How to Build a Birdhouse with Your Father
An essay by Kiley Harrison
1. You will come home to find your father waiting on your back deck with his tools and several pieces of wood. He is shorter than you now that you’ve turned into a carbon copy of your mother, and while you kiss him every time you see each other you now have to bend to meet his rough face. He has red hair and beard and blue eyes that seem to reflect the lightning storms you watched from your porch together when you were a child sitting in his lap. Comparatively, he looks almost exactly like Chuck Norris. This is a running joke in your family, his burly chest and tendencies to never tire add to the effect. Your father trimmed Christmas trees as a teenager, miles of them each summer, and as a ginger in the hot sun with no sunscreen he now has skin cancer; every few months they cut strips of flesh from his back and shoulders. Your father drives himself to the hospital, goes under anesthesia, gets torn up, awakens, and goes back to work a 12 hour day at the small veterinary clinic he runs. Your family casts stories like this around, such as the time he broke both his knees while repairing an old barn and was walking three days later, or when he was bit by a dog which tore through his lip he sutured himself up in the bathroom mirror and went back to work.
He has sheets of paper giving directions as to how construct the birdhouse, but you know the basics already after all these years. There are three slabs that are roughly the same size, and you must nail two on each side of the widest one. Your father has marked where you drive the nails in before you got there, and the steps from then on are rather easy. He’s just recently started to let you use the hammer and nails because he was afraid for years that you would smash your fingers with them, and you still feel a sense of pride even at age 17 that you can successfully drive a nail into a piece of wood, and still he monitors you closely. You are still his little girl, and always will be. Out of your other two siblings you are closest to him, and as a child when waiting for him to get home you would make everyone else in your family hide so that when he came in the door you could burst out from wherever you had been crouching and jump on him, the weak choruses of "Surprise!" echoed by your brother, sister, and mother. Your father would pick you up and spend the next fifteen minutes swinging you around and giving you treats he kept in his pockets.
2. The base for the birdhouse is done, and you get ready to fit the wall with the opening for the birds to enter. Your father has gone inside the house and brought you out a glass of milk with three ice cubes floating in it, the way that you prefer it. Normally you would put in four, but when young your father had obsessive compulsive disorder that revolved around three’s, and still maintains small habits like that today. Your father still calls you by your childhood nickname, Broomhilda. You’re not sure where it originated, but it has been his name for you since before you can remember. He does not know what your favorite color is, or your favorite author, or many small things that seem necessary to understand someone. He does remember when the leaves turn color to buy you gallons of apple cider so that you can heat it up and drink while watching old westerns with him. He remembers that you liked pickles at age 7 and still buys jars of them, or that you ate sherbert once when sick and you can still come home to find cartons of it waiting for you in the freezer. He often bases his schedule around what fruits are in season that you enjoy most: pomegranates in fall, artichokes in winter, peaches in late summer, raspberries in mid-July. It makes up for him never remembering your friend’s names or even your age at times.
Your father is one who suffers in silence, when he is sick refuses to kiss you but works through the dizzy spells and snuffles. Nothing can keep him from the sick animals at his vet clinic that need constant care, he’s stayed up for days spooning baby food into a dying dog’s mouth. A few years ago he did surgery on a hamster when no one else would because the little girl looked a bit like you and he couldn’t say no to her or the small rodent shaking in her hands. He lets clients schedule appointments to simply play with their dogs, or talk to him. Your father has a way of listening that makes people tell him everything they are feeling, they often leave his office crying and thanking him for his patience and care. They send him cakes or cookies or oranges flown in from the Caribbean, all which he brings home to your family so that you can eat them and smile up at him.