Maybe it’s because he’s the reason I first flew. My parents had been divorced for about six years when my mom moved us from Massachusetts to Oklahoma, and my first flight was to visit him in Boston that summer.
Or maybe it’s because when there’s bad turbulence, the kind that makes your stomach drop, and I start to imagine the wing cracking under the pressure and breaking off, one side of the plane folding over like a wounded bird, I hear my dad’s voice, something he told me a long time ago after he picked me up from the airport on one of my trips, when I’d been on a rough flight and was shaken up by it.
“You know,” he’d said, “I used to be afraid of turbulence, too. But then someone told me that, in all of history, a flight has never gone down because of turbulence.”
“Really?” I’d asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he laughed. “I don’t even remember who told me. Some guy. But it worked. I’m not afraid of it anymore.”
It’s weird, the things our brains choose to remember. Weirder still that the things people say, the things that really stick, are rarely profound.
I wish I could say it worked on me, but I still get scared when there’s turbulence. I don’t think it’s because I’m worried the plane will go down – it’s because it’s hard for me to accept that I have no control over what happens up here, that I might as well just sip my complimentary orange juice and look out the window at the clouds while we bounce through choppy air because even if we are going down, well, that’s just what’s happening, and there’s nothing I could do to stop it.
I’m helpless, suspended in mid-air.
September 22, 2014
Monday morning at work. Unremarkable as any – answering emails, answering phones.
My cell phone rings, the screen lighting up: “Uncle Harry.”
It’s one of those zero moments, like a reset button on every moment of my life before it. I know the outcome of this call before I answer it.
“Leah…sad news…your father…he passed away…he was having trouble breathing last night, they put him to bed…sometime while he was sleeping…the nurse found him…no one was there…will let you know about the services…”
And I say something, and then I hang up and walk right up to my nearest co-worker and say, “My dad just died,” and burst into tears, and she hugs me, and our HR rep appears next to me and whisks me into her office and we just stare at each other, and I feel silly for being there and for not knowing what else to do.
“I bought a plane ticket to see him in November,” I say, as if the act of buying the ticket guaranteed his survival. I just can’t believe I’m one of those people who waited too long to say things.
This is the last time I’ll see my dad.
We’re side by side at a blackjack table in a Rhode Island casino. It’s mid-afternoon, and I’m five bucks away from losing all the money he’d given me to play.
I’m not a big gambler, but my dad gets a kick out of explaining the games to me. He usually gives me 50 bucks, and when I lose that, he still tosses me a few chips every now and then, despite my protests. “I’m just gonna lose it, Dad.”
I slide my last little chip into the circle to bet. My dad bets 20 bucks. “You have to switch it up a bit,” he says. “The more you bet, the better the chances. You can’t win big unless you take big risks.”
I lose the hand, but he wins. I spend the next half hour watching my dad until he’s up $600. And then I spend the fifteen minutes after that watching him lose it all again.
I wonder, “What’s the point?”
No one asked me to speak at my father’s funeral – I volunteered. I’d been on the phone with my uncle, and he was explaining the plan. “We’re going to have a very small memorial,” he said. “We’ll have an Armenian priest say a few words, just a little something.”
“Can I say something?”
“Of course,” my uncle said. “That would be nice.”
I was surprised at myself for volunteering so quickly. And now I’m surprised to find myself actually doing it, standing in front of the small group of my family and a few of my dad’s old friends who showed up to mourn.
I tell the story of the first time Dad and I played catch. I tell the story about how my dad liked to beat up BooBoo, one of my favorite teddy bears. These are the same stories about my dad I’ve been telling for years.
My family knows these stories, but they sit and listen and laugh at every place they should, every place I’d planned a laugh when I’d jotted down my notes hours earlier.
“In all my years doing these services,” the Armenian priest says after I sit down, “I’ve never seen such a unique tribute.”
But I feel like a fraud. Essentially, I was performing an act up there. I felt very much like a comedian, a Master of Ceremonies, while I told stories about my father.
It’s a trick. A trick that I’ve spent the last nine years perfecting.
I can’t believe that no one can see that I’m on autopilot, being a comedian to make up for the fact that I really don’t know much about the man I’m eulogizing.
My dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease when I was in middle school. My aunt talked to me about it then – she’d asked if I understood exactly what that meant, if I was aware that it was currently incurable, a slow deterioration. I nodded, blankly staring out the window of her car and filed it away in the “Things To Deal With Later” folder, which then got shoved in the wrong box and lost in a corner somewhere.
It’s not that I wasn’t aware of his disease – I could see his decline when I visited, like when you see a kid that grew five inches since the last time you saw him. Still, I didn’t realize how bad it got.
I always thought I’d have more time.
And now, I'm left wondering how well I really knew my dad. I don’t know how he felt about politics, religion, society, racial tension. I don’t know how he’d feel about Bill Cosby being a psychopathic rape monster or the systematic police brutality targeting people of color. The only things I know for certain about him can be contained on the shortest list of things he loved…
He loved his family. He loved telling stories to them, about them.
He loved standup comedy, but he stopped listening to it in the mid-1990s. His favorite comedian was Steven Wright.
He loved Boston sports – well, he loved ANY sports. Until the day he died, he rooted for every Boston team, but if they weren’t playing, he’d settle for any game on TV, be it tennis, golf, or (my least favorite) professional bowling.
He loved to sing songs he made up out of sentences people said. My favorite song of his was "Is Leah gonna wear those clothes to the wedding?", an old gem that played on regular rotation in the Kayajanian household from 1986 to 1992.
He loved to gamble. Toward the end of his life, most of my dad’s stories were about big wins at the blackjack table or on one spin of a slot machine. He was all about the risks, the rewards, and the thrill of betting on the underdog.
That’s how he gambled. That’s how he loved his sports.
But I don’t know if that’s how he lived.
I’m in Boston for Christmas with my boyfriend, who is meeting the Kayajanian side of my family for the first time. I know he’s planning to propose to me sometime soon, not sure when, and I know he’s planning to ask my father for his permission during this trip. I’d prompted him to do it, thinking it would be a nice gesture, thinking it would make my dad feel like, well, my dad. What I didn’t consider at the time is how opposed I am to the idea of being handed away like property.
After their brief conversation, I pull my boyfriend to the side. “So? How’d it go?”
“Good,” he says.
“What did he say?”
“He said, ‘You’ll have to ask her. She’s her own girl.’”
I don’t end up marrying that guy, even though he’s a good man. Instead, I move to LA to try and be a comedian. Or more accurately, just to try.
December 25, 2014
My mom’s in Los Angeles for the holidays. Usually, I drive to Oklahoma, but I stayed here for Christmas and flew her to me, since it’s really just the two of us celebrating these days.
Today, we’re visiting some distant relatives in Northridge, and they’re treating us like they’ve spent Christmas with us our whole lives, but I still have a weird removed feeling, like I’m watching another family through a wall of glass.
Molly gives us a small tour of her beautiful house. In one of the guest bedrooms, I stop short at the door, staring at a very familiar bow-tied teddy bear aloft a couple of pillows at the head of the bed.
“I got it from your mother!” Molly says. “Remember when she had the estate auction at her house? I just thought he was cute, so I bought him. Was he yours?”
“Yeah,” I say.
I can’t believe it – I’m staring at BooBoo, the very bear that my father used to beat up, making me laugh for hours. The very bear I’d referenced when speaking at his funeral. I consider how crazy it is that I’m standing in a house in California staring at a stuffed animal a six-year-old me used to drag around in Massachusetts. And BooBoo looks great – clean, his fur bright white, the dingy gray coat I’d given him apparently bleached out of him for good.
“Do you want him back?” Molly asks.
I shake my head. “No. I just…I can’t believe you have him. I never thought I’d see him again.”
Molly and my mom move on to a room across the hall, but I linger behind, approaching the bed. I reach out and touch BooBoo’s big fat white arm.
I whisper, “Merry Christmas, Dad.”
I pull into my usual spot, 7:40 A. M. I have five minutes before I need to be at my desk, so I just sit, coffee in hand, and stare out my windshield. If only I could shut off my brain, the constant lists of things I need to do.
You need to write, I tell myself. As of late, I’ve been slacking in the writing area. It hasn’t affected my standup – I write jokes onstage – but writing prose is something I’ve always done, something that bugs me when I don’t do it, like restless leg syndrome for the brain.
It’s not that I have no ideas – it’s that I just can’t seem to sit still to start. Something is clogging up in my mind, a stopper holding all my words at bay. I don’t know how to release it other than to make empty promises to myself that I don’t follow through with. I’ll start writing tomorrow.
But I won’t. Months will go by before I do.
My co-worker parks and steps out of her car, balancing her usual five assorted-sized bags, a coffee, and a small paper bag, no doubt with a pastry inside. She starts walking toward me. I roll down my window. “Hey Lady, you need help?”
“This is for you,” she says, handing me the pastry. “I was thinking about you this morning and how you lost your dad last year. I was wondering how you were doing.”
This thought: Someone remembers. Then a slice right through me, cutting all the tiny things I can control away.
I need to write about my Dad.
I’ve just started college at the University of Oklahoma. One week in, and I’ve decided against being a theater major after one class, during which my acting teacher told me I wasn’t good enough at being a tree and pulled an imaginary string from my back to help me. I realized in that moment that I’m just too sarcastic to attend these classes while keeping a straight face.
I call my Dad and tell him I’m thinking of becoming a business major. I have no basis for this decision, and it’s so clearly the wrong choice for me – perhaps an overcorrection in the opposite direction of theater – but I’m freaking out about deciding right this second what I want to do with my life. Maybe I should be practical.
“Business?” Dad asks. “Really? Wow, that surprises me.”
I sigh, frustrated. “Why?”
“Because,” he says, “when you were a kid, you used to write stories all the time. I guess I always thought you’d be a writer.”
“How do I know which one to get?” Sosa asks, staring at a wall of softball gloves in this Big 5 sports store.
I shrug, picking up a cheap bat, taking a test swing. “Whichever one feels best on your hand.”
For years, I’ve been telling myself that I’m going to start a softball team. This year, I actually do it.
I am the manager of a co-ed slow pitch softball team, and I’m teaching Sosa, my boyfriend and one of the best athletes I know, about a sport that he’s never played, save a few games of catch in the park near my house and once or twice when he was a kid.
“It’s not really about the price,” I say. “It’s more about how it feels.”
He nods, picks up a glove. “It’s pretty stiff.”
“All new gloves are stiff,” I say. “After a while, you’ll break it in, and it’ll be only your glove. It’ll fit your hand so perfectly that any other glove will feel weird, and you’ll wear it until it falls off.”
I think of my dad suddenly, a rushing wave of regret that I won’t be able to tell him I’m on a softball team. If he were still alive, that’s the conversation we’d have every time we talked. “How’s the softball team?” he would ask every week, and he’d be genuinely interested in the answer while I’d go on and on about how to even out our good bats, where to play someone with a great arm but no aim, slow pitch courtesy runner rules, and every intricate detail that would bore the hell out of anyone else.
I’ll think of my dad every time I play.
On my 6th birthday, he gave me my first softball glove. It was so huge on my tiny hand that I could barely hold it up. It was actually bigger than the glove I eventually bought in high school (the one I still have now), the one I had to buy after Dad’s glove broke off my hand during a particularly intense high school tryout, almost ten years after he gave it to me, the year I made varsity.
It got a lot of use, that glove. I loved it. In fact, I remember the very first time I used it, playing catch with my dad in the backyard of my aunt’s cottage in Cape Cod. “Don’t hold it that way,” he’d said. “Flip it over and catch it the other way or you’ll get hit in the face.”
I flipped it over. “Like this?”
“You got it, Kiddo.” He tossed the ball, but I closed the glove before it reached the pocket, and as predicted, it hit me square in the face, knocking loose one of my front baby teeth. I started crying immediately, and Dad tried not to laugh as he followed me inside, where I announced to my stepmom, “Dad threw the ball at my face!”
It’s taken me almost a year to write this story.
Over these last 11 months, I’ve grappled with whether or not I really knew my dad much in the first place. I’ve wondered how well he knew me. Because my father and I didn’t talk about a lot of stuff besides sports and gambling, and because he didn’t ask me much beyond, “How’s your car? How’s your dog? How’s comedy?”, I had mistakenly believed that was an indication that we didn’t know much about each other, or that he had a life that moved forward after I left, a life separate from me.
I was wrong.
When I was a kid, my dad was the best dad. He made me laugh harder than anyone, and I never once heard him raise his voice. After I moved to Oklahoma, and he got diagnosed with Parkinson’s, he wasn’t in my life much, and I thought it was because he wanted it that way. Only now do I realize that it’s not that he moved on and became someone different – it’s that time stopped for him when he got sick. It’s that the world and I moved forward, and he stayed behind.
But he always knew me, the person I am at my core. When I was little, he knew I would laugh like a sociopath if he beat up my favorite teddy bear. He knew to get me a softball glove that was too big for my hand because I’d fall in love with the game and play all the way through high school. He knew I’d be the worst business major on the planet. He knew I was a writer. He knew I wasn’t the type of daughter that you “give away” to marry a man.
And I knew Dad, too. I knew he was so much more than those last few years I saw him, sitting on that same spot indented in the old couch cushion in an apartment that didn’t change at all after the mid-90s, right down to the post-it note next to the cordless phone with my first Oklahoma address written on it, watching sports and game shows on TV while he slowly faded away.
I wanted to write a tribute to my dad, to the person he was before he got sick. I wanted to do something beautiful in his memory, but as it turns out, I have to settle for being a living tribute to him.
When I first moved to LA, I told my dad, “Give me five years, and you’ll see me on TV.” This July marked the beginning of year five, and he’ll never see me on TV. My dad will never see whether I “make it” or not.
But I don’t think he ever cared about that anyway.
He liked that I didn’t do what anyone told me to do. He liked that I was somewhere in the world on a stage trying to make strangers laugh, despite my eight years of secondary education. I think he would’ve liked to hear that my softball team is in first place, I think he would’ve laughed if he saw a snippet of me and my team in a Dixie Cup commercial, and I think he would’ve loved to see my name, his name, on the marquee outside the Improv in Harrah’s Las Vegas – a city he used to visit every year before he got too sick to fly.
If I were one hand of blackjack, I have a hunch my dad would have put everything he had on me.
Because I am the underdog.
And I am all in.
And just because I don’t gamble with money doesn’t mean I don’t take huge risks.
To my dad, I am that homerun ball hit by Carlton Fisk of the Red Sox during Game 6 of the ’75 World Series, that moment in the famous video clip of Fisk madly waving on his way to first base, willing the ball to stay fair. I am that ball the moment before it lands in fair territory.
I am Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary pass that will eventually end up leading Boston College to an unlikely last second win against Miami in 1984. I am that ball the moment before it’s caught, flying toward a huddle of Miami defenders surrounding just one BC receiver.
I am soaring through the air, flying toward something, a moment of suspended hope.
He just never gets to see where I land.
Author's note: To join me, my family, and countless other families affected by Parkinson's hoping to find a cure, please consider making a donation to the Michael J. Fox Foundation.