Abba wasn’t home much when I was a young child. Going to sleep by 8pm and having a father who worked as a Podiatrist during office hours, then at nursing homes, then went to school board meetings, and finally to learn with a study partner, did not enable us to cross paths very frequently. Aside from the weekends, the only times our schedules overlapped were in the middle of the night. It was then, that we developed our relationship; that he was a “dad” and I was a “daughter”.
If I felt sick or nauseous, I only needed to stand in the doorway of my parents’ room and start to gag, and through the enveloping darkness, I’d make out the figure of my father, bolting upright, and springing forth from the warmth of his blankets to steer me towards the bathroom. There was no announcement, no dialogue, no crying necessary. Just the tortured noise, and his innate, hurried reaction.
“Come,” he would say, and he’d scoop me up in his arms, carry me down the stairs, and help me get settled on the couch in our den. Lying head-to-toe, we would share the small space, wrapped in a woven afghan that a grateful patient had once given him, a small bucket by my head in case of future vomiting. He would put on the television- likely for my own enjoyment, because he would be back asleep within five seconds. I don’t think we had a remote control back then, and so the television would be fixed on a documentary of an ex-convict, a Latino-special, or just plain static, unless one of us were to get up to change it. Through it all he would sleep, dreaming in varied languages, a hodge-podge of the day’s stories, mixed in with a sick daughter. This is a father, I thought, and buried myself, my face against his toes, in the warmth of the couch.
In my early teenaged years, my parents replaced that couch with two light pink leather love-seats. It was not the most comfortable place for a nap, but many nights, Abba would fall asleep on the couches, his head on one armrest, legs crossed and elevated on the other one. His toes would poke through the holes in his thin, worn socks, and he let his feet dangle onto the second love-seat. The den was situated right by the front door, and I think he purposely chose this location to monitor our late evening comings-and-goings, without seeming too intrusive. And he had definitely honed his skill of bolting upright mid-snore, at the slightest hint of extraneous noise.
The door was locked, and I fiddled in my purse under the dim yellow light of the front porch, trying to find my key. A friend had dropped me off after a late Saturday night out on Central Avenue in Cedarhurst, and I knew that Abba would be sleeping on the couches. Hoping not to wake him, I slowly turned the knob and opened the door a mere foot’s width, the minimal amount in which I could slide in without too much hinge-creaking taking place. Satisfied with my near-burglar-like talents, I proceeded to close and lock the door in my wake, but before I could take another step towards the stairs, a voice from the den called, out, “Hi Sarah! How was your night?”
I turned around, and instead of going upstairs, headed into the den to see my father. He was perfectly upright, acting casual, as if he had just been sitting alone in a dark room, meditating, when I always knew he had been sleeping. “Fine!” I said, offering a tired smile. “We went to pizza…”
He wiped the sleep from his eyes, and reached to dig up his kippah from a hidden crevice in the couch, returning it to its perch amidst his dark black curls. And then he’d flip open his gemarah, and try to resume reading from the spot where his eyes had involuntarily closed. “Just going to finish my learning…” he’d say, and like that, I was dismissed.
These moments were often a silent recognition of our relationship, of our distinct roles as parent and child. Of protector and protected. He would drift back into a deep sleep, satisfied that his mission had been fulfilled, and I’d tuck myself into bed, knowing I was safe. “Emor Me’at, Veaseh Harbeh,” Say little and do a lot.
And then there was the end of my college years, when much of my evenings were spent traveling back and forth to Philadelphia, spending time with my then-fiance, Yoni, and oftentimes arriving home even later at night. Out of habit, I’d pause at the door, trying not to disturb my father’s sleep, straining to listen for the familiar sounds of the Spanish channel, or Abba’s raucous snoring. But I remember the first time I was greeted with silence.
I had been tiptoeing to the stairs from the front door, and had made it all the way, without being summoned. Wondering where he was, I turned and headed into the den on my own, looking for my father, but instead of finding his body splayed on the couch, or in its usual upright position, only his gemarah lay on the pink cushions, closed for the night. The television was silent. I curled up on the cold leather, resting my head on the couch’s arm, and felt my father’s absent embrace.
This was the passing of the torch, the growing-up, the getting married. The end of an era. I was in limbo; not quite daughter, not-yet wife. Being transferred into the protective arm of another man, so my father could liberate himself of me. Our couch meetings were no more, and in the morning, as I began to pack my things for my upcoming wedding and move to Philadelphia, Abba passed me by, and mumbled, “I missed you last night.”
And so, Abba, it is your 60th birthday. I no longer live at home, and I’m no longer the little, medium, and big girl who stood, sat, and slept with you on those couches. You are no longer the first one I call when my car malfunctions, but you’ll always be my father. The one who taught me to speak through my actions, to do rather than say. To find and instill deep meaning in the smallest of gestures, the tiniest of considerations. And in the dark, in the quietest of the night, your snoring from the couch still sings its songs of the great father you have always been.