The holiday season is always a little bittersweet for me. We all joke about those family members we would prefer NOT to see at family gatherings every year. That one uncle who gets a little too friendly after a couple glasses of eggnog, or that really awkward cousin who stares without really saying anything.
What we don’t often hear about are the family members that are estranged for one reason or another.
Four years and two children later, you would think it might sting a little less not to hear from my father on Christmas. You might assume that I would grow accustomed to read receipts without a reply.
Yet every year, without fail, the closer the holidays get, the larger that little lump in my throat grows. The harder it gets to ignore the adorable family photos that seem to completely consume social media. You know the ones, where tiny babies are sleeping peacefully on grandpa’s chest. The grins that stretch from ear to ear as generation after generation line up in matching pajamas.
My phone doesn’t ring endlessly with frantic questioning about the perfect gift for my incredibly particular six-year-old daughter. There isn’t a cute Christmas card to hang up on my fridge.
I have been lucky enough to be blessed with a bonus dad who has gladly stepped in and stepped up, when my own father stepped out. He has given me the consistency I desperately needed, and the love I didn’t have, even if I didn’t deserve it from time to time.
However, that wounded little girl who just wanted her daddy seems to sneak her way to the surface around this time every year. Those same questions play on repeat over and over, a never-ending soundtrack I wish to God would get run over by the nearest semi-truck. “Why don’t you love me?” and “Am I just not good enough?” are the subconscious mantras I’ve built my incredibly negative self-image on.
Grief over the relationship I “should” have comes out of the woodwork and slaps me so hard in the face, it’s a wonder my eyes aren’t black and blue from the impact. My children deserve better, I deserve better. How someone can have four beautiful grandchildren, and have no idea who they are, is unfathomable.
At this point, I don’t expect change. I don’t expect some Christmas miracle in which my father shows up at my door and we cry and embrace and embark on this beautiful relationship for the rest of our days. I don’t expect him to kneel down and have a heart-to-heart with each of my children.
That doesn’t make it hurt any less.
Contrary to what we may hope for, our lives very rarely coincide with the plot of a Hallmark movie. Fate doesn’t swoop in and deliver us our happily ever afters.
Maybe I should be grateful. Out of the four children he had, I was the only one he saw consistently throughout childhood. In between wife four and five, there were happy moments.
Sure, my birthday parties were often an excuse for the adults to get together and have one too many. At least I had one, though, right? I may have this absurd fear of drowning while stuck inside my car, due to my dad and I driving to stay on the boat whenever he fought with his wife or had too much to drink. Usually one led to the other. But at least he took me with him, right?
Forgiveness was granted years ago. Anger has progressed to sadness. Understanding that I have no more control over the situation than I do over the weather outside helps, but it doesn’t heal. What was once a gaping, bleeding sore has shrunk to a minor scrape that hurts if I bump it the wrong way.
This Christmas I will snuggle my babies, and thank God that I am able to watch their faces light up as they open their gifts. We will video chat with my mom, and the only papa they have known.
I can lie my head down at night and know that I will never put them through the torment that I have felt, even if I do overcompensate just a smidge. When they are older, I will tell them the truth. But for now, I will take the moments I need to process the pain in private.
After all, it isn’t me who should feel sorry.