“Are you coming to the church dinner?” I had asked him hesitantly moments before. The church dinner was a post-funeral staple in the tiny Midwestern town that he and I had both grown up in, an outpouring of community support in the form of casseroles and desserts. I knew what his answer was going to be, but I asked anyway.
“No,” he said gruffly. “This whole thing has been a hassle.” The last words I would ever hear him speak.
His mother’s injury, her hospitalization, her coma, the hard decision to remove her from life support, her death. A hassle. He jammed big hands into tight pockets and strode away – toward the car, toward the airport. Toward the wife he’d left my mom for and the child they adopted together to replace the family he abandoned.
I was pregnant with my third son at the time, and the first and only time he’d met my other children – his grandchildren – was briefly in the hallway of the hospital a few days prior, where my husband had brought them to see me while I kept vigil at my grandmother’s bedside.
“These are your grandsons,” I said proudly as I introduced my boys, ages four and one and adorable and brilliant. I don’t know what I expected. A breakthrough, maybe. Some sort of latent realization on my dad’s part that I had done something amazing in carrying on his bloodline through these beautiful boys. That they were good enough, worthy of being proud of in a way I wasn’t. Something. If he couldn’t love me, maybe he would love my children.
He had smiled stiffly at them, said a few trite words I don’t even remember, maybe patted their heads or gave them a hug in a forced display of obligatory warmth; we were in public, after all. But the inexplicable cold shoulder he had given me since my parents divorced when I was nine, it seemed, had extended to my sons as well.
I felt like a little kid eagerly holding up a drawing, a third-grade masterpiece made with every crayon in the box, begging him to see the value in what I’d created. I had told myself years ago that I didn’t give two shits about his approval. In that moment, though, his dismissal of my children was a twist of the knife in my heart that I’d pretended wasn’t there.
I’ve been good at that throughout the years, mostly – maintaining a blasé, “his loss” approach to my father’s absence. I’ve never sobbed on a therapist’s couch about it or even really expressed disappointment about it out loud. I’ve shoved it down so far, swallowed any bitterness so successfully, that I allowed even myself to believe, on some level, that I was unaffected. I stopped actively missing him years ago, when I was still a child. When the phone calls dwindled from once every couple of months, to maybe on my birthday, to never.
But then comes Father’s Day.
I see the social media posts, photos of friends beaming alongside their dads. Maybe they’re embracing, maybe doing some sort of activity together, maybe celebrating an occasion. There’s always a sweet and sentimental status about how he’s always been there. And it reminds me that my dad was not there for far longer than he was ever present.
What is it like to know your dad loves you? Not only loves you, but cherishes you the way a parent is supposed to cherish their child? What’s it like when your dad wants to spend time with you, when he seeks you out to do things together?
My dad never taught me how to change a tire, or threw a ball to me in the backyard, or took me to a father-daughter dance or whatever it is involved dads do with their daughters. I never searched the crowd during a dance recital or school award ceremony or graduation to see his proud face looking back at me. I never got any fatherly advice about dating, or the comfort of knowing my dad would be angry if a boy broke my heart. I never received a stern lecture when I messed up, because my father didn’t even know when I messed up; he was never there to see it, and never cared enough to ask. He never cared enough to ask about any aspect of my life. Not the milestones, not the pitfalls. What’s it like to have a dad who cares enough to call and ask about something as simple as your day?
Some dads cry at their daughters’ weddings. Mine flew to town with paperwork to stop child support in hand; I was 19, and he was tired of paying for me. He walked me down the aisle, then thrust a pen at me and demanded me to sign. I may no longer have been his financial responsibility at that point, but he had given up all his other parental responsibilities years before.
I can’t imagine what it’s like to have a dad who wants to take care of you.
I got a call from my mom one day in 2014. She had gotten a letter in the mail. “How long has it been since you’ve spoken to your dad?” she asked. I said it had been a while, but that was nothing new. I Googled his name.
The results came back with his date of death. His obituary – clearly written by the wife who pretended his biological children didn’t exist – gushing about what a wonderful father he was to their adopted child. The child, the obituary rhapsodized, who my dad called “his greatest accomplishment.” It detailed their family vacations, their family traditions. No mention of the family he made first, my siblings and me. We hadn’t even warranted a phone call. My sister wrote a letter to our stepmother asking to tell us, at the very least, how he died – but it went unanswered; we had to write to his state’s department of public records to find out.
Along with my father died the chance of ever knowing what it would be like to reconcile, the chance to get a second chance at the father-daughter relationship I never allowed myself to consciously wish for. I didn’t let myself yearn for it because I didn’t want to be disappointed when it didn’t happen. But when it couldn’t happen … when the last shred of hope I had, a shred so tiny I didn’t even know I was holding onto it, disappeared forever … it broke me in a way I never anticipated.
So every Father’s Day, and some random out-of-the-blue days in between because that’s how emotional issues work, I’ll feel like I’m standing outside a window looking in. I’ll peer wistfully through the impenetrable glass at the fathers and daughters who love each other, who do thoughtful things on holidays and ordinary days, who text and joke and partake in all the mundane interactions that such a bond allows.
And I’ll wonder what it’s like, and why such a thing was never meant for me.