I remember it in snapshots, all of them layered, scattered, out of order.
My father walking out of the house, all of his belongings in a trash bag over his shoulder.
My mother, eight months pregnant with my brother, lying on the couch looking out the window, snow falling so hard the outside world was obliterated.
Me, 5 years old, running home, snow up to my knees, believing with all my heart that when my mother opened the door, my father would be there beside her, ready to wrap me up in a blanket and make me a cup of hot cocoa.
My father returning right after my brother was born, offering me a doll in a baby seat, my “big sister gift,” when all I wanted was him to stay with us, never to leave again.
My father leaving again, disappearing into the night as my mother held my baby brother in the darkness of our bedroom, where I slept at the foot of the bed, to keep her safe.
My mother, my baby brother, and me following my father a few months later, across the country to California.
Following him up and down the coast for years and years, never quite getting him back again. Visits here and there. His new house, his new wife. Never really having him to ourselves ever again.
This was almost 35 years ago. I am a mom now. I have three daughters, a good husband. A husband who has been with me for 20 years, and who I am certain isn’t leaving me or my children. I have made the kind of life for my girls that I always wanted for myself.
I am lucky. I am blessed. I know that.
But the hurt — the fear, the terror — doesn’t go away. It’s there when one of my children gets sick, and my immediate thought is that they are surely going to die. It’s there when my husband is late from work, hasn’t returned a text, and my first thought is that he has been hurt or killed.
I have a good life. I have everything I have always wanted or needed. But I don’t trust it. I know that goodness can be taken from you in an instant, just like that.
Most of the time, I am okay. I am in therapy. I have worked through the past. I have screamed and cried through the memories.
I am still in touch with my dad and my stepmother (who was verbally abusive to us at times). But the thing that stings is that he still doesn’t understand. He doesn’t get the pain that he and his wife caused my brother and me growing up. He gets angry at me for bringing it up, and so I haven’t, for many years. I make small talk, I show him pictures of his granddaughters. And I leave it at that.
So I have to hold it in me — that hole in my heart from losing him. Losing him again and again, all my life. I have learned to cope. There are no guarantees in life, but I have done my best to make sure my own children will not experience this kind of loss themselves. I have made it my goal to break the cycle.
I am working on acceptance — accepting that is just who I am, who my father is, and my only choice is to go on, live my life as best I can, even with the hurt and pain always there, lingering.
Still, there is a part of me who will always be that little girl running home through the snow, hoping with her whole entire body that her father will be there when she opens the door. What can I tell her when she faces the empty doorway? Do I have the heart to tell her she’ll never really get him back, that she will be chasing his love for years, until she flat out gives up?
She is crushed, she is broken, changed forever, and nothing can really ever fix that. She can place a Band-Aid on it, and move on, but it will live in her always. And try as a she might, she will never fully accept it, get over it.
But she will do all she can to live her best life, for her family, for her children, and for that hopeful little girl she once was.