Everything I know about dad is what I have seen in other people’s fathers, how I have witnessed my husband behave with our children, what I have read about, or what I have watched in the movies. My own story never really had a dad in it.
My parents split up when I was 2, and though my dad and I often spent holidays and summer vacations together, the relationship we had began to unravel. It isn’t the details that matter — the drinking or the certainty that being with him meant I was putting myself in a position where I’d be hurt. What matters is I lost him — or, more accurately, I lost the idea of him — and never got him back.
Over the years, there were glimpses of a man that I could look up to. My father was a wonderful storyteller. He was spontaneous, adventurous, funny and charming. He was the kind of person who made a party. But that man was for everyone else, not for his daughter, once the trust between us was gone.
When I was in high school, I wrote him a letter. I knew I wasn’t brave enough to say what I wanted to his face, but I was naïve enough to believe I could put together words on paper in such a way that it would move him enough to change. The letter was vulnerable and honest, and even though everything up until that point told me not to, I allowed myself the one thing I shouldn’t have —hope.
After I mailed the letter, I checked the mail every day awaiting his response. A few weeks later, it came. I don’t remember much of what it said except two sentences, “You could learn a lot from a dog. Don’t shit where you eat.”
Those words solidified for me that change was not going to be an option for us, and told me never again to open myself to him.
It wasn’t long after that that our first estrangement began. It lasted many years — through all my college days, my early 20s and after I got married. A few years after my wedding, he sent me a letter. He had remarried (for the third time), had finally stopped drinking and wanted to try and repair our relationship.
I was reluctant, but he said that all he was asking for was a chance; I told him I would try.
What I remember most about that time was the oddity of it. Dinners at his house, chatting with his new wife, swallowing all the old feelings while clumsily trying to fabricate new ones. We were strangers playing the roles of father and daughter. After the get-togethers, he would walk me out, hug me and say he loved me. I would say it back even though I didn’t want to. He would feel better; I would feel worse. Each visit was like giving away another piece of myself.
“My father was a wonderful storyteller. He was spontaneous, adventurous, funny and charming. He was the kind of person who made a party. But that man was for everyone else, not for his daughter, once the trust between us was gone.”
A few months into our reconciliation, after two years of struggling with infertility, my husband and I started the process of IVF. It was then I began ignoring my father’s calls. I couldn’t bear him being a part of it. The experience was too personal; I was too raw. My body was bruised from endless shots, my emotions dizzy from the hormones. I didn’t have it in me to keep the charade going in the midst of it.
Although the procedure was successful and I became pregnant with twins, the relief was short-lived. The pregnancy soon became high risk when a medical emergency left me on bed rest for several months. From the confines of my bed, I wrote him a letter saying I needed to cut off communication again.
My decision was met with anger; I didn’t have time to care. The first few months after the twins were born were a blur. My days consisted of round-the-clock feedings, crying babies and walking circles around the house as I bounced them in my arms. But in this sleepless, grueling cycle, as my heart exploded with love, I knew I needed to focus on where my life was going instead of returning back to what it had been.
Less than a year after I stopped speaking to my father for the last time, he died. A call informing me about his illness had come from my sister a few months before. “Dad has cancer,” she told me, “and it doesn’t look good.”
I wrestled with what to do. Could I walk into a hospital room and play the part of a devoted daughter? Could I say I loved him when in reality I felt like I barely knew him? But what else do you say to a dying man? Especially when that man is your father.
I decided I could not. I received updates on the progression of his disease but never went to see him myself. Sometimes, I think about that fact. A lot of times, I don’t tell people that fact. Almost always, I don’t think anyone would really understand unless they had a childhood with a man who may have been a father but was never a dad.
Still, the choice I made has haunted me most of my adult life, revisiting my thoughts unexpectedly. Would I still do the same thing today? The answer, like so many things in life, is layered and messy.
As a young girl, I was not as aware of what I was missing because I had never known anything else, but as I grew older and had my own children, I began to understand. I watched my husband dote on our children, and it solidified that they were experiencing a relationship I had never had. The void of not having a father felt deeper.
Today, my children are the age I was when the first estrangement with my father began. I think about how different their lives have been from mine.
When my father died, I didn’t cry. In some ways, instead of sorrow, what I felt most was a sense of relief. It was finally over and he could never hurt me again. I went to the funeral a few days later and sat in the back of the church, doing my best to go unnoticed while people I had never met got up and spoke about a man I never knew.
The loss of my father will always be a part of who I am. It will always make me think about what could have been. But what I have come to understand is that my grief didn’t begin with my father’s death. I lost him at eight. And it was often harder to be with him and feel that loss when he was alive. His death didn’t change that.
Cutting him off felt like taking hold of the narrative I had rarely had any say in before. It was not a decision that I came to easily. It was not something that happened after one event. It came after dozens and dozens of them. It came after just as many broken promises.
I gave my father many chances and, in the end, I chose to protect myself instead.