When the evening traffic transforms into bursts of brake lights, that’s when my son’s rapid-fire questioning begins. There is no escaping the questions and for the most part I don’t mind them. Traveling through the inner workings of his mind can be an effective distraction from Los Angeles gridlock. Thankfully he learned long ago I didn’t have all the answers: why is the moon following us? How much does the sky weigh? He has come to accept my inevitable “I don’t knows” and my continuing deference to Google. He has even come to appreciate my creative attempts at merging science, with fairytale, with folklore with fine art, all in an effort to provide answers to his endless inquires. For the 15-minute car ride home he asks, I try, we laugh, I falter, it’s our thing and I cherish it, but ever so often, and usually when I least expect him to, he poses a question so razor-sharp I’m thrust into silent contemplation.
Yesterday’s blunt force came after an enthusiastic discussion about the release of Star Wars the Force Awakens. Through the rearview mirror I could see his 8-year-old eyes widen with talks of galaxies far far away. His long lashes shooting skyward like Fourth of July sparklers. His smudged eyeglasses sliding downward like an amusement park attraction. It was a beautiful few minutes to behold, and then silence.
“What’s wrong, sunshine? Why so quiet?”
“I just realized something and I don’t know how to tell you.”
My son’s concern for how I might receive his statement, is simultaneously sweet and alarming.
“Just tell me. I won’t be mad.”
“I don’t think you’ll be mad, but you’ll be sad.”
“I’ll be okay. You can trust me.”
Suddenly I began to see an older version of my little boy staring back at me. What was left of his baby cheeks had disappeared. What remained was a sharp jawline met by a strong, square chin. He was being valiant for me. He didn’t trust I could handle what he had to share.
“Mom, I think your dad may be a hologram.”
“My dad? Like, my dad dad?”
“Yes, your dad.”
“You know, like someone you think is real but isn’t real. A hologram.”
This notion that my father could potentially be no more than a three-dimensional image formed by the interference of light beams from a laser was too intriguing to not examine further.
“Why do you think he’s a hologram?”
“We talk to him but we never see him. We can’t touch him and you can’t touch a hologram. You don’t have a lot of pictures with him, but you say he’s for real. What if he’s something you only think you’ve seen before? What if he’s standing on a hologram projection pad? Can you really say for 100% sure, he isn’t a hologram?”
I thought of all my potential comebacks: But he doesn’t look all blue and static like.
I thought of his witty replies: Technology has improved Mom.
Mostly, I thought of the awkward and sad and confusing reality that my father lives no more than 5 miles away from us, but rarely sees his grandchildren.
It’s complicated is the only way I can describe it. Part of his absence is my fault. I couldn’t let him disappoint my children the way he disappointed me. I drew a line in the sand and dared him to cross it. He tiptoes around that line because traveling through hyperspace would require him to go back in time and acknowledge his previous missteps.
We sat in silence for the rest of the ride home, but the thoughts in my head were anything but quiet. Tears surfaced like the ocean wave of my father’s absence. At times his void is calm, a low tide with only a small ripple. At other times, his estrangement feels like a tidal wave pouring salt water into an open wound. My father as a hologram was one of those saltier moments.
In the days that followed I began to examine the larger implications of my son’s hypothesis. A holographic image is typically seen by looking into an illuminated print or by shining a laser and projecting an image onto a screen. No amount of therapy or heart to hearts could better describe my father-daughter relationship. As a child, I projected what I wanted to see. As an adult, I shine a light on the images I want my children to perceive while strategically protecting them from darkness.
My husband, however, has a uniquely different technique when it comes to the kids. Charging through the house pretending to be a Stormtrooper or schooling them in the ways of the Rebel Alliance has him embracing the darkness in an inspired way. While I can be found rummaging through Target aisles looking for the perfect nightlight, he is huddled inside a pillow fort explaining to ours sons the beautiful duality of darkness.
“The reason there is no need to be afraid of the dark is because dark is actually just light that hasn’t found its shine yet. You can be the shine. You carry the light inside of you so you don’t need to be afraid.”
And there it was, something even the restless child in me needed a periodic reminder of: as long as I continue to be the light, I can overpower any darkness that comes my way. A 37-year journey has prepared me. A strong army of Rebel soldiers made up of family, friends, and an ever-present mother has protected me. A curious child in the wake of a movie franchise where there is probably no stronger theme than that of fatherhood now challenges me.
As our weekly car rides continue, I prepare to face my junior inquisitor. When he isn’t given an adequate answer it is only a matter of time before the question is asked again. This time I’m prepared.
“No, son. My father is not a hologram. He is very real and I’m sure he’d like to see you.”
Those same firework lashes shoot up with anticipation. Instinctively, I catch my breath; but this time, unlike the years of anxiety that have gripped me, I slowly exhale and breathe again. No matter what happens, promises kept or broken, my son’s light is already a fair match for the darkness. And then there’s his father: thankfully far more than a photographic technique, always present and in living color sprinting through the house with a homemade light saber. And then there’s me: embracing my own awakening, a vibrant presence and now a more confident one.
It seems that children can indeed serve as valuable sources of light. They can guide us to the best versions of ourselves and they can empower that still broken child from within. From the time they are born, they are on their own hero’s journey. Some traveling at light speed and others stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic from the backseat of their mother’s SUV.