I watched Oklahoma on TV the other night. It was a time machine that brought me back to 1966 when my father took me to see the play. What I recalled most vividly was Daddy hallucinating while John Raitt belted out a song.
My father had been mentally ill for years, since before I was born. While Raitt sang, Daddy muttered loudly to someone in his head and twitched in his seat, and people around us began to complain. Sounds of sshhhhhh!! and quiet!! surrounded me. I don’t remember what happened, whether we were asked to leave or Daddy settled down and we stayed to the end.
I was 20, in the glow of youth and blooming sexuality and glittering hopes and dreams. And I was mortified. Before Daddy’s meltdown, I had loved the way I dressed and secretly admired myself in the mirror, silk-blend suit and high heels and all. I felt I looked perfect for the Circle Star, then a classy theater venue in the Bay Area.
But I was edgy beneath all the excitement, because my father’s behavior was unpredictable. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
How differently I see that day now, and my father. Back then I was just growing into womanhood, half confident, half painfully self-conscious. I wondered why I couldn’t have a “normal” father I could be proud of, instead of Daddy with his rumpled clothes, nicotine-stained fingers and Thorazine-induced trembling hands. Subconsciously I was angry at him for being an embarrassment, a failure, a constant worry.
He committed suicide a year after we saw Oklahoma, at 50. I’ve survived well enough, had a career, friends, raised my daughter through college, but I really never recovered from the trauma. I drank alcoholically—though functionally—until my daughter was three and have ongoing anxiety disorder. I made many mistakes with my daughter that alienated her. We are now estranged, to my great sadness.
I’ve blamed and punished and judged myself for years. But since remembering Daddy and Oklahoma, I see things in a different light. I’m no longer a 20-year-old with expectations of Daddy, wanting to go to a glamorous play with a suave and handsome father. Now I understand that for some unknown reason Daddy couldn’t help it. He had a profound problem he was unable to overcome. But he did the best he could. He tried so hard to give his little-girl-turning-woman a special gala evening. Having made my own mistakes and unintentionally hurt people I love, I don’t blame Daddy now. And I’m working on not blaming myself. Daddy’s little girl is growing up.