Lessons From My Absent Father

The Thanksgiving I was a year old, my mom decided my father had beaten her for the last time. She packed a bag, called her dad, and we moved in with my grandparents. I’ve seen my father less than a dozen times since.

I’m thankful for that; I bless my mother for her strength in leaving him. He is, to say the least, not a good man. He abused the other families he created, too (I have nine half-siblings), and for much longer periods of time. He has served jail time for just a fraction of the crimes he has committed.

Most of our images of lessons we learned from our fathers are sepia-toned, burnished with love – as it should be, because most fathers are decent men, doing the best they can. Mine isn’t. But he still taught me a few things.

You CAN miss what you never had. I can’t count the times I was told during my growing up years that I “can’t miss what (I) never had.” Even as a kid I knew that for what it was – utter bullshit. Sure, I didn’t miss him in particular; I didn’t know him well enough to miss him, and I was aware from a young age that he was a person I wouldn’t want in my life. But for much of my childhood, there was a big hole in my heart shaped like what other kids called Daddy. The things we’ve never had are often the things we long for most.

There are worse things you can do to a child than leave her. Abandoning your child is a terrible thing to do, full stop. It is an act done by people who lack character, who are willing to dump years of suffering on their own child. I won’t minimize it. But there are also people in the world who do more harm with their presence than their absence could ever do. My father is one of these.

Well into my adulthood, I met my sisters – his other daughters, from other wives. Brilliant, gorgeous, tough, resilient women all. Their stories belong to them; they are not mine to tell. But when I was in the throes of childhood longing and self-doubt, wondering what was so wrong with me that my father abandoned me but would stay (sort of) to raise his other daughters, they were going through hell on earth at his hands. Though I could not have known this then, I struggle with it now. I feel guilt for what they experienced and I did not, and for having grieved over my own bruises, when their wounds were so terrible.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean reconciliation. For a long time, I thought forgiveness required patching things up, saying it’s OK, letting the forgiven back into your life. But forgiveness really only exists in the heart of the forgiver – an acceptance of what has happened, not a condoning. Some things can never be OK; some people, like my father, will never be safe to let in. Forgiveness, in my case, took the form of just not being angry anymore, not wishing him ill, not feeling defensive or ashamed. While this required professional help, it did not require an announcement, or his knowledge or participation.

Not to say that forgiveness is one-and-done. Or even linear. For me, it has been a choice I keep making, with the alternative rearing its head in unexpected places. When my next-youngest sister was diagnosed with the cancer that would take her life before her 42nd birthday, I was filled with white-hot rage and a scorching certainty that this was HIS fault; that it was the pain he caused her that became malignant, metastasized, and finally consumed her. That this was completely irrational did not matter to me at the time.

Last year, after my sister’s death, and after serving jail time for abusing yet another child in his orbit, my father sent me a letter. A very sad, self-serving letter about how he should have paid more attention to me while he had the chance, and would I please come visit him now, “before it’s too late.” Inside was a check for $500, with the word ‘inheritance’ written on the memo line.

I pondered what to do with this for awhile. Send it to another sister I knew was having financial difficulty? Not worth the risk of inflicting more hurt. Buy $500 worth of really excellent booze and drink it with ALL the sisters? Donate it to RAINN and have the acknowledgement card sent to him? Both those had merit. But in the end, I realized I could not touch, cash, handle, or otherwise perpetuate the energy behind that check. I did not want it myself, and I didn’t want to be responsible for sending it out into the world. I enclosed the check with a brief note, telling him I didn’t feel he owed me anything, and he should be at peace and use his money to take care of himself (because I’m not planning to, I left unsaid). As I dropped it in the mailbox, I found I could breathe easily again.

Time and love really do heal – but only if you let them. When I had enough of my childhood longing, I spent my teen years and some of my 20s angry. Being angry made me feel less helpless than I did when I was just hurt. It was his loss, not mine. I’d show him what he missed out on. Finally it dawned that in this kind of thinking, I was still living in reaction to him – which was just the flip side of waiting around hoping…what? That he’d notice me, repent his evil ways, and turn into a decent human and loving father? Living in spite of him was no different than living for him. It still put him – an absence – at the center of my life. Real healing couldn’t start until I let go of that anger and defensiveness, and decided to live by my own lights. Then time had room to do its work.

You just might find…you get what you need. If kids are like flowers, my garden was without the gentle, soaking rain of a father’s love. But throughout my life I’ve encountered kind and honorable men who provided some of the guidance and protection a good father would, in a kind of drip irrigation that allowed me to survive the parched landscape. My grandfather. Teachers who noticed and cultivated my gifts. The man my mother married when I was small, who unfailingly treated me like a cherished daughter, even as he was losing his battle with his own demons. A kindly neighbor, who wrote me funny poems and, I suspect, was responsible for some anonymous financial gifts during hard times. No, it’s not the same; but because the givers had no obligation to me, it was all the more dear.

Somewhere in the midst of living my life by my own lights, the healing came almost unnoticed. Then I had Adrienne, and saw Anthony become the amazing father he is. His presence and his love for our daughter is so vast that she can’t see outside it, to even imagine that things could be different. But as she gets older and sees friends in other situations, she understands enough to know we have something special.

My cup overflows.

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