Sometimes, after a long day at work, my dad would join my brother and me to watch the stars at night, abandoning his perfectly tailored, black, wool suit inside the house. Sprawled across old blankets and swatting mosquitoes, we would pretend that every star, every pinprick in the paper sky, held infinite possibilities. We asked for everything: new legos, our own swimming pool. I wished that the moving sign would vanish from my best friend’s house—if she left who would I sing “Wannabe” with, fantasizing about our futures as pop stars? Kindergarten was about to start. I wanted to be a gymnast like Oklahoma olympian Shannon Miller.
“Your wish has to travel all the way down from the stars. That could take awhile,” my dad would respond. “Maybe you should wish for more patience while you wait.”
On muggy summer nights like these, my dad, my brother Neil, and I were the three musketeers, and I couldn’t imagine that anything would change. It was time with my dad—time without his work, his meetings, his usual perfection. Spending time with him was rare. He typically had office meetings to plan, company dinners to attend, clients to impress. Sometimes it seemed like he spent more time trying to live the American dream than he spent living with us.
Fall swept in and took away the late night escapes to a world of wishes. No more soft patter of feet across the dewy grass, no more scampering in the darkness with my brother, his hands reaching through the summer heat. As the air got crisper, I sensed my mom growing increasingly tense. Within weeks, a mask of permanent sadness eclipsed her face.
“Neil,” I asked my brother, “What’s wrong with dad’s brain? I didn’t even know anything could get through your skull.” His face crumpled at my words; even though he was only two years older than I was, he saw what I failed to. Soon we began to make trips to the hospital, but I couldn’t understand why my dad had to sit inside machines and take medicines that made him feel even worse. He was bedridden and could barely even say my name.
While the winter cold kept me inside, I kept bargaining with the stars; I would give up my Beanie Baby collection. I would never eat chocolate chip cookies again. I would do anything in my five-year-old power if I could just see the dad I once knew.
I had to miss half of the school year to live on Long Island as my dad had more and more surgeries. I would run outside and wish on every star in the sky, but the stars up north, obscured by smog and city lights, didn’t shine as brightly as the ones back home in Oklahoma. I wished that life could return to normal—I wanted to eat snow cones and watch Rocket Power like other five-year-olds.
Instead, I kept hearing my mom crying when she thought no one was listening. I wished for her tears to end. I saw my dad’s perfect, jet-black hair fall out and turn to fuzz. I wished that it would grow back. The neighbors brought over casserole after casserole and drove my brother and me to school. I wished I could stop detecting the pity in their gazes. But the stars seemed to be sucked dry of their magic, exhausted after granting my petty, incessant wishes from months before. None of my new wishes came true.
Sometimes I watch home videos and pretend to remember everything about my dad. He loved home movies, tried to capture our whole childhoods on film. While hundreds of friends and colleagues knew my dad, and while people in Oklahoma talk about him constantly more than a decade later, I sometimes feel like my father is a fictional character in a novel that I’ve never even read. “Your father came here with only $20 in his pocket and a tattered suitcase,” my mom reminds me. “Look at everything he accomplished. Look at the life he created.” Others regale me of my dad’s generosity. “Once when we canceled Santa at the office Christmas party, he went out and bought toys for all of the kids—what a great man!”
It seems strange that I will never even know the person that I have been trying to be for so long. People say he was leadership-oriented, social, charismatic—the kind of person everyone wanted to connect with. People tell me I’m like him, but I wonder: Is this how I really am, or am I trying to emulate a father I can’t remember?
I will always seek my father’s approval, even though he can no longer give it to me. I will always compare myself to his memory. I no longer wish for Pokemon cards or the ability to fly. Instead I wish for patience to discover myself and take risks outside of my dad’s expectations. Maybe this would have been his wish, too.