I didn’t really know my biological father growing up. He and my mother had their short marriage annulled when I was a still an infant. He visited me – and occasionally took me on outings – until I was about four years old. I have a memory, which I suspect is born of years of thinking about it rather than a true picture of what happened, of my mom telling him that he wasn’t allowed to visit me any more. He disappeared from my life until somewhere around my 8th birthday, when he arrived bearing a black and white TV for me as a gift. I don’t remember spending time with him, but I do remember the jealousy of my new step sisters. Once again, he disappeared. I was still in touch with my grandmother, his mother, and I accidentally bumped into him at about 12 years of age when returning to her house from an outing. I was alone and barely recognized him. I remember awkwardly offering him some of the BBQ ribs my grandmother made and how he softly chuckled and told me he was a vegetarian. Other than these brief encounters, there were no phone calls, no birthday or Christmas cards.
Right about the time I turned 12, a number of other things happened as well. He invited me to his wedding and I desperately wanted to go. In truth, I had harbored resentment toward my mother all that time for “making him go away.” My mom never once said a bad thing about him. When I asked her about attending the wedding, she replied, “Are you sure that’s what you want to do?” And all of a sudden, my perception shifted. I remembered the times he had let me down. I remembered years of missing him. And I remembered the embarrassment I felt at not having known that my own father was a vegetarian. I admitted to myself that if he had really wanted to see me, it would have taken more than a “go away” from my mom to keep it from happening. And I knew that he hadn’t bothered with child support payments for a very long time. I was done. I declined the invitation and started proceedings to have my stepfather adopt me, largely so I would feel more a part of my new family.
Despite my continued relationship with my grandmother, half sisters, and even my uncle on my father’s side, I did not see him again until the age of 29. I’m not prepared to go into detail right now on the profound effect his absence had in my life, but I will say that I experienced it as the deepest form of rejection. It colored my view of myself and my ability to maintain healthy relationships. It has impacted my friendships, bonds with other families members and willingness to trust. It took me a long time to recognize how deeply hurt I was and to start to move beyond it. I remember a man I met in Louisiana who, for some reason, was able to get past all of the walls I had up on the outside and engage me in conversation about my father. I don’t remember his name and I knew him for just a few days while there doing disaster relief, but his words touched me. He told me to read The Count of Monte Cristo (which I haven’t yet read, but do understand the reference) and to learn to forgive my father for my own sense of well-being. I wish I could send a thank you note to that man today because this total stranger was able to reach me in a way no one else had even tried to do.
In December of 2000 my half-sister (on my father’s side) gave birth to a baby girl. We have an on-again, off-again relationship, but at this point, I was trying to be there for her. So, on a day she knew I’d be visiting, she called me up, “I just wanted to tell you that he’s going to be here, too. Are you OK with that?” I’m sure my mind went blank for a moment when I heard this. He had made it clear to her that he wanted to see me and that this seemed like the perfect excuse. I had done a lot of thinking and a lot of healing by this point (on an aside, this just isn’t something you heal from entirely – you carry it with you like a red and shiny scar that twinges when you move the wrong way), so I agreed.
He was shorter than I remembered and, naturally, quite a bit older. He greeted me softly. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I could never have imagined what he would have said to me. “I’ve missed you,” he told me. “I just felt so rejected when you sent those adoption papers.”
I stared at him for a minute, shocked. I calmly explained, as you might to a child, that I hadn’t seen him at that point for the better part of eight years. And then I gently reminded him that I was the child and that it wasn’t my responsibility to maintain our relationship. But no matter what I said, I could see that in his mind he was the one who was wronged. I think that meeting gave me a certain amount of peace. Obviously he had, in some mysterious way, cared about me. And obviously, he never quite learned how to take responsibility for his own actions. By then, fortunately, I was quite certain that I hadn’t done a damn thing wrong at the age of four to warrant one parent simply walking away. I’m sure my own memories are warped and twisted by my young age and the passing of time. But it was somehow bizarre to me that in all my time of feeling hurt and unloved, he had an entirely different perception of what had occurred.
My biological father died that summer in July of 2001. He was young – still in his 50′s – and I remember the call from my grandmother saying, “Your father died.” Then my uncle called for what may be the first time ever to tell me that, as the oldest daughter, it was my job to go through his things and put his affairs in order. I think I may have laughed at the absurdity of me going through the things of a man I simply didn’t know or feel any attachment to. My father was a mythical creature who had left one day to never return. But the most challenging moment came during his memorial service which I somehow guilted myself into attending. I was late, largely due to procrastination, and walked in to see two boys speaking to the crowd. As people turned to glance at me, most no-doubt wondering who I was, one of the boys said clearly and with pride, “I’ll miss him. He was like a father to me.”
I was inspired to write about this after reading The Kids Are All Right, my most recent book from the From Left to Write Book Group. Honestly, I was compelled to write about this. The story, written by four siblings, chronicles their true life journey of losing both parents and being split up as children. To me it’s the story of how flawed adults are, how flawed we become, and how history looks quite a bit different depending on who is telling the tale. It’s also the story of how most of us turn out pretty OK in the end, anyway.
He wasn’t like a father to me. But this kid is all right.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of The Kids Are All Right as part of the From Left to Write Book Group. This is not a book review, but a post on how this story impacted me. The opinions in this post are my own.