July 27, 2006
“…perhaps that all parents should merit some kind of respect, whether or not they have raised you to be the person that you are. I do not want or deserve your honor, but at least the respect that comes with my age. Without respect, we are just total strangers in the slow lane getting the finger as you speed on by.
Where do we go from here, I do not know, I only know that it will take some time to heal the wounds.”
The above was sent to me from my father in June of 2003, shortly after he had discovered my online journal and read an entry I had posted which contained unpleasant comments about his wife. We haven’t talked since.
My father and I have been estranged for most of my life. My parents divorced when I was very young, and he left our home town in Virginia for New Mexico, where he still lives today. Other than a few awkward phone calls and some wildly age-inappropriate gifts during holidays (in particular, I remember a jigsaw puzzle made up of maybe 5 large pieces; the picture was of a yellow duckling with the text “Have a Ducky Day!” curving overhead. It was the sort of thing you would give to a very small child or perhaps a mentally handicapped adult. I was in middle school at the time) we had virtually no contact while I was growing up.
In 1998 or so, I struck up a tentative email correspondence with him. As the months went by he wrote chatty letters on everyday topics; he gave me thrifty tips on household upkeep, he told me not to trade in my car but rather to “drive it until the wheels fall off”. When JB and I married in 2001, I invited my father and his wife – no small overture, as the wedding was tiny and intimate – and they attended.
In 2003 he came to our house in Bellevue with his wife, I’ll call her Sally, and stayed for a couple days. It was a stilted, uncomfortable visit. I didn’t speak much with my father in the wake of Sally, whose high-maintance behavior dominated their collective presence. She was picky, demanding, and overly reliant on my father, who catered to her every whim.
One evening I stayed up talking with her after my father and JB had gone to bed, and the conversation veered into the uncomfortable territory of religion. She was horrified to learn I was not a Christian, and her tone became zealous. Didn’t I feel the giant hole in my life, she asked. Didn’t I know there was something missing. She told me, you need to spend some quality time down on your knees.
Well. I was angry. I asked her how she dared to criticize my life. As a guest in my house, I said, my voice shaking. How dare you.
I don’t know if I would react the same way today. Maybe I would be more patient. Maybe I would be able to say something like, hey, you have your beliefs and I have mine. Let’s change the subject. Maybe. But at the time I was furious, I was filled with righteous indignation and disbelief. Her presence that weekend impacted my feelings toward my father; I saw him as a weak man who lived to shelter his wife from the smallest discomfort (on one occasion she covered her eyes and practically screamed in a restaurant when her salad arrived with olives – “What are those, get them off, get them OFF!” – and I watched with cranked eyebrows as he patiently picked them out for her).
I was disappointed the visit didn’t go better. I was still reeling from being accused of having a hole in my life, probably in part because I knew I did have a hole in my life, that hole was called alcoholism and getting down on my fucking knees wasn’t going to do a thing about it.
So I wrote about the visit on my journal. I wrote about the things Sally said and did, I wrote about the awkwardness with my father, I wrote that the only quality time I was going to spend on my knees was gardening or delivering blow jobs to my husband.
A few short days after his visit, my father googled the term “marionberry margarita” and found my journal. He read the one entry in my entire journaling history that guaranteed hurt feelings for him. He wrote me a scathing message full of anger and betrayal. I responded, in part:
“…there’s a REASON those words are in a diary and not being spoken to you. They are personal. They are uncensored. They are words recorded off the top of someone’s head, without going through the typical editing wringer we all apply in our daily lives. They are opinions and thoughts that may be in my mind one day, but not the next.
…I cannot say that the things I write in that diary are lies, or meant only to entertain others. Nothing I write there is meant to hurt anyone.”
“I realize that your diary is personal, but is it not posted on the internet for all to read? Do you not ask for comments or to be sent a latest issue? You lose the right to say that it is anonymous.”
“I do feel like we had a much better relationship at your wedding when I had all of about five minutes with you. And, just maybe we should have just stayed apart.”
Sally lost both her children when they were young adults, under separate but sudden and tragic circumstances. Her daughter had some sort of cardiac event in her late twenties and withered away in a nursing home for years in a vegetative state, until Sally chose to allow her to die. They stopped liquids and her daughter lived for days with Sally at her side, before finally, finally escaping her ruined body. She left behind two small children.
I am a parent now and I can begin to imagine the depth of Sally’s sorrow. What would losing Riley, now or later in life, do to my mind? Maybe I would become fragile, strangely dependent on my partner, easily upset by small things. Maybe I would rely on my spiritual faith to a point where it is threatening to me that other people don’t share my beliefs.
If I could go back in time and not post that entry. If I could have been more considerate in my assessment of her. But here we are. The words have been written, the damage has been done.
When I was in high school, I landed myself in the hospital as the result of a suicide attempt. My mother thought it was serious enough to let my father know. I don’t remember if she called him, or what he may have done afterwards, but I do remember the card I received in the mail shortly thereafter. The front showed a devil, a red cartoon guy with pitchfork and horns, and said “THANKS”. The inside read: “A HELL OF A LOT!” He added his own text, which I will paraphrase: “For all the cards and letters over the years, for all the phone calls…you think you can just watch MTV and hum your way through life, but you can’t.”
This he mailed to a miserable, fucked-up teenager who had just swallowed a fistful of pills and hacked open her wrist with a steak knife.
I am not blameless in this by any means. I should never have posted that journal entry, I could have been more apologetic in my response and maybe we’d be talking today. But while being Riley’s mother has wrought unexpected, amazing changes in my heart, made me a stronger, more generous person, on the subject of my father I have only grown more bitter.
“You were 4 years old and it broke my heart to leave you. But, I could not stay around. The commonweath of Virginia requires a 12 month separation before divorce is legal and final. New Mexico was where I needed to be to lick my wounds. Both of my parents were born here and it seem a natural place to go. It was my decision to move away.”
He left, and he didn’t come back, he didn’t really call or keep in touch. He left, and I don’t care how many wounds he had, I don’t give a shit about any of his pitiful little circumstances, the fact is that he left. When I think about that today it fills me with poison, because I look at Riley and my head simply doesn’t have room for the giant gaping question of how he could have left his own child. I hardly remembered him when I was growing up, he caused no pain to me back then, but now that I hold my own baby in my arms I am resentful. I am angry. I think, maybe I didn’t turn into the sort of person worth his effort to make a relationship with, but back then I was just a little kid, I was all promise and possibility.
While I recognize that journal entry was hurtful, he tossed our relationship aside so quickly as a result. He just…wrote me out of his life after that. I don’t even want Riley to know him, because Riley has no shortage of family members who love him and care for him and will always, always be there for him, no matter what.
Today my father either has no idea that Riley exists, or he sits back and silently reads about his only grandchild on this web page.
Every day with JB and Riley I get to see fatherhood at its most ideal, its most picture-perfect. I see a man who would never leave his child, no matter what happened in his marriage. I see a man whose values and strength and humor and presence will guide Riley throughout his life. I feel phenomenally lucky.