How to Call Your Father
Step One. Checklist.
Are you in an optimistic mood? If not, your atypical Buddhist father will suss this out. It would not be out of character for him to call for emergency services. If your mood does not pass muster, do not pass go.
How patient are you feeling? If you’ve recently yelled at your 3-year-old for refusing to wear pants, put the phone down and try tomorrow.
Are you feeling at all snarky? If the answer is yes, back away and open your laptop for some bad reality TV instead. People on those shows are a much better outlet than an over-pronating, retired nuclear physicist. After all, you are not a terrible daughter. Just an uncommunicative one.
Step Two. Prepare.
An adult beverage is required. The size of the glass should be proportional to the amount of time it has been since you last called. Choose an oversized goblet and fill it with rye whiskey plus a cherry or two (a poor woman’s Manhattan, you call this).
Step Three. Dial.
Note, with a twinge of remorse, that your father’s number has not made it onto your auto-populated list of favorites. (According to Google, the people you love most are your husband, your sister, and the pediatrician. This is an accurate estimation.)
Step 4. Hope.
Listen to the dial tones. Part of you hopes to leave a message. The rest of you hopes to hear his voice. Cross your fingers for both possible outcomes simultaneously. You are, after all, a deep and complicated woman.
Step 5. Contact.
Hear him pick up the phone and exclaim your name as if it has been a hundred years since he last heard your voice and you are the Buddha. Life is suffering, except when his wayward daughter calls. Next is the inevitable, “It’s been a while!” His tone is noticeably upbeat. Uncharacteristically upbeat. You suspect that your sister has warned him about guilt trips. Try to confirm this later.
Step 6. Caution.
Keep your voice optimistic at all times. If he senses a hint of familiar depression, he will try to talk you out of it. He will tell you how fortunate you are—a stay-at-home mom of two mostly healthy children with plenty of bonbons to eat, but all of this you already know. Logic-ing someone out of their mood is not actually a thing, but you have not convinced him of this. Or you have, and then he has promptly forgotten every time. He is in his 80s after all.
Step 7. Update.
“How are you?” he blurts out, before you have the chance to ask him the same question. Kick yourself for being slow on the draw. Then, give him the scoop on his grandchildren. Keep it brief and do not bring up anything that might cause him to worry. When you accidentally mention their recent bout of hand, foot, and mouth disease, take a swig of grain alcohol. Then, downplay the medical debacle with a cheery “They’ll be fine!” before he can utter the word prognosis.
Step 8. More Caution.
Again, do not mention anything that you are actually apprehensive about. Like the 75% chance your son will need eye surgery for his exotropia, because his eyes don’t track properly, and he could lose his binocular vision. Or how your husband’s travel schedule and not having the third baby you had envisioned has made your connection tenuous. Or how the ice maker’s sporadic crackings and rumblings turn you into a paranoid wreck every night. Avoid setting off his subconscious anxiety at all costs, because the sound of unparalleled concern in his voice is not something you want to have to shrug off, even if you are feeling optimistic and patient and not snarky.
Step 9. Retreat.
Pivot to an amusing anecdote of the toddler or canine variety. Like how your son peed in your husband’s cowboy boot and then went looking for your shoes. Or how the dog has been making herself sick all summer eating rotten crab apples in the backyard. Segue the dog tidbit into a question about Dad’s own rascally mutt Georgie. Then sit back for a description of the little hellhound’s recent kleptomania and destruction. He has probably felled the brick-weighted kitchen trash can, chewed up a library book, and defecated on freshly shampooed carpet, all within the last week.
Step 10. Share.
Talk about your own life. First, you are definitely busy. Try to remember exactly what you have been busy doing and latch onto your sweat-and-chalk-ridden gym obsession. Recount your recent deadlift personal record in impressive detail. 310 pounds is a big number. When he asks, “How high?” make a mental note to send him a video of a deadlift.
Move on by bringing up your garden, the new berry patch you just put in, and your efforts to acidify its soil. Also, neighborhood raccoons may have selected said berry patch as their latrine.
Step 11. Inquire.
Ask your father what he has been up to. As he catalogs the human interactions at his science museum docent gig, remind yourself that this is not the time for Google searches like “quiet time ideas for preschoolers.” If you breach this rule, you will stop hearing anything that he says and, after ten minutes, it will become clear to him that your mind is elsewhere. The disappointment in your father’s voice will be a dagger in your heart.
Step 12. Connect.
Fish a cherry out of your drink and settle into the couch as he tells you what he’s been reading. Something about geology, the nature of time, or particle physics. Again, avoid your laptop. You will have plenty of time to decide what show to binge on after you hang up. Listen as Dad tells you that plate tectonics will stop when the four radioactive isotopes responsible for heating the earth’s core run out, and after that it will only take 65 million years for the erosion of all land. Together you marvel at this amount of time, which is brief geologically, but incomprehensible to a life form that lives only 100 years, as far as order of magnitudes. Ask questions to demonstrate that you are both a) genuinely interested and b) still intelligent. You were, at one point, a PhD scientist after all. Dad reminds you that you have your PhD forever and no one can take it away from you. Resist the urge to say that sometimes you’d rather have a sturdy door stop it would be more functional.
Finally, lose touch with your inner monologue. Recount the story of a grad school cohort who became a theist after he decided that random mutations could not possibly account for the creation of the eye organ. Shake your head and commiserate about how your species is so bad at conceptualizing the amount of time it has taken for life to evolve on Earth. Realize that you do have knowledge and questions and opinions buried deep under the pro tips about stain removal and potty training and meal planning. Relish how interested your father is in thoughts that you don’t take time to contemplate, thoughts you can only share with him. Realize again, for the millionth time, that you are his daughter, that he raised you to think deeply and have your voice heard. Blink back a tear when he tells you how proud he is of you. Say “I love you,” a tradition your little sister started that you will be forever grateful for. Emotions come harder than science in your family. Say goodbye, reminded that the first man who ever loved you still does, from a thousand miles away.
Libby Horton is a lifelong writer and a recovering PhD chemist. She attends ongoing personal essay workshops at the Boulder Writing Studio where she is developing a collection of linked essays about the intersection of science, mental health, and relationships. When she is not wearing her writer hat, she is an avid downhill skier, an adequate gardener, and the steadfast mother of two small humans.