Eileen's dad can't hug her, but I can
She wants something nobody else can give: her dad's affection.
For the past year I have mentored a young teenage girl in southeast Portland. I'll call her Eileen.
In many ways Eileen is an ordinary teen – she likes to wear faded jean skirts, she wrinkles her nose at vegetables and public radio, she wishes her mom didn't have a MySpace account, she worries about whether the boy she likes this week likes her, too.
But Eileen has her secrets, and she keeps them well. Like what she really wanted for Christmas. She didn't scribble it on a wish list, because what Eileen really wanted is to see her father again – and Eileen has long stopped wishing for the impossible.
We had only known each other a few weeks when Eileen first mentioned her father. We were sharing an enchilada at a tidy Mexican taquería, talking loftily about foreign languages and heritage.
Eileen was proud of her native American blood – her father is half Chippewa, and her grandmother was fully Indian. Her grandma was Eileen's favorite person in the world, until she died. And her dad is a loser now.
This is the way Eileen speaks. Frankly. I treasure this.
Eileen went on to tell me that her father has been in and out prison her whole life.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because he's a meth cook," she said, her voice falling flat.
"How long has he been doing that?" A ridiculous fill-the-silence question, but it escaped before my mind sounded the "this is an important moment, say the right thing" alarm.
"Forever." Eileen shrugged and leaned over her glass of water, pulling at the straw. "He's a loser. I never want to talk to him again. But if he gets out soon he promised he'll take me shopping."
Her father did get out of prison. I met him – the first and only time – a few weeks after he'd gotten out. Every day had felt like an eternity to Eileen. His call interrupted the dinner I was treating her to – her first time at a Lebanese restaurant.
It was a warm summer's night. Eileen's eyes got so big when she heard her father's voice on the other end of her cellphone. He was at her house. We had to go right away. We didn't know if her father would wait.
I set aside my own emotions and let Eileen experience hers. The indifference toward her father had quickly turned into giddy adoration. She applied her lip gloss carefully as I sped to her house. Then she leaned back and looked out the passenger's window, her whole face still, quiet, frozen in the preencounter.
Her father was handsome. Stocky and stubbly. A firm handshake kind of a guy. He met my eyes and held my gaze, thanking me for my role as mentor, and I found myself smiling under the pressure.
I'll never forget Eileen's face. She looked like the sun rising, all beams of light. I took my exit quietly, leaving the Styrofoam box of leftovers on the counter.
Today, Eileen's father is back in prison. She doesn't talk about him at all now. If I ask, she doesn't even shrug, just replies flatly that she doesn't care where he is or who he is or how he is. She gave him too many chances. She's done.
Eileen is a few months into high school. She has gone from jean skirts and hoop earrings to black eyeliner and heavy-hooded sweat shirts. She has smoked her first cigarette. She has been suspended from school.
In some ways I understand this Eileen better. There was a time when I, too, wore black eyeliner, fixing my face in a defiantly pensive pose the way only teenagers can. But I was listening to Brahms and reading Proust, not getting suspended.
Then again, I always had a father, and I could reach him at any time. There is more behind Eileen's eyeliner than there ever was behind mine.
This Christmas, as I brainstormed my list of gifts, I was stuck on Eileen. What she really wants is something only her father can give. Attention. Discipline. Time. No, more than that. What she really wants is him, giving.
And it dawns on me that, more important than what I give, is the fact that I give at all. What matters is the giving, not the gift. It isn't something you do during a season. It's devotion – sometimes glorious and sometimes tedious, sometimes noticed and sometimes not. The gift is merely the exclamation point.
When I handed Eileen a little something tied in a tidy bow a few days ago, my real gift was shared in the span of our hug. And maybe, just maybe, she will find it useful in the moments she needs it most.
And then maybe, somewhere down the road, she'll pass it on to someone else, someone just like her, someone who dreams of more than tidy bows.
• Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is a freelance journalist in Portland, Ore., and the editor of www.CommonTies.com.