My father is a great man but he has not always been a great father.
Like millions of others of my generation, my parents divorced when I was a kid. As in many cases, their separation also impacted my relationship with my father.
I remember feeling close to my dad when I was quite young. I remember the way he gently combed my long, tangled hair being ever so careful not to pull. I remember him being so patient trying to teach me how to ride a bike. I remember his smell when he returned from a long bike ride or came in from mowing the lawn. I remember going with him to work and riding in his office chair while sucking on watermelon candies from the office snack area. I remember the endless sounds of his recorder echoing down the hallway as he practiced for upcoming performances. I remember all of this so clearly. And then the memories fade.
The crystal clear memories of him from early childhood are replaced by a fuzzy impression, periodically stamped with flashes of clarity that lasts from the age of 6 or so until around the age of 9. I don’t know if I didn’t see him as much or if it’s just that I don’t remember. Or, maybe I was too busy practicing how to say, “Vanilla, Please.” 🙂
My parent’s split surprised me. I never saw them fight and was not aware that anything was wrong. My dad was the one to break the news to me. It was the first time I ever saw him cry. He moved out days later.
For the last couple years of elementary school, I spent Tuesday and Thursday nights at my dad’s apartment and the rest of the time with my mom. I was an only child, so I was alone in this shuffle. I had a routine. I would bake refrigerated biscuits (the kind that come in a tube) in his toaster oven and eat them for dinner with grape jelly and a tall glass of orange juice. (Obviously, I had not yet discovered the joys of kale and tofu.) We would watch a half hour of Headline News and then watch some Nick At Night (Night Court was our favorite) until I fell asleep on my pallet on the living room floor. I had started reading adult books by that age (this was before Harry Potter and the like existed) and my dad’s books (adventure, historical fiction, thrillers) held a much greater appeal than my mom’s (counseling, self help, “Hallmark movie”) and so many nights found me soaking in the bathtub for hours while I was transported by some wonderful tale. On special nights, we would borrow a movie from the apartment company’s selection and settle in for the show. I saw my first ever PG-13 movie in that apartment – Alien – on a night when I came home sick with strep. I thought the monsters were pretty cool.
Even though I saw my dad twice a week, he had started to become a stranger to me over those years. Some of it was the divorce; he and my mom were both trying to recover. Part of it was my age; I was reaching puberty (with hormones galore) and was no longer a little girl. Regardless of the reasons, we no longer really knew how to relate to each other.
Months after my 11th birthday, my dad moved across the country for work. Our twice weekly visits turned into annual trips with only sporadic conversations and letters peppered throughout the school years. I would talk about my friends or boyfriends, but they were strangers to him. I would try to tell him about school but would soon become overwhelmed with the amount of backstory needed to get the narrative through. There were times I was upset and he wasn’t there or wasn’t able to say the right thing. I became used to him not being there. Over time, I began to pull away. It was less painful to be the one who chose to turn away rather than be the one left behind.
I know that some of my drive to always do more and achieve more comes from that time. I wanted him to be proud of me. I wanted him to want me in his life. I felt like I disappointed him by not being good at the things at which he excelled: music, biking and math (okay, so at least I’ve mastered one of those now!). I never doubted that my father loved me yet somehow I didn’t often feel loved. He didn’t know how to express it and I didn’t know how to receive it. We communicated through dog pictures and humor. We shared activities (the tandem recumbent bike was pretty cool!) but not a deep connection. He was never a deadbeat dad, he was just a distant dad.
When I started dating in high school, I luckily had enough sense not to seek out the missing male attention from boys. That doesn’t mean that my dad was far from my mind, however. I intentionally sought out guys that were different than him. I wanted someone demonstrative in their affections. I looked for extroverts that didn’t have too much “engineer” in them. When one guy I dated started to remind me of my dad, I ran the other way. When I chose the man who would become my husband, I selected someone who didn’t remind me of my father at all.
My the time I got married, I was no longer angry at him for leaving. I wasn’t disappointed that he wasn’t there. I had reached a place of accepting our relationship for what it was.
And then he surprised me. First, at my wedding reception, he stood up to make a toast. I froze. I was expecting him to make a joke or some silly comment. Instead, he said some very heartfelt words and I saw him tear up for the second time ever. Then, months later, my husband and I lost our earnest money when a house we had under contract fell through due to the seller. I was devastated. That loss meant that we would have to delay purchasing a house for several more months. I’m not sure why, but I chose to call my dad, rather than my mom, for comfort and advice when I hung up with the realtor. Days later, an unexpected check came in the mail from my dad for the exact amount of the lost earnest money. I remember standing in the living room of my apartment, holding the check and the sweet card that came with with it. I had tears pouring down my face that time. I turned to my new husband and said, “I have a father.”
Our patterns still didn’t change much during my marriage. We spoke occasionally and saw each other even less frequently. That continued until his father became ill. I don’t know if it was the harsh reality of mortality facing my dad or that he reflected upon his role as a father, but he started to open up. He came for a visit around that time and it was the first encounter in many years where I felt comfortable around him again. We both teared up when we embraced at the airport at the conclusion of the trip.
We were both still holding back, however. Our stoic natures and analytical minds kept us at a safe distance. I think we were both afraid of being rejected. And we may have stayed that way if it wasn’t for the text. He was there when I received the news that my marriage was over. He held me as I lay collapsed on the floor. He gripped my hand on the flight back to Atlanta. He sat next to me as I discovered the extent of the betrayals. He made the phone calls that I could not. He was exactly the father that I needed him to be. The shock and trauma washed away all hesitation and all of the insecurities we had with each other.
At the end of his week here, my father gave me the best gift ever. At a restaurant, over dinner, he talked. For the first time ever, I heard his story about my parent’s divorce. I learned how he felt above moving. The words just flowed, accompanied by tears. He said he had been wanting to have that conversation with me for twenty years.
It was well worth the wait.
As I’ve said before, I lost a husband but I gained a father. That conversation set the stage for my healing. I softened that day. I knew at that moment that I had a father. Not just that night, but always. I may have been abandoned by my husband, but I knew then that I wasn’t abandoned by my dad. And since that week, he has been there for me at every turn, from horrible calls from the lawyers during the divorce to the news that I was getting married again, and all of the minutiae in between, he has been there.
I started to get to know my dad. We discovered how much we have in common (now I know who to blame for my short femurs!). It was amazing to discover how many topics we had the same opinion on, even though we never discussed them. We both became more comfortable expressing emotions. I’m sure he would still think it was pretty cool if I could actually ride a bike worth a damn or play more than Heart and Soul on the piano, but now I know that he is proud of me regardless.
It’s also interesting that when I approached dating again post-divorce that I sought out men that had traits that reminded me of my father. And, this time, when I chose the man who will be my husband, I found one that reminds me of my dad in some ways. Because, it turns out that my dad is a pretty awesome guy:)
A related post – You Win Some When You Lose Some: A Father’s Day Tribute