My childhood memories are either gone or buried deep for self-preservation. I cannot recall what I felt like at age seven as I learned to ride a bike. No memories of Christmas mornings or the anticipation of gifts I didn’t get for milestone birthdays. The memories I do have are not mine; they’re my father’s. The memory of him and his six brothers being taken from their mother by New Jersey Social Services in the 1940s. The memory of his mother running after the car carrying her seven children, screaming, “Don’t take my babies, bring back my babies.” The memory of not being taken by family members like his other brothers and being moved from one bad foster home to the next. The memory of being tied to a tree and whipped by foster parents who didn’t like kids who didn’t walk fast enough. The memory of being rescued by his new foster family at the age of 9.
Those are my vivid childhood memories. There are pictures of me as a child and I’m visibly sad, but as I stare at the picture of the lifeless-looking little girl, no emotion comes to the surface, just nagging questions: Why am I so sad? Does anyone know?
When my parents married, I guess like most they were happy and married for all the right reasons at the time. But over time accusations of infidelity and emotional and physical abuse destroyed whatever it was that brought them together in the first place. I’m not sure where in the marriage timeline my older brother and I came into play but the one thing I do remember is the last time my father was present. I was five years old. The next time I saw my father I was 35.
For 30 years, I wondered where my father was but more importantly I spent a good portion of that time trying to figure out what I did as a child to make him leave. His absenteeism created a hole in my heart that isn’t debilitating, but it’s relentlessly painful. The love a young girl receives from her father is life altering. He’s the first man who teaches you your value, importance and how precious you are as his daughter and as a girl. That love and expression of love is carried with you all through your life. And when it’s not there you tend to spend a good portion of your life looking for it in all the wrong places. That’s what I did. I spent a good number of years being in relationships with wrong men until I learned for myself that I deserved better than I was settling for, and that I was worthy and valuable.
When I was 35 years old my father reappeared in my life. A distant cousin sent me a text saying that my father wanted to see me. As I read that text, a wave of anger came over me. I shook my head to clear my thoughts and to make sure that I was reading the text correctly. A battle raged within me, fueled by my anger at his leaving and the burning question as to “what did I do that was so bad?” Do I meet him, or tell him to keep walking like he did all those years ago? I chose to meet. Of all places, we picked Starbucks; easy because they are basically on every corner. The day I saw my father again, that indescribable ache in my chest that always played like light background music became a full force, nauseating, doubled over pain. I winced with each footstep toward the glass double doors. This was the point of no return. I pulled the door open and walked inside.
He was there sitting in a corner. I recognized him immediately. He looked like me. I walked towards the table and he stood. The pain in my chest was unbearable. We were standing there face to face. I was confused; I didn’t know if I should hit him or hug him. It was awkward. We stood there for a moment and then he said, “Why don’t we sit down.” We sat down and I could feel the tears burning the rims of my eyelids. I said to myself, “Girl, don’t you cry, don’t you dare cry.” I sat there and he said, “The biggest mistake I made was dropping out of your life and I will carry that with me for the rest of my life.” He had tears in his eyes and as soon as the first tear dropped down his cheek I could not control my sobbing and the pain started to fade. I covered my mouth with my hands because I was wailing. He got up and put his arms around me and hugged me. The hug was magically healing. I felt a weight lift from my heart. I don’t know how long he was hugging me because when he stopped and sat back down I wasn’t crying anymore. I looked at him and asked, “What did I do to make you leave?” I had to know, I needed to know. He was visibly shaken by my question and said, “You did not do anything. It was me. I couldn’t deal with your mother and every time that I tried to get you there was drama and I couldn’t take it anymore. So I left.” Through all of the stuff my mother pulled on me as a young adult and the stuff I saw her do to other people, I could understand why he bailed – on her. But I still couldn’t understand why a child, why I was the collateral damage. It was at this point that I had to make a choice: to either hold on to the pain of the past or be open to all the possibilities of the future. At that moment, I made the choice to move forward and said, “Dad, we can’t change the past. What we can do is focus on the future and building a relationship moving forward. If you are open to it, I would like to get to know my father and build a relationship based on who were are today and what we know now.”
At 42 my Dad still is in my life, and he’s not only my father, he’s my Daddy, he’s my friend and biggest fan. We don’t talk as often as I’d like, and I think that has a lot to do with his past and the busyness of life, but when I need him he’s there and that’s all a little girl could ever ask.