when trying is enough
Every day kind of feels like Father’s Day because I always feel like celebrating my Dad. No, he’s not the play-catch-with-his-kid kinda dad, but he was mine and I wouldn’t trade him or the childhood he built for me for anything.
Mom was in prison a whole lot during my growing up so Dad was trying to make up for the fact that a whole person was missing from our lives. The thing is, Dad was a meth cook and he was strung out to the hills on his own superior product. But he loved us and he was trying, and for us kids, that was enough.
It's Christmas, 1994. I'm 8. My brother Brandon is 7. We live in a beige house—with stucco on the outside and tumbleweeds in the front yard—on the corner of Arroyo Drive in Victorville, a godforsaken town off the old Route 66 in California.
I’m lying on the couch in the dingy dark in front of the TV. Rocky III is on and we’re taking turns reciting the lines.
Brandon (Clubber Lang): “I'm the baddest man in the world.”
Me (Rocky): “You don't look so bad to me.”
Brandon (Clubber Lang): “What did you say, Paper Champion? I'll beat you like a dog, a dog, you fool!”
We’re eating Skittles by the handful. Brandon tosses me the red ones because those are my favorite. I toss him the purple ones because he likes anything grape flavored. Gross. He opens his mouth and it bounces off the front of his cavity-filled teeth.
“Hey!” he yells.
“It’s not my fault you suck."
“You’re the one who sucks!"
“Quit your whining, you two!” Dad yells from the dim hallway littered with dirty clothes.
Both Brandon and I are in black jeans but his are more faded and tore up and they’re miles too short for his tall, lanky legs. He’s wearing a white and moss-green striped shirt with long sleeves, dull from too many washes. I’m wearing a black and white polka-dot top with long sleeves that are stained with chocolate ice cream around the wrists. Our hair isn’t combed and Brandon has a cowlick two inches high coming out the back of his head. Our hands our sticky and there’s a rim of sugar around our mouths.
Dad’s car keys are jingling in his hand with each step down the hallway.
“Shut that shit off and get your shoes on,” Dad says as he pulls up on his oil-stained blue jeans from the belt loops. They’re always sliding off because he’s lost so much weight from his steady diet of meth and sugar.
Our heads pop up and peer over the back of the couch at Dad. He’s putting on his ripped leather jacket over a thin cotton Black Sabbath shirt.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“You’ll see,” he says with a sly smile. “It’s a surprise.”
My brother runs out the front door without putting on his shoes. “A surprise! Let’s go! C’mon Jess!” His voice fades under the glow of the streetlights as he gets closer to the car.
I run out after him shouting “Shotgun!” with my (and his) shoes in hand.
“Dad! She never lets me sit in the front seat,” he whines.
“Tough shit. Get in the car.”
I hop in the front seat of Dad’s silver Isuzu and turn around to stick my tongue out at Brandon before Dad sees me. But he catches me and tells me I’m going to have to sit in the back if I don’t stop acting like a brat. I fold my scrawny arms over my chest and sit still but my eyes are shooting daggers.
“Where are we going Dad?” Brandon asks, scooting to the edge of the backseat.
From the corner of my eye I see his big head pop through from the back. Dad peels out of the driveway so fast Brandon is thrown forward between us. Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” is blaring on the stereo and Dad’s singing along as he floors the car down Amargosa Road.
“Sit back. You’re going to get me a fucking ticket.”
The tires squeal as we pull into the crowded parking lot of Toys “R” Us. Brandon is bouncing up and down in his seat. “Let me out, let me out!”
“Well, just hold on a fucking minute,” Dad says.
He parks the car and we run to the front of the store. White light is streaming out the big windows onto our smiling faces.
“Hey you two! Listen, this is your Christmas present. Grab a cart, fill it up, and meet me at the registers.”
Grabbing onto his big callused fingers with both hands I shriek and bounce around like a Mexican jumping bean. Brandon grabs onto his other hand and jumps up and down in his light-up shoes, “Can we really Dad?” He’s shrieking even louder than I am and Dad winces at the sound of our high-pitched voices. We sound like a couple of hyenas.
Dad squeezes our sticky little hands and smiles his big smile that melts your soul into a puddle on the floor. “Yeah, really. I didn’t drive all the way over here for nothing.”
I can barely see over the top of the shopping cart as I push it into the store. The wheel is wobbly and the cart keeps pushing to the right. Brandon is already throwing a Super-Soaker in his cart ahead of me, his long, scrawny arms propelling the cart forward.
“Don’t fuck around!” Dad yells as we race down the aisles lined with toys.
He follows slowly after us. His sunken cheeks and dark circles under his grey eyes stand out in the fluorescent light. Dad pushes his long, unwashed hair out of his face as he looks up and down the rows of video games for Sega.
“C’mon Daddy!” I shout, throwing my arms in the air.
Holding up a BeDazzler kit I yell “Can I get this?” and it echos off the scuffed-up floor.
“Shhh! Yeah, get whatever you want, just put it in the cart. If it’s in the cart, you can have it.”
I toss the bright pink box filled with plastic jewels in and keep pushing my wobbly cart down the aisle. I listen to the sound of his heavy steel-toed boots dragging behind me.
Dad gets fed up with following after us and listening to our nonsense babbling.
“Hurry up, you guys. I’ll meet you at the front.”
My cart is so heavy I can barely push it. I scan the front of the store for Dad. He’s standing by the register eating a giant purple pixie stick. I watch as he dumps the purple sugar into his mouth. He sees us, me struggling, but determined and Brandon skipping behind me.
“Bout time. Do you guys think you got enough shit?”
We both shrug and start giggling into each other.
Dad pulls a stack of bills out of his wallet and pays for our Christmas haul in cash. As soon as we get out of the store we start grabbing toys out of the basket. I reach for my Talkboy—the one I saw in Home Alone 2—and Brandon reaches for a white Power Ranger.
“Not gonna happen,” Dad says. “You gotta wait for Christmas.”
We whine and sulk, but only for a second because we have the attention span of a flea.
Dad opens the trunk and we start throwing things in. We struggle with Brandon’s hockey stick—putting it in long ways so it sticks out the back, nope. Taking it out again and trying to fit it horizontal, putting the big end in first while the skinny end bangs against the side of the trunk. Dad stands there just about as long as he can take it and then tells us to go sit in the car. We bicker and fight over who gets to sit in the front seat and Dad ignores us. He bought us so much stuff that he can’t get the trunk closed. He shoves the rest in the backseat and my brother is a floating head amongst a sea of Barbie dolls, remote control-trucks, and Nerf guns.
When we get home Dad tells us to unload everything from the car. In. Out. In. Out. But we don’t complain, because man, we hit the jackpot.
“Here. Wrap each other’s presents,” he says as he tosses us each a roll of scotch tape.
“And hurry up! Tomorrow is Christmas Eve,” he adds. After dumping what looked like a truck load of wrapping paper on the floor, he disappears into the garage.
Many hours of wrapping, bickering, and countless paper cuts later, we are stacking the gifts around the Christmas tree. We have so many presents that the star is barely peeking out over the shiny bows and poorly wrapped colored boxes.
Brandon’s standing on a chair and I’m handing him gifts covered in way too much scotch tape, one by one. Home Alone 2 is on for the billionth time. That’s when I realize that I haven’t once thought about Mom being in prison. It’s the first time I haven’t thought about her missing Christmas. Again.
Wow, Dad. Mission accomplished.
I love you today, yesterday, and every day until the end of the time.
Thanks for being there for us even though you could barely be there for yourself.