Some of us get to keep fathers and mothers all our lives, while others struggle with abandonment, wondering what went wrong. What makes a father leave his children?
It was dad’s birthday this past April. Even feels weird saying that name, that title. He’d turned 65, a banner day for any father. I tried to picture what he would be doing, as I do on Christmas and other holidays when I used to see him. But I know he’s different now.
A sliver of light filtered into the part of my brain I prefer to keep dark. Created a pull, almost magnetic, driving me to contact him. Thankfully, that urge stayed behind the wall I had built when he went to prison.
I thought about him, was sad, didn’t discuss it much. Mentioned it to the Otter, my other, whose father had died many years ago, so we know how to do the dad holidays. Honor each other, be gentler than the norm. In the evening, my phone beeped, a text. My younger sister chiming in, she was remembering the few dregs of him she could, too. Along with the older one. And apparently, he had thought of us all…enough to contact my tired, eldest sis, who always takes the brunt of his hits.
“You girls abandoned me,” he had stated, acid leeching into his voice, already choked from decades of cigarettes. “You’ll never know when I’ll die, except for weeks later, when something starts to smell.”
Pop. A bubble, a name, a memory. An honor. A tarnish. I swear this isn’t a stereotype of the father-gone-missing.
I was so glad I hadn’t reached out.
When he’d had a heart attack and landed in the hospital, my two sisters went together. Stood by his side. Bristling, loath to be there. I took the coward’s way and had a Teddy bear and a card delivered from the gift shop, my words scrawled from a stranger’s pen. “I will always love you. Be well.” I’d told the news of my dad in the hospital to a coworker. “Oh, if that was my dad,” she’d said, her tiny, upturned nose wiggling, “I would be right there.” “That’s not how we do it in my family,” I replied, numb, wondering if I would fall apart when he died.
Once, on his birthday, I sifted through emails to find his contact, then sent him a list of memories we had shared when he had been a good dad. You rented the plane because I told you I had always wanted to fly, when you took us skiing and we had to use one ski and kind of run down the hill, the time you saved the monarch butterfly’s life, how I peeled my dead toad off the neighbor’s driveway and ran into the house sobbing because my pet was dead. Oh, he had roared at that one as I stood confused, the toad, a piece of paper dangling from my chubby hand, all 4 years of me, a bundle of grief. Still they were the rosy days I wrote about in Three Good Years Taught Me the Value of a Father.
I included a caveat not to contact me in any way in the email. I could do the reaching out, but he had broken the deal. We didn’t need to discuss why I would never see him again.
In 2001, we picked him up at a Greyhound bus station. It had been a couple of years since I had seen him. He hadn’t met my perfect, cherubic daughter.
In three years’ time, he had grown his hair into a ZZ Top contortion, gray, thin, tangled. He stepped off the bus in a black leather jacket, cracked at the elbows, and walked toward us, a hitch in his gait. He moves like my dead grandfather. Grandpa Harry had caught shrapnel in his hip in the war. My dad had slept wrong on the bus.
I had to bite back the tears, clenching my jaw and ordering my brain and heart to turn off right now, felt my eyes glittering from what was unshed.
“How was your trip?” I asked, ignoring the fact that someone must have secretly punched me in the stomach.
“A lady threw up in my hair.”
At a family restaurant (the irony was not lost on me), he ordered grits, like he had forgotten who he was. I had never seen him eat them even when he went through that odd phase of amateur chef. I tried, too, even added the hot sauce, a grudging show of solidarity.
One of my kiddos asked, “Why did you leave my mom?” and was quickly hushed up.
He had come back to Minnesota, after becoming homeless, amid threats of someone trying to steal and murder his cat, the only thing he had to love. He was wild-eyed, wild-of-heart, I could hear it over the phone.
After two weeks with us, he left, having never emptied his ashtrays, a hole gouged into the groceries I struggled to keep on the table, his bathroom a pit, absconding with my brand new computer, which he said he thought I would want him to have. At least he had the courtesy to inquire about the bed, which stayed exactly where it was.
I used to wonder why I had never been enough even as a child, if there was some horrible secret about me everyone knew, but no one would confess. How could I be so rotten, when I wasn’t even finished growing up?
I learned, if your parents can leave you, anybody can. Walked around with that one in my pocket for a while.
I ran through boyfriends like a carousel. Felt next to nothing, but a deep grotto of yearning, which could never be filled.
He forgot birthdays, what grade we were in. Told us staying in touch was too painful for him. I went to a Twins game with my uncle. Found stuff to do.
If he hadn’t left when we were teens, my little sister, a baby, what would be different? I don’t want to know. I don’t want to know what I don’t know. He has always been strange.
At every angle he has disappointed like some crazy, bi-polar dream. He had gone from a handsome, fit man with an enviable crest of black hair, to balding and swollen. His tummy was pink, distended and hairless the last time I saw him in the trailer where multiple cat boxes crowded doorways, dead bugs seasoned the floor and the smells of everything cooked all at once mingled in insanity. I described his appearance to friends as a fetal pig.
Our minds are so funny, repainting the canvas of memory. Acrylic moments we keep going over and over again, until the picture looks right. I tried to paint again on his birthday this year, and if I hadn’t heard about the lashing he had given my sister, I might have tried this Father’s Day.
We are given people, family members, fathers, mothers, siblings, even children, but some of us are not meant to keep them. Family are not people we choose. Sometimes we spin and get the lottery, and other times we spin and the board catches fire.
This year, I will do what I have always done…call my mother and thank her for operating both sides of the track. I have been a single mother so I know the question rotating relentlessly, What is a father?
A man, not always a man, a father is charged with loving you and showing you how to love. A parent who comprehends the gravity of their role, who is proud to protect and represent you. A fail-safe in every definition. A father must be a select individual, who embraces you with unconditional enthusiasm, one who chooses you every time.
Happy Father’s Day to my mother then. I’m sorry, Hallmark doesn’t carry those cards.
Original article appeared at The Good Men Project. Reprinted with permission.
Edited Photo: Flickr/Gayle Nicholson