He was there at the end of the diving board. He would tread water for hours waiting and watching while I practiced my dives. For several years it was our Sunday afternoon ritual and delight.
I was four years old when we began. Daddy was there at the end of the board, in the deep water, waiting for me. Will I ever be that safe again? That secure? On those Sunday afternoons I believed that if he was at the end of the board I could do anything.
He waited, treading water, off to one side. He would look around and give me the sign that it was OK to dive. And I would stroll to the end of the board tugging at my stretchy lavender swimsuit and bounce in the air before I dived in.
I would rise to the surface sputtering and look for his face. He would hesitate a moment to let me right myself. I would sputter and cough and beam. He would grab the back of my suit and give me a push toward the side. "Swim to the ladder," he would say. And he would stay out at the end of the board waiting again as I paddled to the side.
I can remember the feeling as I paddled to the ladder. The world was perfect; I was diving in the deep end of the pool. There was no pain, and no evil in the world. There was no need or want in my life. A perfect, grinning, sunburned, water-logged 4-year-old in love with the world, herself and her daddy.
He died when I was 18. A lot happened in the years in between. Life happened to me and to Daddy. He had trouble at work and trouble with my mother. By the time I was 13 he was traveling a lot and when we spent the occasional weekend together we did not speak of personal things. There were no talks about plans or dreams or fears. As a teen-ager I felt awkward with my father so I would interview him about his job. He would respond with stories about work, grateful to have something comfortable to talk about. I know a lot about industrial engineering. It filled our time.
One July evening when he was 56 years old, he had a stroke. He died two days later, never regaining consciousness.
Has it affected me? Of course. To have had that closeness and to have lost it. To have those timeless moments of being safe and special. To lose him when I was 18, when I still needed to ask him what happened.
Its been years and I still wrestle with those two men. Daddy of the 4-year-old waiting at the end of the board and the man who left suddenly, without a word at 18.
For a long time I resented the missing memories; no
father-daughter chats, no drives to college, no adult conversations. But I have this other thing; this picture in my brain, in my heart; he is there at the end of the board, waiting for me, smiling and waiting. And I leap knowing I can do anything because he is there.
Somewhere inside me is the 4-year-old in her lavender bathing suit. She is at the end of the board and everyone around her keeps saying: "You are so special." "You are so pretty." Can I ever get enough of that? There is an achingly deep hunger for those words. Can I satisfy that craving to be special?
In romance we get some of that need met, but romance has its own path and after a while no one wants to admire us every day. But when the 4-year-old inside is anxious for those words again and again, we search on.
One way to meet this need is an affair. New romance, especially clandestine, is all about intensity of focus, intensity of feeling and intensity of attention. Having an affair is a way the 4-year-old can twirl in a 38-year-old body and hear again: "You are so special." "You are so pretty." "You are the only one." But satisfying the need that way begins to cost too much. The course of an affair causes one to twirl faster and faster for fewer and fewer of those precious affirmations. And other people along this dervish path get hurt.
All the praises and promises in the present can not fill a hole that exists in the past.
There are healthy solutions. Yes. Those who have read the books and done the therapy learn to say it to themselves. I practice in the mirror: "Diane, I love you." "You are very special."
Some meet this need in a spiritual way. There are people who have a connection with their God or higher power, and who live believing that God and the universe smiles warmly on the 4-year-old in them.
I like the concept of a God who will be there in that way. A God who will say, "Well, let me look around here for a minute. We don't want you jumping on anyone, or anyone getting hurt." "OK, here you go." A God at the end of my daily diving board who, after I jump, will say, "OK now, catch your breath. I'm here."
Diane Oklota Wood writes from Roland Park.