What a daughter hears

I have a complicated relationship with my father. I get the sense his relationship with me is pretty straightforward.  

When I was a girl, my dad studied audiology. To impress him, I studied it too. I leafed through his textbooks, hung a poster of the fingerspelling alphabet in my bedroom, and studied the anatomical model of the inner ear that sat on our dining-room table. I tried to learn ASL but only got halfway decent at translating pop songs on the radio. Like a synchronized swimmer pulled out of the pool, I waved my arms for hours in my room.

My dad would take me into the audiology lab, which I loved. He once sat me in a glass room, outfitted me with a big pair of headphones, and told me to raise my hand whenever I heard a tone. The signals got quieter and quieter. I strained to hear them, eager to impress with my keen hearing. My dad came in, looking stern. I was raising my hand when there were no tones. I was making false positives. I had to listen more carefully and only raise my hand when I was sure.

As it happened, my dad didn’t become an audiologist. He became a glider pilot instead.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m unduly influenced by his opinions. His thoughts about my music matter much more than would seem reasonable—60-year-old aviators impassioned by World War II narratives are hardly my target demographic. Still, when I’m alone in my closet (where I record my vocals), I can’t get him out of my head. Would he like this part? Which part? The part you’re singing halfheartedly, distracted by this speculation? Yes, that part. Well, he’s certainly not going to like that take. Try again.

In the midst of my parents’ divorce, my dad took me and my brother, Max, on a nighttime trip to the lake near his new apartment. I was 14, Max was 8. My dad put a coin in Max’s hand, one in mine, and kept another for himself. We made wishes in the darkness, then threw the coins toward the lake. My throat began to ache.

“What did you wish?” I asked my dad.

“I wished that your wish would come true.”

My dad is proud of us. But at least half of the conversations I have with him are imagined, and in those conversations we seldom agree. A writer I admire will appear on National Public Radio and stammer while fielding a question, and I’ll hear my father issue his oft-repeated mandate to public figures: Speak like you write, sir! I’ll defend the writer to my father—not everybody is a Churchill. Before I know it, we’re debating language, class, and privilege while the radio blares on and I stand frozen at the kitchen sink, staring through the dishes.

As a pilot, my father is preoccupied by birds, particularly the soaring ones that locomote like he does. When driving, he’ll sometimes lean over the steering wheel, straining to see a hawk overhead. He’ll mutter some pilot-y observations—high ceiling, winds from the northwest at 10 to 15 knots, all right, all right—before returning his attention to piloting the Chrysler.  

Driving alone, I’ve caught myself craning to see birds. I have no special meteorological knowledge, so I’ll make some general statements: there it is, a bird, flying, pretty high, but not too high, looks safe. It occurs to me that after my father dies, soaring birds will be sad to see. I expect I’ll still contort myself to catch a glimpse, keen for whatever connection I can get with him. Real or imagined, our conversations are like a permanent ringing in my ears. Even now I don’t know when to put my hand down: I can always hear you.

> Listen to Dessa read this essay and share a track from her new album.

Dessa is an essayist, rapper, and songwriter in Minneapolis. Her new album, Parts of Speech, will be released June 25 by Doomtree Records.