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For my dad…

How do I say, or to whom do I say it, that I am missing Albuquerque in early spring? It overwhelms me with longing. Simple enough, right? These feelings might best be called nostalgia. But that word makes sense only if it can connote not just a mental sensation but also a deeply physical one. Because I want to find the right word, I look in the dictionary for it, for my feeling. The Oxford dictionary tells me that in its original iteration of language, nostalgia came from Greek: “to return home (nostos) and pain (algos)” (Oxford). In German apparently it seeks to describe “acute homesickness.” I’m not certain of what it means to be feeling Albuquerque in early spring or if it means those things that nostalgia describes; I do feel as if small flashes of memory have ignited inside me, small doors in my memory unexpectedly opened, revealing snapshots into rooms long abandoned. Is there a word for that? Surely, though it may not be in my language.

The feeling is this: it’s Albuquerque in 1986, when it was still really funky and before it was at all hip. Before the multiplex and the row of chain restaurants off I-25 by Jefferson. Before Downtown was revitalized and there was a bike lane on Silver. Back when it was a smaller city and my dad lived there in an apartment off Vassar where I would stay sometimes when I came to visit. The time when he took me to a parade and I rode on his shoulders and was later on the news. My dad likes to tell this story to me and still laughs about how surprised I was.

But mostly, he’d take me to a few places with regularity when I visited. As a little kid, I didn’t notice the routine at all. I didn’t see how hard he had to work to be a good dad for those weekends. To me, it was just amazing and fun to be with him. First, we’d go to the zoo and visit the sea lions, the giraffes and the reptile barn. Then, the duck pond to throw 39-cents-a-loaf wonder bread from Dolly’s bakery on San Mateo to the hungry and greedy flocks at the university pond. We’d stop by the Purple Hippo, near UNM where I was allowed to order either a small cup of banana ice cream or a slice of the most heavenly cheesecake I’ve ever tasted to this day. I went to my first movie in Albuquerque, E.T. and made it through the whole thing, beginning my life long love of movies.  Sometimes my dad would take me to the Highland pool and let me swim around for hours. We’d drive around in his white 1979 long bed Datsun pick-up, which later became mine when I turned 16. There was an “easy does it” sticker on the steel bumper and he let me put a few kid’s stickers on the navy blue dashboard that over time melted in the hot New Mexico sunshine and became undecipherable blurs, remaining there until the truck was retired finally around 1998.

1986 was when my dad was newly sober and though I didn’t understand it then, he was raw. He’d have bursts of frustration and anger that scared me and made me think he didn’t love me. But he’d also take me to meetings around town when I visited. I remember all of the kind people, who would light up seeing a child, and give me candy sometimes. It was clear to me, even as a child, that these people cared about him, and were glad to see us.

These visits were special in part was because I lived with my mom. Raising me together was, I think, a big challenge for both of them and there were tactical errors on both sides. Nonetheless, every few months we would make the trip north for me to spend time with my dad. It might have been easier on him to just give me up and not ever see me, (my mom might have had moments when she preferred that) but he didn’t, and I’m glad. He has stayed sober now, almost 30 years. He’s been married to my step-mom 25 or 26 years of that time and they have a family, a nice house by the law school, a full life with all its heartbreaks and joys.

But I remember that time in the last few days, before all of that. The time when it was still just me in my dad’s life and his sobriety was new and he struggled to learn how to live, “happy, joyous and free” one day at a time. I remember the light, or more accurately, I wake up in the middle of the night in the winter in New England and the image of it, fills the screen of my eyes. Albuquerque light can be harsh, as if it is shearing away shadows, as if it lives against white stucco walls and peeling adobe, kicking up dust. In early spring, everything is dry there and the elm trees are still bare, cottonwoods are just thinking about how they’ll unfurl their leaves. The nights are still chilly and the winds are starting to find their purchase from the west. The long boulevards of Central and Lomas stretch out in the cold early mornings from valley to mountain if you catch them just right, if it’s early enough, if you have a truck in which you can glide across the small city undetected. There is a silence to this. It is a place like no other. In my mind, spring of 1986 is a silent movie, that moves slowly and might be lost forever in time.

I no longer doubt my dad loves me. In fact, we tell each other all of the time. It is another way that so many things have changed. I’m almost as old now as he was then, terrified he’d be a bad father or that he’d lose me to his drinking. A young man for all intents and purposes. He was probably lonely during that time and of course, as a child, you’d never know those things. I was only really filled with wonder, at the Frontier pancakes, at his love of black coffee, the smell of his aftershave and old spice, of this new life.