My mother sent me a box of pictures from my childhood late last year. Turns out she’d been going through some things, and I will be honest, this box was unexpected. Up until this moment, I had only a dozen or so photos of my father. He left when I was nine, and was in and out of jail, and my life, because of his addiction to pain medication. He burned a lot of bridges, and by the time he died, it felt most people were pretty done with him, and most photos and other remembrances of his life were thrown away.
As I flipped through the photos, the box on my kitchen counter, a small post-it note fell onto the floor. It was the note I wrote my father the night he left my family. I was so young the night I wrote it. I can still remember him telling my mother he’d been having an affair, a conversation they had in their bedroom, behind a locked door. Naturally, I didn’t know exactly what was discussed; I found that out later. But I could feel it like some sorrowful gas creeping around the house, letting me know that something was going to change, even though I didn’t know exactly what.
He packed some things as my mother sat in our family car, hands at ten and two on the steering wheel, crying, ready to drive but not sure where to go. I wrote the note in our living room with the help of my older sister. As he put his boots on to leave, I handed it to him. I remember feeling pretty confident that I’d be able to change his mind, but of course it didn’t work.
He read it.
“Roses are red
Violets are blue
If you get a divorce
I’ll be blue too”
He let out a forced breath, and then tossed the note onto the kitchen table. He didn’t say anything. He just finished putting on his boots, slung the duffel bag over his shoulder, and left.
In that moment, I felt like I’d done something wrong. Like my note failed to keep my parents together. Now, when I think back on his reaction, I wonder if it caused him to feel what he should have in that moment… guilt.
But when I saw it mixed in with those photos 28 years later, I felt nothing but thick, frothy anger and I’ll tell you why.
After he left, he was in and out of my life until he died ten years later from drug addiction. The most consistent relationship we had was when he was in jail during my junior and senor years of high school. I always knew where to find him then. I had a car and I knew his visiting hours. He was sober, and he was actually happy to see me.
But I don’t think I fully realized what he and I missed until I became a father myself.
That night he not only walked out on my mother, but he also walked out on years of bedtime stories, family movie nights, parent teacher conference, warm hugs, vacations, arguments over homework, dad jokes, Christmas mornings, camping trips, playing catch, sporting events, fatherly advice, trips to the gas station for candy, and every other heartwarming, frustrating, and rewarding part of being a father.
He missed out on what have become some of the warmest, most wonderfully fruitful moments that have made my life for the past 12 years as a father the best years I’ve ever lived. Being present with my children is something I would never trade for anything. Sure, they can be stressful, but the rewards are so wonderful, and now that I am on the other end of the equation, living these moments as a father myself, I am so much angrier with my father for robbing me — and him — from some of the best moments two people can share in this life.
I remember him saying, “You’ll understand someday.” He said that a lot. And he was right. It’s only now that I know exactly what he and I lost. I’ve heard fathers say they cannot imagine their lives without children anymore. I can relate to that after being a father for 12 years. But what I will also say is that I know what life looks like without a father, and I have enough empathy for my own children to never do that to them.
Divorce happens, but that fatherhood gig never stops. The moment I saw that note, a realization hit me in a hot, angry wave. I finally understood how much I lost the night my father left, and I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more committed to my role as a father than I do right now. I know exactly what I missed, and I knew exactly what I have to gain by being present with my children, and I cannot help but look forward with anticipation to the warmth I have ahead of me by loving and caring for my children the way a father is supposed to.