I first saw my dad cry when I was five. I found him, a boulder, strewn across the bed, caked in gritty dust-spire sunlight. He wasn’t crying, not really, but gasping, breathing in a way that reminded me he was just as human as me. Some part of me wanted to join him, to show him that I cry like him.
We’re on the third floor of Farnam Hall—the gangly red building at the corner of the freshman quad. My dorm is awkward: too full of air, of dirt, of other lives. The floor slopes towards the pile of suitcases and duffel bags in the room’s center and the sun leaking through the window is hotter than I’m used to and my dad is in the corner being human. He’s wrung out in a way. Small. Trying not to take up space.
He’s a man of hands. Of wood and brick and saw and knife. Since before I could remember, he built: built coffee-brown chairs and iron lamps and white-tiled kitchens and towers for me to stand on. There’s a photo of him, just barely 25, curly-haired and grinning in front of a sprawling log home. His hands are splayed in a way that screams I did this. I made something permanent. When he left home to work in Alberta—16 years old and sharpened by centuries of pain—it was his hands that carried him up phone lines in the dead of arctic winter, hands that stretched cables in frozen dirt and convinced him the world was malleable.
Dad, did I ever tell you that you taught me how to build my world?
This past spring, as we toured colleges, I kept finding him dislodged. In the concrete-gray plaza of Princeton’s Astrophysics lab, he stuffed his hands into his pockets and bowed his head, and told me that this place could’ve been his. It could be mine. It was as though I was tugged back to when I was five, and he—this boulder of a man, who could build entire universes with his hands—was strewn, gasping.
I first hurt myself in February of sophomore year. When my mom found the bandaids, the rose-stained tissues in the bathroom garbage, she silently took me out into the world. Took me out to the path that crawled out from our house, where the snow piled above our heads and the stars cut through the sky, thousands of blinking ancient eyes looking down at a mother and her daughter. She grabbed my hand (how is it that two cold hands touching can make so much warmth?) and asked, begged, where I had gone. At that moment, she was not my mom—the unrelenting ceiling to my life—she was a girl. What I was supposed to be, I still don’t know.
We’re on the third floor of Farnam Hall. As my dad crumbles, my mom fills the air. She wipes down desks, asks about my class schedule—asks if I will be okay if this will be okay—and chants a roster of numbers I can call if the sky falls and the earth burns. She takes me into herself and for a moment the rock of a thing that had manifested in my throat is swallowed by her. The day before we left home she told me my suitcase looked like hers. Like the one she carried, hard-sided and gray, through the gates of Tehran’s international airport that hellish night in August of 1978. I wonder if she heard the city behind her breathe out a goodbye, خداحافظ, I wonder if she missed her bed and the cypress outside her window as I already miss mine. I think her greatest fear in the world is my childhood becoming like hers, becoming a thing of grief and escape.
Mom, did I ever tell you that you were my god, and gods were children once too?
Tightly made beds and pear slices were how she made certain my destiny would not be hers. Chapter books and math workbooks—each stacked atop the other—granted me a little more distance from Iran and her tin-roofed childhood home. She flattened herself, stretched herself into a shelter over my life, a shelter under which grass grew thick and snow never fell. When we came to Yale, under the sharply-cut shade of the Beinecke, she convinced me that both our dreams came true. By then, the tower we had built swayed in time with the Connecticut wind and left me stumbling. She’s a girl; in my dorm, she fills the air searching for me, the child she could keep from the world. She’s allowed to be a girl.
I’m crying. I’m in my dorm room on the third floor of Farnam hall and showing my dad we cry the same and showing my mom the girl in me never left and I’m sobbing and the tower is crashing down and my parents are morphing into people and it’s a terrible thing.
It’s wonderful. This fat August belly of a day, the old-glory skies and the music echoing from the street, the two gray-haired people with my eyes and nose and ears, the realization that this education is a gift. A gift that spans our two generations. Our three histories.
Mom, Dad, thank you.
Mom, Dad, we made it.