When I was maybe 8 or 9, a solicitor came to the door of our house raising money to support housing for the homeless. My mom was in the middle of cooking dinner, and so she kindly listened to his opening spiel and then politely explained that she didn't have time. And I, as a small person with rolls of pennies saved up to one day cash in for paper money, insisted that I could afford to make a donation. I think I scrounged up maybe 10 dollars to donate. And at school a few weeks later, when we were asked to write our own "I Have A Dream" speeches to honor Martin Luther King and Black History Month, I wrote about hoping that more people would be kind and understanding to others and that all people could see their way to helping each other and maybe even come to recognize that we're all valuable.
I came across that speech a few months ago, and thought, "Fuck. I was a generous kid."
And in the time since then, I come to realize that idealistic and often blindly generous girl is still very much a part of me.
This is not a post for me to wax on about what a stellar human being I am. In fact, it's the opposite.
Because while I really believe strongly in being generous with other people, in being open and supportive and kind to other people... even though I think there is quite honestly nothing that we benefit more from than the generosity of others... Today I also feel like giving it up.
I remember when I was younger, I had a long conversation with my older sister about christmas gifts. I was concerned at the time about getting her something good enough to warrant her getting ME something super awesome. And she very kindly and patiently explained to me that we don't give gifts to get things back. We give gifts for the joy of giving them. And it blew my tiny mind. Because I was small and I was the youngest. I genuinely never did anything just to do it. Everything warranted a reward otherwise what the fuck was I in it for?
But (admittedly not until years) after that conversation I started to monitor myself. Am I doing this because I want to do it? Or because I think I will get something from the other person if I do it? I didn't stop doing things hoping for a reward, but I did stop expecting one. And with me that's about as good as it gets.
Which all leads us to today. Today I went to visit my dad, for probably the last time before I move out of Seattle. It was just he and I, and we walked up to a convenience store so he could buy some cigarettes and a 5 hour energy, and we walked back. It took us a solid hour, because he has had 3 strokes and shouldn't actually be walking at all, according to him, according to his doctors.
The first part of the visit was all right. We talked about how my older sister just got married, and I showed him photos from the ceremony. He asked a lot of questions about how she's doing, and what her husband is like. How was my mom is doing, and how is New York . And I did my best to answer without saying too much, because really it isn't my business to talk about them or their lives. But I felt good that I was there, that I was providing this bridge into the life he gave up on, That I was still doing this after getting burned by him so many times. I felt that tiny reward I sometimes hope for, like being generous meant something. Like being there was helping him.
We left his building to start our walk when the tone of things changed. He started explaining to me how hard it is for him to walk. How much he struggles to keep his energy up to do much of anything. And I tried to listen and ask thoughtful questions. To be supportive in some way. And then he said, "You know, I'm sorry that I've said some things to hurt you before. But I'm still your father." And there was weight in his voice. A kind of reprimanding tone that I remember from being scolded growing up. All I could manage was, "Yes. I know that."
And then it came, "If you saw anyone else in this situation you would help them. You would do anything you could to help them in any way you knew how. But you don't do shit for me, because I was mean to you. I'm still your father."
I don't remember what I said. If I said anything. Or if we just inched along silently for a while before he eventually changed the subject. Or I did. But I felt so deeply like a fraud, more so than I can really express. As though somehow I have spent my life pretending to be a generous and caring person, while quietly letting my father die in the background because he was mean to me once. And couldn't I give him money to get more help? To fix his wheelchair so he wouldn't have to walk when half his body doesn't work anymore? Couldn't I do something? Wasn't he still my dad?
I thought about what he'd said. How maybe he was right. I would probably empty my savings paying for medical attention for my mom or my sister. I would do anything I could, anything I knew how to do, and I would enlist anyone's help I could get. They are people I would lay down in traffic for, any day of the week without a second thought. And I felt sick to acknowledge that for my dad maybe the same isn't true.
Walking back from the convenience store he found out that I'm 24. He'd been under the impression that I was 22, to which I said "Well, I was 22 two years ago, if that helps." He said he felt bad we'd gone this long without him getting to know me, and I said he was welcome to ask me anything he wanted to know, and then he said he didn't want to know anything. That it was probably better this way. Earlier in the visit he had told me he was very proud of me, and I wanted to ask, "For what?" because so far as I could tell, the peak of my accomplishment in his eyes was that I'd grown up to be attractive. Which isn't much.
We sort of laughed about a couple other things. But for most of the rest of the time it was like being a volunteer nurse to a guy I barely knew. When we said goodbye we forgot to say that we loved each other. Both of us just forgot.
I came home and cried. Kind of. I wondered what the point of it was. Why do I go to see him at all, when I dread doing it and he just feels angry when I'm there? Why do I go when he doesn't know me and doesn't really want to? Why do I do it when he resents me, even though I'm one of the only people who visits him at all? And at the same time, not going doesn't feel like an option for me. I would feel like garbage if I stopped showing up. I would feel selfish. I would feel like a fake. Someone who insists on generosity and doesn't have the courage to show any to her own dad. And then I felt stuck, and so I started to write this, again.
I don't want things to be hopeless. I believe in hope. I believe in love. I believe in compassion. I want to and I need to. But I also feel a need to know the limit. To see where the boundary is. To know when giving for the joy of giving runs out and becomes giving up on yourself.
I want it to be okay to sometimes say, I'm giving the most I can. I'm only a kid, and this ten dollars is everything I have today.