Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Father's Day

Seven years ago, I was studying for a Master's degree in Renaissance Literature at the University of York. I was fresh out of college, having graduated from Mount Holyoke only five months before the date my Master's studies commenced in England, and truly believed the hype MHC had instilled in me: that I could achieve anything I wanted to, that I was the best, that I would have the greatest graduate school experience ever because MHC had prepared me so well for it.

Well, that turned out to be kind of true and yet also utter bullshit, so when I found myself arriving at York on a campus littered - I mean, replete - with goose droppings, not making any friends despite being three months into the course and having volunteered myself as the president of the Graduate Students' Association, and generally not having a good time whatsoever (read: eating pasta out of a plastic picnic set given to me by John's mom when I moved, watching Family Guy episodes one after another at night and crying into my food), I felt pretty downtrodden.

The academic experience was also proving to be disappointing, as I felt it lacked the structure and leadership I'd gotten so used to at Mount Holyoke, not to mention how readily available our professors were there. Here, my dissertation adviser held a meeting with me on the phone during her train ride down to London. I was thrilled when the literary critic I most admired took up a post at York as a visiting professor and I was assigned to his course, only to discover that he had no interest in teaching students and made time pass during our tutorials by asking us to read Milton's Paradise Lost aloud.

John was working in Paris and the distance felt immense. He made late night journeys into York on the cheap ticket trains whenever he could, arriving at 12:51 a.m. We'd spend a weekend together, I'd cry when he'd have to leave and then feel miserable for a week or so.

Above all, I was lonely. My offers to plan activities with people on my course were rebuffed with polite excuses and, since the majority of them had been undergraduates at York, they already had established cliques and weren't interested in adding new faces.

Anyway, I was clearly unhappy but I didn't want my parents to know. I was also broke and terrified, as it was the first time I'd taken out a loan in my name to pay for the school fees. I remember going on a grocery shopping trip with John when he was over and refusing to buy Cheerios because I felt I couldn't afford them.

I lost about 15 pounds because I was worried about money, about performing well on my course, and also because I was just desperately homesick. My lack of friends, despite all my efforts, added to the stress.

A few months later, an envelope arrived from the US, addressed to me in my dad's familiar, angular, but perfect, architect's scrawl. Puzzled, as it felt like a card but wasn't anywhere near my birthday, I opened it, only to find a blank piece of thick card stock folded in half. Inside, two crisp fifty pound notes (that's "bills" to my fellow Americans!) were carefully sandwiched inside, along with a handwritten message that said, in all caps, "GO BUY YOURSELF A NICE DINNER. DAD".

I burst into tears. It was like a hug, a pat on the back, as if to say, "I know. You're doing fine. You'll get through it." And I did. I had one of the best years of my life that year; I learned a lot about myself and did well on the course, plus secured a temporary position in the fall at Little, Brown, where I started my publishing career, before moving on to Penguin. I eventually did make some great friends, some of whom I'm still in touch with today.

So, sometimes my dad can be aloof, pretend to be clueless, but really, he knows. After all, how could he not? He was the first person to hold me when I was born. And he's looked after me ever since.

Love you, Dad. Thanks for everything.

Note: I should also add that I made two student loan payments during my time at York, only to receive an email shortly before my third payment was due that read, "Thank you. We have received payment of your loan in full." Turns out my dad had decided to pay off my loan for me as he "couldn't stand" to see me pay interest, according to my mom. I still owe him big bucks.

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