Monday, August 31, 2015

My Father, the Hero

When I was a little girl, my dad would take me to a Hostess bakery outlet in Medford. It seemed very far from our house--over and past long stretches of blue sky dotted with trees and telephone poles and signs whizzing by in a blur. Stepping inside, it was as if I'd arrived at another world, one full of bread smells and baked goods with ingredients I delighted in reading because I was the only 8-year-old who could pronounce them.

We walked together through the aisles of that magical place, and I beamed up at my father, who I thought was also magical, because he always knew how to get there.

He was my hero that way, you see.

I go back to Long Island at least a few times a month, to visit. The drive there and the return trip to New Jersey were familiar before I ever had a license, so accustomed was I to going to the Garden State as a child to see my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and various cousins. But one of the main things I've learned since I started driving is that the journey isn't always the same; on the road, anything can happen.

So it was that I found myself forced to take a detour on one of my most recent drives back to New Jersey. The exit I normally take off of Route 80 is comprised of two ramps--one that goes to the right, and one that goes to the left, which is where I go. On this particular day, however, the left ramp was closed, and I had no choice but to head down the road not (ever) taken. Familiarity quickly vanished as I reached a somewhat hazardous intersection in the heart of downtown Paterson. I knew there was only one option.

I called my father.

Dad grew up in Paterson, and though the landscape and cultural makeup of the city have undergone a significant shift since his years living there, some things are still the same. 

The streets.

More importantly, the map that my father has of them in his head.

It's said that some folks on the autism spectrum have the gift of a photographic memory. That they can recall the layout of a street, or even an entire city, after being there on only a few occasions. My father, the Aspie, has not lived in New Jersey for over forty years, not since moving out to Long Island after getting a teaching job--yet the street names and placements remain clear as day in his mind.

It was due to this that he was able to perfectly guide me through Paterson to where I needed to be to complete the drive home. He spoke carefully, repeating directions when necessary, never rushing or admonishing me through each turn. It was as though he was there in the car with me, steering gently, again taking me from one world to another. Not once did I get lost, and in the moments I felt most unsure, my father stayed calm.

It can't be easy watching your daughter take charge of her own life, but when you're a parent, that's exactly what you're preparing your child to do. You let go, and let them. Even when it scares you. But maybe that's my dad's gift: Not controlling the journey, or the destination, but doing the best he can to help me arrive there safe and sound.

He is my hero that way. 

He always will be.