father holding shoulder of son while looking down outside by trees

“Papá, the Glass Cleaner”

A winning essay from our Brighter Future Scholarship contest

The world feels small from 1,100 feet off the ground – small and light. Papá is a glass-cleaner in New York City, and this time he brought me with him. I sat on the roof drawing while he lowered himself with a rope to wash the windows. It is warm as the first hints of spring cover the landscape in front of me. I try to recreate this image with my colored pencils, but it is windy and I have a hard time holding onto my pad. I look over to my father. The only thing between him and the pavement below is the rope. My Papá, a Salvadoran immigrant, worked a job where he defied death every day in order to provide for my family. I am eight at the time and my Papá is my hero.

But at ten, for the first time, on Christmas Eve, I realize my father is not perfect. Every hero has their weakness. My father’s kryptonite was a green bottle of Heineken.

I sat on the round brown carpet of my living room, alone. Wiping the exhaustion from my eyes with the sleeve of my SpongeBob pajamas, I looked at the front door one more time. The Christmas tree illuminated the metallic wrapping paper on the gifts beneath it with vanilla-colored glow. Bing Cosby’s Silver Bells whispered out of the old picnic radio I snuck into the living room. It is snowing and sometimes Papá is late when it snows. I just wanted to spend time with my Papá, like the rest of my friends did. It was past midnight, and I could have opened my Christmas gifts if I had wanted to, but I did not. Suddenly, there was a jingling sound at the door. I dashed as soon as I heard it was not coming from bells, but from keys. I was not waiting for Santa Claus; I was waiting for Papá.

My dad was a night owl, coming home every day between midnight and 3 AM. Every weekend, my friends would talk about how they went to play soccer at the park with their dad, and I would always try to change the topic. Every time I couldn’t quite make a play in soccer or keep, a shower of rage would engulf me; I blamed the lack of skills on my Papá’s absence, although I never told anyone. Academically, however, I was the best in my class. Only my mamá would celebrate that. Every piece of candy I got came with the greater satisfaction of having my good score hung up on the fridge. My dad, being drunk and sleep deprived, would just trot on past my grade without saying anything. I watched as he ignored me throughout the years, as I grew up with a father, but not a dad. It always frustrated me to the brink of tears. But then, it stopped.

My father quit drinking cold turkey when my mom announced her pregnancy with my second brother in 2017. I sat again on the living room floor, this time surrounded by my family. I looked at the two red lines on the pregnancy test one more time. I dashed to hug my parents, embracing their warm bodies as the weight of the world felt like it lifted off my shoulders. My dad instantly became my hero again.

And although everything turned out to be “okay”, simple questions about my childhood – where did you live? – what did you do for fun? – left me feeling exposed and vulnerable. I froze just recently in class surrounded by my peers as I struggled to remember – and relive – those moments. Then, I discovered that I had power behind my trauma.

Paradoxically, the power started when I let it go. The first time I was on the podium reading an earlier draft of this essay, my knees were shaking, and I choked on my words as I made myself completely vulnerable to few friends and many strangers. “This essay is my declaration. Not everything in my life is okay.” After what I can only assume to be a relatable essay about the ups and downs of life, my essay was voted as class representative for the end-of-program celebration. This time, as I read the words on the page, with a pair of microphones and a camera pointed at me in front of a hundred people, I realized why I was reading.

Looking back at the video, I can see the exact moment I realize this fundamental truth on stage. “The first step in fixing a problem is to address it.” I had written. And I smile at that moment – not because what happened to me was pretty – but because what I managed to make of it was.

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