You know what they don’t tell you about parental estrangement? Sometimes, the grief hits so sharply, you can’t breathe. And other times, it’s banal, sneaky in its muted tones.
It feels like death — except it was a death of my own choosing.
I wonder if I made the right decision.
I remember my father playing gong zhu (the Taiwanese version of Hearts) or mah jong with us for hours over lazy summer nights. I hear my father in every “hmph” or grunt I exhale in response to my kids’ endless chatter and requests. I flash to the golden memories of a little girl who adored her father when I see my husband play with our children, hoisting them on his shoulders, chasing them around to their delight.
I feel him under my skin when I get so furious that I scream at my kids until I tremble.
And still, I wonder.
My father was the life of every party. He was so clever and smart and funny and charismatic — he was like the sun. And I wonder — I wonder if in a different life, if watching him be an Ah Gong to my children would be as healing as it is for me to watch my mother be an Ah Ma.
My husband’s father died three days before my first child was born, and I wonder if I have robbed my children of their remaining grandfather. I wonder if perhaps, I have overblown the state of fear in which I existed when my father was home — and how though I missed him when he went overseas for months at a time for work, I could only feel safe when he was gone.
My father was the first man to break my heart. He broke it so often and so unabashedly, and yet still, I loved him. I loved him so much, but he only loved himself. I likely would have stayed in his thrall had I not had children of my own and finally caught glimpse of what a wild, unrestrained love could be.
And still, still I loved him. But I loved my children more. And finally, finally, I chose myself.
It’s been at least ten years since the last time I saw or spoke to my father. I’m not actually sure the precise date — he was so rarely in my life. All I know is that the September before my second child was born, I told him via email that he was dead to me. That if he got sick or needed help, he could ask his secret family — the family he did not know we knew he had while married to my mother — to take care of him.
My daughter, who has never met him, struggles to understand. She has sobbed, asking why she has never met her grandfather when her older brother has, saying it wasn’t fair. Why was I keeping Ah Gong away from her? Why doesn’t he love her or want to be with her? And if it was to protect her, then how come I let my father meet her older brother? Did I not want to protect my eldest?
It is hard to explain.
How do I explain that they wouldn’t have the bone deep terror necessary to survive being around my father — no matter the little amount of time they’d actually spend in his presence? That they are ill-equipped for a life constantly on edge, always reading the microexpressions and mood of a man so much bigger and stronger and meaner than them.
How do I explain that if I’d behaved the way they did — that they would not exist because I wouldn’t have lived long enough to reproduce? I am baffled that my children can be so free with their mouths, their actions, and their feelings. I grew up curling into myself at home. Hiding, always hiding — until I could no longer contain myself and inevitably burst.
I wonder how the fuck my kids think they can behave in such a way without fear of physical violence.
How do I explain that I hadn’t realized I could draw a hard boundary around my own family and not allow him access to me or my children? That after three decades of excusing his abusive and toxic behavior, covering for him and making excuses, that I’d finally had enough?
Instead, I say only that my father was not a good man. That he hurt me. That he hurt Ah Ma. That he lied all the time. That I was afraid he would hurt my children — and I would sooner murder him than allow him to harm them.
And still … still, I ache.