It made me tense because every time he said it, I thought I was already doing it. He, Daddy, insisted I wasn’t. Squeezed beside him in the dark brown easy chair, we’d while away the late afternoons. He’d finish a cigarette while watching sports or news or whatever was on that time of day. Our legs stretched out, fully reclined, his head back and eyes closed, voice like a hypnotist, urging me to relax.
I am relaxed! I’d protest. I’m relaxing!
No, he’d disagree in that same quiet trance. Relax, he’d repeat. And on it went day after day. As the years passed, sharing the easy chair became more of a challenge. My petite build was now too much for a chair designed for one. His admonitions to relax fell to the recesses of my mind.
Until I found myself in my 30s holding my breath. Doing homework or watching a movie, or really any mundane thing, a quick moment of reflection would reveal hunched shoulders, a tight body, and me, inexplicably holding my breath.
It was as if my body were in a perpetual state of flight or fight.
And yet, as far as I could tell, there was no reason for stress.
Is this what daddy meant when he insisted I never relaxed? Did I somehow develop this habit of holding tension in my body, even holding my own breath, in childhood?
I think of it now for two reasons. One, I’m reading Tiger Eyes, and I believe it’s triggering memories of daddy. Davey, the central character, was close to her father. As the book opens, he has died unexpectedly. I didn’t make the connection before, but when the second memory, “Relax,” came to mind, I thought that might be the cause.
The second reason is I’m doing it again. I thought I had mastered deeper and more regular breathing, keeping unfounded tension out of my body. But twice in recent days I’ve found myself slouching, breathing shallow breaths. And I’m hearing his voice urging me to relax.
I’m listening, Daddy.