Portrait of a Family

This is a short piece I wrote for my friend Berni Xiong and her project Letters to He, which she launched in order to raise awareness for Parent Alienation by spreading personal stories of those affected by family strife. The piece was previously published on her site.

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Original Illustration by Rashid Faraj
Original Illustration by Rashid Faraj

“Okay, class; time to pull out your drawing pads,” Ms. Brackens said as the children settled into their seats.

This was David’s favorite part of the day. He just loved when they got to draw. People were always asking him what he wanted to be “when he grew up” – well, he didn’t know what he “wanted to be” but, as long as he could draw, he didn’t really care.

He reached into the canvas backpack on his lap and pulled out the sketchpad he’d gotten from his father the last time they were together. It had been almost three months – just before his eleventh birthday. They’d gone to Milly’s for a burger and ice cream the Wednesday before; it was their favorite place. David liked it because, no matter what was going on, they could always just sit there on the stone steps outside and enjoy each other’s company.

Sometimes they talked. Sometimes they didn’t need to say anything. Those times, all you could hear was David slurping up the rest of his water or his dad licking the cone obnoxiously. David knew they didn’t always look the most “normal” but, no matter what kind of night it was, it was always exactly what they needed.

David’s father was especially quiet that night. He knew his mom and dad got on each other’s nerves sometimes. His dad tried not to show it when he would see him but David knew when his parents weren’t getting along. He hadn’t even had to do any guessing this time – he’d heard the muffled yelling when his dad came to pick him up that night. They were at it again. But he told himself that as long as it didn’t turn into the middle-of-the-street yelling match they’d had a couple summers ago he’d be okay.

Actually, David had found that if he closed his bedroom door and put on his headphones he could hardly hear them. It was really the “afterwards” that was the worst: dad was quiet and mom complained – David knew more than he should, more than he could forget. So, even though he and his dad didn’t always talk too much, it was nice to be able to simply be with him and sit. They liked the silence.

“Alright, if everyone has their pads out, we can begin, now,” Ms. Brackens’ voice brought David back from his daydream. “Today, we’ll be depicting our families. Yes, you heard that right, you get to create a piece that describes or, somehow, explains your family. I know many of you have different situations, different experiences so please be creative.”

David looked to his left and then his right. Bobby Graham and Julie Hill were already opening their pads. Bobby went straight for the colored pencils. Of course he would, David thought. David resented how bright and cheery Bobby’s drawings always were. He knew that life wasn’t always “sunshine and butterflies”, as his grandmother said, and he couldn’t bear the naïveté that accompanied constant gratification. Julie was also already at work. David could see the crisp lines of a family forming around a proper fireplace, wisps of lace and satin adorning the idyllic image. It was so clean, so perfect, and her hand was the definition of steadiness; he envied it.

David looked back down at his empty paper and, all of a sudden, his mind went blank. He reached into his bag for a pencil and, sharpening it quickly, leaned over his canvas intently. He’d have to come up with something, he thought – this couldn’t be too hard. But after poring over the question of “family” for quite some time the only mark on David’s page was the spot where his pencil’s point had landed two minutes before.

Be creative, huh? That’s exactly what he’d have to do. He began slowly, stumbling slightly at first but, after a while, pretending became a little easier. As he began to hit his stride, David started to think more and more about the last three months – the last three months without his dad.

He remembered that day so clearly. The day of his birthday came. First thing in the morning, he jumped out of bed and bounded down the stairs. It was a Saturday and his mother was already in the kitchen cooking a big birthday breakfast for him.

“Good morning, honey,” she said as soon as he turned the corner from the staircase. “How about some cheddar eggs, sausage, bacon and pancakes for the birthday boy?”

“Yess,” David said, sustaining the final note through the rock-star-like, sock-glide he performed across the kitchen before hopping straight into his chair at the head of the table.

His mom left the eggs, which were still cooking on the stove, and brought a plate of pancakes over, fresh off the griddle. “Why don’t you start with these and the rest will be done soon.”

“Thanks, mom.” David dove in.

He wolfed down the three giant flapjacks just as his mom placed the main course in front of him.

“This is all so good,” David said in between bites. “I can’t wait to see what dad does with the cake, this year.”

A hobby of David’s father’s, it lent itself well to birthdays especially and was something David loved looking forward to. Variety was the name of the game – cheesecake one year, angel food the next and a German Chocolate Cake for good measure. Seven other cakes had been made (one for each year) and never, not once, did they disappoint.

“I don’t think there’s gonna be a cake this year, David,” his mom answered without looking up from the egg pan she was cleaning.

David swallowed the mouthful he had been working on and turned to look at his mother.

“I’m not getting a cake?”

“No, I mean…we just won’t have one of your father’s cakes here, this year,” she said. “He’s not coming to the party.”

At that moment, so many thoughts raced through David’s head he couldn’t keep track of them all. He’s not coming? Why isn’t he coming to my party? Does he not want to? Did she tell him not to come? Did I do something? He was dead silent, not knowing what to say first…or what to say at all. David felt like a deer in the headlights – he hadn’t expected this.

Finally, after a silence long enough to have been noticed, David was able to muster a response. All that came out was, “Why?”

“Your father, well, I’m not sure when you’ll see him next.” she said, still averting her eyes.

This just added fuel to the fire of David’s disbelief. Why not? Why is this happening? Completely blindsided, David was in shock; speechless. He felt like he was being crushed by an endless deluge of heaviness, the weight crushing him, making his breathing harder to come by. Now, he was seeing stars. Breathe, David, breathe, he had to remind himself.

He took a deep breath. His mother was still talking in the background – it was something about his dad “not being a good influence for you, anyway.” Sometimes he didn’t understand her and, right now, David was glad his mind was on other things because he didn’t have the will to try.

The fuzz had finally receded from the borders of David’s eyes and he could think clearly again. Well, as clearly as you could after just being told your father wouldn’t be at your eleventh birthday party. David knew he would never get a straight answer from his mother – he was on his own, with this one.

Back in the classroom, David’s drawing was shaping up nicely. He was surprised at how well he had been able to mask, on the paper, the uncertainty that plagued his thoughts. He glanced back over at Bobby and Julie’s pieces – they were putting on their finishing touches. Both were pristine and unapologetically pure.

David looked back down at his paper and was, suddenly, overcome with guilt. The pride that had accompanied his earlier assessment of success vanished into shame he had spent three months nursing. These feelings welled up in David until he could barely keep his mouth above the rising tide. Every day without his father, every day of pretending he was all right had finally gotten to him and, though he tried, he couldn’t see his way out. David reached at the surface, grasping for something, anything, but found nothing more than other questions.

He had lied so elegantly that many people would never be able to guess the scene he would have portrayed, had it been what he really felt. But he knew. And, because of this, the purity of his classmates’ pieces gnawed at David’s insides.

He still couldn’t explain why he hadn’t seen his father or why he hadn’t called – every time he tried to broach the subject with his mom, he got the same “he’s not good for you” line followed by a hasty change-of-subject. But the longer his dad was away the more David looked for him. He started seeing his face in others’. He heard his voice in the wind. He might have even seen his car parked on David’s street at night a couple of times.

It wasn’t fair but it was life, he’d learned. It was for this reason that, despite the temptation, David resisted his envy for the rose-colored lives of his classmates – existences that appeared so enviable and untarnished – for he knew too well that, often, no one knows the whole truth.

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