The man who was not my father

My birthday, along with so many other details of my life, had gotten caught up and swallowed by his addiction.

[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]
[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

I pull up to a spot by the door. A few cars dot the parking lot, a man and woman follow a child through the double-glass doors into the coffee shop. The one I imagine is the father, places a protective hand on the little girl’s back and an arm around the woman’s waist. They are normal. They are happy. I can barely stand to watch them.

I sit and wait. Unsure of what he’ll look like now, 32 years later, I recall his overgrown, dirty-blonde hair and the half-smile, hoping perhaps to hide crooked, neglected teeth. Maybe it was the drugs or the malnourishment that goes along with addiction. He was poor, too; his mother left them. She abandoned all five of her children, leaving them in the care of her husband, while she went off and married another man, and had his children. Having four children of my own, I let the gravity of that weigh on me while I continue to wait, to think of her disappearing, simply standing up one day and leaving. Did she pack things, or simply walk out into the bright sun of the afternoon in the middle of vacuuming the carpets? Perhaps she waited until she heard the laboured snoring of a man she no longer loved and slipped out in a shroud of darkness? I heard a rumour somewhere, though I no longer recall what it was. My brother kept in touch with my father’s side of the family, even after he left.

I had a pair of pink corduroys, and a white shirt with pastel-coloured silk bows. The one birthday present he ever bought for me. The silk was a synthetic fabric, not real. My father was broke, all his money went to drugs and to support his wife, the new one, the one who looked like my mother. I wonder if she was an addict, too, as I look at the time on my phone. He’s late, not alarmingly so, but after all this time I thought he would be punctual, as if such a thing might make up for the last time when he left us.

“Never trust him,” I hear my grandmother say, though she’s been dead for a year now. It is the one reason I am meeting him, the only reason I messaged Jim.

“Dad’s on Facebook,” my brother, who lives two states away, says and then he waits. “He lives one town over from you with his wife and our half-sister.”

I let it sink in.

***

“Do you know who that man is?” my foster mother whispers as I stand outside the church after receiving my first holy communion. My mother, the biological one, has been dead for less than a month. Her cremated remains were shipped halfway across the country on a Delta flight. An epileptic seizure brought on by continuous and extensive drug use, a drug overdose I wouldn’t find out about for more than a decade. Instead, my grandparents tried to protect me from my addiction-ridden lineage by easing the blow with a less insidious cause of death. My mother, they said, drowned in the shower.

“I think that’s my father,” I say, flipping the belt of my white dress with eyelet cutouts. My foster mother nods. Across the courtyard, just next to the Blessed Virgin, holding baby Jesus, my grandmother shakes hands with the priest, and glances over at Jim. Her face hardens. She stands between him and us, our watchdog, our protector. They exchange words. Finally making it past her, his one obstacle, my father is hugging us, me and my brother, and crying, because he missed us, because his ex-wife, the one who left him like his mother once did, is dead, because he wishes he had never abandoned us. At least those were the reasons I imagined a grown man would cry. I could have been wrong. I was seven.

[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

“So I already messaged him. We might meet up. You know, to talk,” my brother pauses.

“I don’t know if I’ll talk to him. I mean it’s been a long time,” I quickly do the math in my head, realising that at various points in my life I could recall the number of years since my father left us, for the second time, without thought. I tracked his absence on an internal calendar by milestones missed, birthdays and holidays without cards, gifts, or him.

“Thirty-two years,” my brother spits out faster than I can calculate. I was never very good at math.

***

Damn, the DJ on the radio announces the time. Now, my father is alarmingly late.

I watch the couple inside with their daughter. I get out of my car and walk the length of the coffee shop. An older man smiles, but he is not my father. He is too tall. His teeth too perfect. He has never been a drug addict, he has never left his family. I think about him on the ride home and make up a history for him: wife, child, long career helping people as a teacher or a detective. I think of him so I don’t have to think of my father.

“He didn’t show,” I say to my husband, feeling ashamed of a sin that isn’t mine. My father owns this transgression, and a myriad of others.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“I’m used to it,” I respond, sorry I told my children I was going to meet their grandfather, sorry I allowed him to ease back in, even if only for a moment.

***

“I’ll never leave you again,” his eyes, hazel, are my own, staring back at me like a mirror. “I promise.” We are sitting at my grandparents’ house, where I’ve lived since he left us the first time. I am tucked under a top sheet, the warm breeze of a July night enters through an open bedroom window, pushing white lace curtains into the air like a ghost. My father won’t call tomorrow or the next day. I will not hear from him again until I reach out on Facebook 32 years later.

[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

The message comes in while I’m on the computer. “I waited at the coffee shop from 6:30 to 7:30 and now I’m home,” I respond. I was there. He was there. Just a mistake, two people, a father and daughter, who missed each other because it had been 32 years since they last met. I forgive him, again. It is a pattern. It is a sickness.

Weeks later, we meet up finally. I ask him about his life. It was more miserable than I’d imagined. We talk daily on Facebook. He likes to write, like me. My father went back to college after getting clean, met his wife, had a kid, and did his best to stay sober. He loved my mother, he tells me, but they were dumb, they were addicts, they weren’t strong enough to love each other through it all.

***

The box arrives in the afternoon while the kids are riding their bikes in the driveway. I see from the return address that it is from my father. Inside, there are gifts for all of us. Shirts for the boys, jewellery, delicate strings of gold, for the girls, and for me, a necklace, for my birthday. The date he couldn’t remember until he asked me about it on Facebook messenger. I often wondered if he thought of me each May on the day I was born. I know now that he didn’t, because he’d forgotten my birthday. Like so many of the details of my life, it got caught up and swallowed by his addiction.

“I’m sorry I forgot your birthday,” he messages me as he has been doing several times a day since we’ve fallen back into each other’s lives. “I wanted to get you something, though I can never make up for all those I’ve missed. In my family we never got gifts.”

And now I am ready, after having received the second birthday gift from my father. The thin chain, barely gold and of nominal value, is proof of his transformation from a wayward recovering addict to a doting and loving father. People change. Jim’s changed. Of this, I am certain. My children, I say, it would be okay for you to meet them, but only if you can promise that you won’t leave. You have to stick this time, or you can’t see them. I make these demands of him as my grandmother once did. He is sober now and has been for decades. He promises. I believe him. I always believe my father.

Kyle takes to him immediately. Young and trusting, she is a replica of me. He is equally smitten. Watching the two of them together heals some hurt I didn’t know I still held onto. My father throws a ball to her, as he would have to me if he’d stayed like all my friends’ parents did. She hits it back, happy to show off skills learned in T-ball. The day has a natural and easy flow, so unlike the other times. This is going to work. He is different. The man I have always called Jim is finally my father. “Dad,” I whisper forcing it from my mouth, practicing, while imagining him babysitting the kids, or joining me at the park to keep us all company during the sometimes long and lonely days of motherhood. He does not hear me.

[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi]

“Nicole,” my grandmother calls me into her bedroom, the one right next to mine. It is a Saturday. In her hands, she holds a piece of paper. “Your father wrote you a letter. Well, you and your brother.” I am both stunned and numb. It has been seven years since he left. Seven birthdays, seven Christmases, seven Father’s Days, without him. I have grown used to his absence, grown to trust it more than the brief periods when he was present.

“Okay,” I say, sitting on the bedspread that she will smooth wrinkles out of when I stand up. “Should I read it?” I ask the woman who helps me make all my decisions.

“I have no idea.” My grandmother cleans out a junk drawer, the one bit of disorganisation she allows in an ordered life, and hands me the letter. “Do what you want with it. If you don’t take it, I’ll just throw it away.”

“I’ll see,” I say, doing my best to appear unmoved. I feel as though the letter is somehow my fault.

“Honey,” she says, pausing from her cleaning and softening for a moment, “your father is in rehab. This is one of the steps.”

Steps toward what? I wonder.

“He has to make amends to those people he’s hurt while using drugs. That’s why he’s writing this.” My grandmother turns away from me and back to organising. Our discussion is over.

***

I prepare for the party while my husband runs out to get beer, wine, and soda for the people who don’t drink, like my father. He shows up at the properly designated time, and there are awkward introductions because so many people know our history.

“I thought your father died,” one friend whispers, while filling her glass with sangria.

“No, we’ve been estranged,” I say, unable to offer a better explanation.

I meet my sister, she is young, 18, heading off to college in the fall. I imagine her getting to know my children, while they attach themselves to her as if they know there is some sort of bond connecting their lives to hers.

We eat, we drink by the pool. I have a normal family, I think, brother, sister, father, for the first time. It is the fourth of July.

Later, my brother texts, “What a great time today.”

“Perfect,” I respond, because it was.

The next day, I wake up and check my laptop. There is no message from my father, no morning greeting. I don’t think much about it. As the day wears on, and the morning sun grows stronger, pushing away the clouds and leaving a clear blue sky, I wonder if I should reach out.

I go inside to make the kids lunch and there is a message from my father. I begin to read and realise what this is, a goodbye. He is too old, too much time has passed. The letter he sent to my grandmother all those years ago after getting clean, the one I never responded to, is cited. I didn’t try hard enough. The final line, “We have decided it’s better for us not to continue this attempted relationship,” thrown out and followed up with a simple sign-off, “Dad.” When I look my father up on Facebook, his account no longer exists. I have no way to respond.

***

I am eight again, he is beside me. His eyes searching my own for forgiveness. He will leave tomorrow, disappearing from my life. Jim, my father, the man I will never refer to as dad, is young and shaggy-haired. I am 40, volleying back and forth through time. “I forgive you, Jim,” I whisper, because I finally understand who he is. He is not my father. He never was. This is the end. This is closure. I am free.

Source: Al Jazeera

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