Most of my life, my father was a traveling salesman, working for supermarket distributors and building his own business on the side. He was busy – always on the phone or planning his next trip to some small town with an A&P or Shop n’ Save. He never seemed tired to me, though. For me, he would rally, crack jokes and play, so I didn’t understand why every afternoon, as far back as I can recall, he would take a nap. I wondered if all Dads had to nap.
When I had annoyed my mother sufficiently in the afternoons, she would give me the ‘go ahead’ to go downstairs to the family room and wake him from his slumber. I would creep in, not that it mattered because the TV was always blaring, but I was afraid he’d feel me. So I crept up behind the couch, then walked slowly in front of it, careful not to cast a shadow from the light coming through the window. Nothing to stir him.
And then I would sit on my knees and watch him sleep. Laying on his back, hands crossed at his belly, the same way he looked at his wake. Of course, his belly didn’t rise then like it used to. Inhale, hands and belly move up; exhale, they move down. Back and forth. Sometimes snoring, quivering lips, twitching eyes. Sometimes he’d swat at something on his face, rub his nose, or yawn – all the while I sat still with shallow breath, hoping he wouldn’t wake. And he wouldn’t. He’d settle back in. And then a long pause until the next big inhale that told me he was truly asleep. I thought it was fascinating to watch him breathe. As close as I could get to him at the time. And so I sat and watched. And wondered what he dreamed about. It never occured to me that he was so tired from working all the time that he might not dream – that he might simply pass out on the couch, waking only because duty called. It never occured to me that if he did dream – he might have wished to be elsewhere, alone and free, without limits. Had I imagined such things then of my father, I might have scared myself into thinking he’d be happier without us. I might have been right.
One time while watching him sleep, I became distracted by the Dick Van Dyke show that was on. I must have laughed out loud because my father woke with a start. He had a look of sheer terror on his face, as if someone had come to take his family away. He yelled at me that I almost gave him a heart attack and that I shouldn’t wake him like that. But from then on – even when I just touched his arm gently – he awoke the same, with that startled look on his face. I don’t know why he was so upset. Maybe he was angry that I took him away from the only place he was at peace.
It turns out that raising five children and having two jobs was exhausting, so afternoon naps became necessary. But despite his need to rejuvenate, and being an ‘older’ Dad, he was always there for me. He showed up in all the ways that count. When I was in high school, he would wait up for me every night I was out. He’d sit at the kitchen table, smoking countless cigarettes and drinking Tetley tea. The Honeymooners would be on the janky, 6” portable black and white TV he’d got for listening to a timeshare pitch. I’d come home and he’d ask how my night was. I’d say fine, then he’d turn off the TV and go to bed.
Every Friday afternoon during my first semester of college, he would drive an hour to pick me up and bring me back to Nashua so I could work the whole weekend at my old job at the Pheasant Lane Mall. Then Sunday night, he’d drive me back to school. Once, I was fired from a catering gig at the Sheraton Hotel because the line cook complained I was ‘too distracting.’ I shamefully called my Dad for a ride home. After he almost lost his mind with anger on my behalf, he told me that I’d done nothing wrong and there would always be idiots in the world.
He did all of these things for me while I continued to give him plenty to worry about. I’m sure that all of his children seemed worrisome in their own way but I wanted different things than my siblings did and made other choices all around. It must have been exhausting, to be afraid for me because he didn’t understand that I was going to be alright. I hope that as he takes his eternal nap in the sky, he doesn’t have to be worried about waking with a start and instead sees that I turned out just fine.