Rosa Maria Santana
y dad was a mystery to me. When I was a little girl, he was an intriguing and charming mystery. As I grew older, he became a more perplexing, sometimes painful puzzle. The faded picture of the two of us that I have kept for all these years says as much.
In it, I am three, wearing a red ruffled dress, white socks, and black shiny shoes. My dad kneels next to me, pointing at the camera, trying vainly to get me to pose with him. Instead, I stare at him. Years later, I stare into that grainy snapshot while also searching the pages of my mind over a lifetime of memories for answers to the mystery man and to what caused the picture-perfect daddy and daughter to divide.
As a little girl, I called him Papí. I adored him. As I grew older and spoke more English than Spanish, our relationship became more strained, more distant. I stopped calling him Papí. Instead, he became Dad. I became, in one sense, daddy’s grown-up little girl, left with more questions than answers.
Back in elementary school, I did my homework in the dining room, where I cherished my bird’s-eye view of Papí in the living room. After a long day of work, Papí would lie on his stomach while watching TV. During commercials, he’d turn over on his back and rub his tummy. In those moments sometimes, I’d sneak up on him, then suddenly jump on his big belly as if it were a trampoline. I was only six or seven years old, but he acted like I weighed a thousand pounds. He’d yell in Spanish: ¡Ah! ¿Qué andas haciendo? ¡Ya para! Translation: What are you doing? Stop it!
Sometimes, his choice words were a bit more colorful, but he was always playful. I’d giggle uncontrollably. His reaction only encouraged me to keep jumping.
When I was a little girl, I remember him laughing a lot, his laugh resounding like the thunderous crash of waves against ragged rocks. That sound could fill a room as easily as the scent of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. His laughter was just as reassuring as cookies–a favorite comfort food of mine. I remember him smiling, enjoying food, savoring a good joke.
But as I grew older, something happened. Papí changed. He grew more withdrawn, with pronounced mood swings that I did not—could not—understand as a child, or even later as a teenager. This much I did understand: The twinkle in his eye faded. His boisterous laugh disappeared. He disappeared. And we grew apart.
By the time I was a teenager, our relationship had suffered too many missed conversations and opportunities for father-daughter intimacies. It was precious time and moments made irrecoverable by the years that passed by as school and a career in journalism carried me far from home, farther from Papí.
My older brother’s voice was frantic over the phone. Was I sitting? He wanted to know. I was. I was at work, writing a story on deadline on my first week as a reporter with a newspaper in Texas.
My brother’s voice quivered. In the background, someone sobbed uncontrollably.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
He blurted it out. No preliminaries: Dad killed himself. Dad killed himself…
His news made me numb.
His news made me numb.