My Father’s Eyes


In many ways, my father’s eyes showed me what he couldn’t.

They dance but I don’t know the rhythm with which they dart. Or I forget. It’s been nearly fifteen years since I remember looking into them and their looking into mine. Fifteen years have added yellow to the white and crows feet across the freckles. But they were green and they are green and for the past three weeks they’ve appeared on my computer screen.

Our shared name means that each time I type Cam to access my Facebook page I see the three-inch box of his face.

The first time his face appeared I lost a breath. The chiseled cheekbones buried in my memory were now buried beneath swollen skin. His nose, his smile – the unfamiliar within them served as a harbinger to the familiar. Each Halloween I knew the green of his eyes like I now know the green that lines the mighty Mekong River.

Once a year for one hour I’d stare into them as he painted the Ultimate Warrior’s mask onto my face. No words were exchanged other than his occasional “keep still” when I had to itch. It was an hour of exclusive access into the man he was and could be: fiercely focused and fierce, reckless and gentle and curious and confused. I never felt more proud of my father than on those nights when he’d accompany me throughout the neighborhood. He was an artist and his work was exquisite, but that mask and the time that went into it made me feel like an indestructible little warrior, the way a young boy can feel when raised by a caring father.

The eyes reveal the human in even the most monstrous of men. Hardened soldiers and criminals carry within their eyes a moisture and softness akin to newborns. And so Halloween was the time where we bonded most, the time of no talking and therefore no yelling, the time when my only task was to sit still which meant I couldn’t get into too much trouble, the time when silence wasn’t awkward and bonding didn’t feel like it later would: court-appointment.

Time gets credit for shading or shaping memories, but so too can it create new that never existed. While my general memory of his eyes have helped me to understand and then forgive him, the bad memories – small in time though they were – came to represent for me a disproportionate amount of our time together. Some good times were shaded until they became obscure while others were reshaped into something they never were.

As a young boy growing up in central Pennsylvania I was too scared to look when his eyes burned white hot with rage, too confused with guilt to do more than glance into them when their rage gave to tears of shame. Upon seeing a parent cry children often blame themselves. I did. Every single time. The tears from his eyes were the constant, a sort of biological apology that, unlike his voice, never broke when they communicated their sorry.

In the past few days we’ve exchanged emails and phone numbers. He told me he finally watched the September 2011 video I made to reconnect. I called his cell, listened to the voicemail, heard my voice in his and was reminded of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s lesson:

If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people.


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