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  • I’d been back in California a month when my father called and told me he wanted to see me. At twenty-eight, I’d returned to the fold after two years of refusing contact from family. I missed my sisters. Simple as that. I wanted them, not him. But here I am. From the time we were born, my parents inserted themselves in our relationships, my siblings and mine. We are not allowed to be friends to each other without being censored first by them. Not allowed. Sieg heil, Herb and Gloria.
    We sit on the deck at the house my parents built in the early 1960s after my father finished his residency and gaze over the panoramic view of the San Francisco bay.
    The evening sky over the coast mountains to the west is red and orange and lavender, bathing the hawthorne and buckeye a pink alpenglow. Above, clumps of black and gray clouds ride the wind from east to west. These clouds in fall have always reminded me of a caravan – they are Berbers riding camels across an orange desert, nomads leaving a village and a life behind. While I was away, I dreamed about a Berber who navigates his leavetaking by blowing a handful of sand from his cupped palm.
    I know before I sit down in the ragged director’s chair he points to my father is angry. My father spent his childhood in 1930s Chicago fleeing from dungaree-clad Irish gangs who threw rocks at him and his friends, shouting filthy kikes! My siblings and I knew my father as two people. Outside, with friends and colleagues, he was ingratiating and garrulous – at home to me and my siblings he was violent and sadistic.
    Most of my life I’ve lied about what happened in my childhood, partly because it was implausible and partly because I didn’t want to be different. I’d always longed to feel towards my father the way most of my friends felt towards theirs: that he was kind, and wise, reliable and protective. I have few memories of my father being fatherly – someone who set limits, used praise, separated his own mood from his actions towards his children. When I was in kindergarten, he taught me to read – “sound it out,” he’d say, pointing to each letter of the unfamiliar word; and he taught me to ride a bicycle, running along beside me on the sidewalk, arms outstretched as I wobbled along –“You’re okay,” he pants, “I’ve got you, you won’t fall.”
    Mostly, though, my memories of my father involve scrambling to hide under the bed to avoid a beating; and later scrambling to pay tuition when in lieu of promised checks he’d send pink index cards to me in the mail with scrawled notes saying he had bills to pay that month – maybe next month.
    By the time I turned twenty-five, nothing in my life seemed to connect. With any trauma – an abortion, the break-up of my relationship – I tesseracted emotionally back to my childhood. I sleepwalked, had nightmares and migraines, and could barely function at work or in relationships. I couldn’t tell if any feeling – anger, terror, sadness – was about something happening in the present or something that happened in 1960.
    Above us, the sky darkens. The cloud caravan and camels fade into blackness above the coast mountains.
    “Glad to be back in the west?” he asks.
    “Guess so,” I say.
    “Do you know what you did to your mother by leaving?” His voice rises, “I don’t care how you treat me, but you should apologize to your mother.”
    “I did what I needed to do,” I say, “I was taking care of myself.”
    “You’re a self-centered narcissist,” he says.
    I look away, towards the hills. I realize that my cutting off was not really what made him angry. Regardless of what I might do to mollify him, he’ll stay angry. In spite of his medical education and psychoanalytic training, his anger is all my father has. For the first time I see him as a man who never progressed beyond where he came from. He won’t change, and whether I stay or go, I can’t change him. But I’ve changed. Between the time I left and the present, I’ve stopped wanting him to be someone he’s not. My own anger over my childhood that I’ve been struggling with for years is eclipsed by a profound sense of loss. I’ve lost the idea of ‘father’ I’ve always wished existed. I’ve awakened to life as it really is.
    I stand to go.
    “Sit down,” he says.
    I look at him, at his face reflected against the plate glass windows of his dream house and I realize he’s lost far more than I have: he’s lost his children. He never stared into our faces, my siblings and mine, filled with awe because God had allowed him to take part in a miracle. My anger is gone, replaced by a surge of pity.
    “Dad,” I say, “I love you.” I stand and turn to go.
    “Just remember, I’m the court of last appeal!” he shouts. I think, but do not say: 'You are the court of no appeal, Herb. No appeal. None.'
    I leave, I close the front door of my parents' 1960s dream home. I never return.
    That night, I blow a handful of sand into the sky and watch the scattering grains as they fall.
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