I learned how to skip when I was five. Only I didn’t learn from a friend at the playground or an older sibling in our living room; I learned from my papa.
His tattered Levi jeans dragged along the concrete pavement as he skipped up and down the alley, pausing every few strides to make sure I was paying attention. I watched as his knees took turns trotting up and down, the opposite foot dragging slightly on the ground. I could hear his metal keys and laundry loonies dancing in his pockets as he moved. I ran to scoop up the ones that managed to shake loose and gripped them tight in my small fist, warming the metal in my palm.
As much as I wanted to learn how to skip for myself, I was also perfectly content to sit and watch and leave it up to the expert: Papa. But, knowing I would be starting kindergarten in a few days, Papa wanted to make sure I was prepared with the necessary playground skills. Next, we would learn how to tie shoelaces the only Papa-approved way: the bunny ear method.
I was terrified to learn these new skills because it meant admitting I needed help. It felt much safer to jog alongside others skipping and stick to Velcro sneakers and flipflops, but Papa knew that wasn’t the way the world worked. He knew that growth was integral to success, and he was determined for me to make my mark. My biggest fear was asking for help, but his was that I wouldn’t bother to ask.
Papa was the closest father figure I had growing up. We teased each other about stupid things and wrote silly songs. He picked me up from school and made us cheese sandwiches. We’d eat chocolate ice cream and sneakily pluck flowers from the garden in his building. When the whole school got headlice, he took me to the store to buy the shampoo and patiently combed through my coarse black hair until we got all the nits. He never stopped trying to help me and teach me things, even when I made it impossible for him to try.
Throughout the end of elementary school and start of high school I began to see my papa less and less. I stopped coming to him for help. I didn’t think anyone understood me anymore. I was old enough to look after myself after school and was growing fond of that independence, which coupled with the teen desire to reject authority and only be around people my age meant that I pushed away my nana and papa more than I care to admit.
I was so entrenched in worrying about what other people at school were doing and what they looked like that I lost sight of myself and the people who cared for me most. I didn’t feel like I had time to go to the dog park with Papa or talk to him on the phone. Ashamedly, I didn’t see why I should have lunch with him when I could be spending that time at the mall with girls from school who, in retrospect, didn’t care about me at all.
The summer after my first year of high school, I was filled with resentment. My mom had moved us out of the city, away from my friends and our family. I didn’t understand why I had to suddenly start over just as I felt my life was getting started. It felt like the end of the world. I was in full teen angst mode. I hated having to say goodbye to my friends at school knowing they’d all still see each other everyday. I hated that I wouldn’t have anywhere to walk to in our new neighborhood, that I’d have to spend everyday alone in our house while my mom went back into the city for work, so I did what I did best at that time and isolated myself.
I went into the city to visit friends on weekends, but I didn’t like having to hear about all the fun times I’d missed during the week. I stopped reaching out to everyone completely, including my papa. I was lonely and completely dissatisfied with living, but I continued to let phone calls go to voicemail and leave texts unanswered. I began floating through life, simply existing rather than actively participating in my own story. I didn’t think anyone cared, so I burrowed inside myself. I got comfortable stubbornly sitting in bed all day, hoping that everything would be better the next month when I started at my new high school.
Weeks before the start of school, my birthday was quickly approaching, and my mom texted that she was coming home early from work. She texted me to get dressed but wouldn’t say why or where we were going. In my head, I wondered if it was a birthday surprise. Maybe she noticed how unhappy I am and wants to cheer me up for my birthday. I changed into a clean shirt and fresh socks, ready for whatever surprise I had in store.
When my mom got home, the surprise was nothing I could have ever anticipated. We were going to the hospital. Papa was in an accident. They wanted us to say goodbye before they took his organs for donation. He was gone.
The weeks and months to follow were filled with immeasurable guilt and disgust for myself. Up until that point, I had never experienced loss. I was naïve to think that earlier in the summer was what the end of the world felt like. The end of the world wasn’t saying goodbye to some friends or changing schools, it was this. I felt cheated. This wasn’t supposed to happen now, like this. I was supposed to get more time. I had taken everything for granted.
We came to learn that Papa had been assaulted on the street but refused medical attention. Assaulted? His brain bled out due to the blood thinners he was taking—blood thinners? For his condition. What condition?
I came to understand that just as I was comfortable keeping everything to myself and refusing help, Papa had been doing the same. I wanted to be angry at him for keeping this from us. I wanted to scream it in his face. But how can you be angry when all you want to do is hold them again and tell them how much they mean to you? When more than anything you want to tell them how sorry you are for the time you were apart and promise to never let go again.
It didn’t matter that we would have dropped anything and everything to help him, that we would given anything to have known what was going on. He didn’t see it that way. He didn’t want to worry anyone. I was furious that a man who made it his mission to help me in every possible way refused to give me the opportunity to do the same. And yet, still I empathized with how he justified it in his head. At that time, I believed I would have done the same. I saw my own fate reflected back at me as I committed to making myself small and unassuming and never admitting I needed help, even if I was regularly tripping on my shoelaces.
I had witnessed first-hand what refusing help can do to your family, but I didn’t begin to put any of this knowledge into practice until years later. Papa passed away seven years ago now and I still find myself reverting to my default coping strategy of isolating myself and pushing people away. This is a lifelong process of unlearning something that only became obvious to me years ago.
It is because of my papa that I no longer leave a conversation angry or with words unsaid. It is because of him that I know to admit when I am wrong or when I do not know something. It is because of him that I don’t take anything for granted, and it is because of him that I will always accept the guidance of others, because that is ultimately the best way to learn how to skip.
Note: written for EDUC199 at Simon Fraser University (July 14, 2022)