you could call it that. He had tons of model-worthy hair and dance moves, and my mom admits regularly that she married him because he was cool and good-looking. I think she’s maybe 60% joking. Also, he swung nun chucks around, and still cites Bruce Lee and John Wayne as his heroes. He says a lot of Cajun and/or made-up words.

My dad’s not perfect. He does a lot of things that have nothing to do with being disabled, like hocks loogies in mixed company without acknowledging it’s not normal to do so, and tells my mom everything she cooks needs more salt. I can’t say I blame her for being separated from him for the past few years; he’s a handful, and she has endured a lot by being committed to him. She worked WAY more than full time in a variety of jobs and often late at night to support the four of us, and my dad, while amazing with his children (all children, really) and generally a good husband from what I know, drank a lot and did his fair share of drugs when my brother and I were really little. My mom had to work hard to keep us away from it; thankfully, she succeeded. But my parents still love each other, and as immature as it may be, I’m glad they aren’t divorced. Whether they’ll ever get back together, I can’t say, but I can strive to have somewhere near their level of love with my husband in our lifetime and take solace in the fact that my parents live five minutes from each other, just in case one needs the other.

Sometimes it’s hard for me to find the right words to communicate with my dad because we lead such different lives now, but now that I’m 30 and not AS stubborn as I used to be, I have a little more patience in finding ways around that. Instead of trying to explain exactly what technical writing is and why I enjoy my freelance work more, I say, “Writing instructions isn’t that fun so I write way more fun things in my free time and tell everyone on the internet how crazy you are.” He laughs, says “Yo’ ass!”, and asks me what the internet is. He has accomplished and endured so much in his life – at least, to me, as someone he raised – that as I age myself, I’m realizing it’s OK for him to be tired, and for us not to be quite on the same page and long as we love each other.

I’m excited to have children within the next few years, and I know my dad will be just as loving and patient and giving with them as he was with my brother and me. And while he may not be someone I can look to for career advice, I owe such a great deal of my success to the things my dad gave me which, in turn, gave me the patience, strength, and confidence I have today to not settle for anything less than extraordinary. I hope I can give my children even a fraction of what he’s given me. And even though I know he won’t remember that day at drama camp, I’m grateful he’s still alive for me to apologize – to tell him how much it meant to me that he stood up for me, and how much I love him for being the greatest dad I could’ve ever asked for.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

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