A very wise therapist told me to write about my father… for Mother’s Day. The fact I’ve thought about it nearly every day for weeks, but have not been able to put words to page, until now… probably means she’s wiser than I already believe. She understood what the challenge would mean, and why I should do it. However, writing it in time for Mother’s Day, while meaningful and symbolic, proved harder than I thought it would be. And, I realized, it would not be the truth.
I have not written much in nearly two years now. I’ve been struck–– paralyzed, by information about my parents, which I’d buried so deep, it came as a total shock when I heard it again. Even though I knew every word was true, as those words landed on my shaken self, it was as if I left my body, and watched from above, as my entire life was untwisted from a horrible knot of lies. I stood there listening, my body still, as the world around me fractured.
It left me shaken to the core. It left me unable to find the words… when words have always served me and been my security. It stripped me down, and yet despite all the pain… it set me free. Now, I’m taking all of the broken pieces, and putting myself back together again.
Two years ago, on an early spring day, on a beautiful beach walk, in one of my very happiest of places, my father’s two sisters–– my aunts, who I love so much–– unknowingly, broke me open. The moment is seared in my memory: the words; my stagger backwards and then paralyzed stance; their confused expressions as they realized I didn’t know what they were talking about. I can still feel the shock when they, and then I, realized I’d buried the truth so far down–– to forget the pain of being abandoned at age seven–– and that the truth they’d always lived with, was in fact raw, hard news to me.
As the truth came out, I felt all the pieces of my life fall–– like shards of glass–– around me. I floated above us, and screamed, as my body stood still before my aunts, dazed. Two years later, that day still washes over me, in unguarded moments. My chest constricts, and I try not to feel all the feelings the moment brought forth. I try to remember: I am stronger than the moment, and I believe in healing. Somedays, I feel like I’m in a giant hole of lies, and I’ll never dig my way out.
When I was between six and seven years old, my mother abandoned me, and my two younger siblings. My brother is two years younger, my sister five and a half; they were nearly five, and eighteen months old, at the time. My parents were separated at the time; we were living with our mother. However, she couldn’t cope with parenting, and she vanished for a year and a half, leaving my father to find us, alone and scared, in the apartment. I’ve always had flashbacks that didn’t make sense. I remember feeling terrified because I didn’t know how to change my baby sister’s diaper. I remember not knowing what we should eat, or what I should do. I felt the weight of the world on my tiny shoulders.
I remember these things clearly, and always have. These memories, and flashes of memories, have haunted me my entire life, but they never fit my mother’s narrative of how things were. I have no idea how long it was before my father found us, or how long we were alone in the apartment. Nobody does. The people who knew are all dead now. Fear, anxiety, abandonment–– the images which replayed in my memories, never made sense, until my aunts uttered a truth, they’d long believed I knew, but chose to see differently.
Over the years, too afraid to really believe my mother could do something so hard to understand, I projected all of those scared and hurt feelings on to my memories of my father. I believed my mother’s words: Your father was a good daddy–– he loved to play, but he didn’t take care of us. He wasn’t a good father. I had no choice but to bring you back East, where I had support.
Lies, lies and more lies!
As a young child, I didn’t feel lovable enough to prevent my parents from leaving me: Mom abandoned us, and then returned to steal us away from our father. My mother suffered with her own demons, and I always felt like she might fall apart, or leave us, any time. I learned to work very hard to prevent that, at a high cost to my own emotional wellbeing. I learned to be a parent at eight–– long before I was ready–– and I felt the burden of my mother’s mental instability as a constant responsibility. Even her Huntington’s felt like something I should have seen coming, and should have prevented.
I adopted and carried my mother’s message–– your Dad wasn’t a good father–– with me to defend against a mother who left me, and who, I always feared would leave me again. I carried the message with me to make sense of the unthinkable: I wasn’t enough to keep my parents together. I wasn’t enough to make her happy, no matter how hard I tried. All the King’s horses and all the King’s men… I couldn’t bring my father back, and I felt immeasurable guilt for having left him–– regardless of the fact that I had no control over the decision. Ultimately, I believed my mother’s lies about my Dad, because if it was Dad’s inability to be a good parent, it wasn’t about what really hurt: I wasn’t lovable enough.
What really came back to me with shocking impact, on the day my aunts told me the truth my father did take care of us. He did love us. We were his world. The instant the truth came out, and I hovered between reality and shock, I remembered being truly precious to someone I loved very deeply, and who I lost forever.
After our mother left, Dad found us in her apartment, all alone. When my mother called him and said she “didn’t want (us),” he moved in with his grandmother, my great-grandmother Nini, and loved us with everything he had. He and Nini tucked us in each night; he taught me to ride a bike; they helped us feel secure and happy. Meals were at a set time, and a family affair. We brushed our teeth with a timer, and went to school in clean clothes. We were taught to say please and thank you, to show respect to our elders, but to play without worries.
My father did everything he could to fill the hole my mother left. He filled our lives with childhood magic which came from: planting strawberries in Nini’s garden; teaching us to make a blade of grass shrill like a horn; swinging on the park swings, until my feet touched the clouds; watching a kite dance in the sky. We were surrounded by people who loved us and gave us constant security–– aunts and uncles, and great aunts and uncles, grandparents, great-grandparents, cousins, and life-long friends of my father. We had a village. I walked to school each day, happy in the knowledge there was a lunch packed for me. I knew I’d be welcomed home at the end of the day, with a hug and a kiss. My siblings and I were beloved, and I felt it. I felt safe and good for the eighteen months my mother was gone.
And then it was all taken away.
I’ve always held inside me, buried deep and tucked safely, the knowledge we were precious… I was precious to someone. But when our mother took us away from my father’s security and love, that knowledge was replaced with the childish belief that my father somehow gave up on us. I believed he didn’t care, and had grown tired of us. I didn’t understand that he didn’t know where we were, for nearly six months. I felt the tension when he did start phoning us, as my mother listened in. I knew not to say what I felt, every time I heard his voice: I want to go home, come get me. As children, we’re not able to understand the complicated world of parents, marriage, and dysfunction. Our tender hearts are broken easily, and often, they stay broken. Every time I heard his voice, I just wanted to be happy again. I wanted to feel safe and loved.
My mother did her best, in so many ways. Her family loved us very much, and embraced us in our new life. They have been there for all of these years… However, it was all new to us then, and my brother and I longed for the life we had been pulled from. My mother was an enormously damaged and broken person. Despite her humor and ability to charm and sparkle, she didn’t know how to be a parent.
She discussed it with me from an early age, but in addition, I felt her guilt, her struggle to be a mother, and her own brokenness, all of my life. I felt it as something I needed to fix, or cover for. I felt it as a missing piece which flew in the face of all the truths I learned to bury. I internalized it, and allowed it to determine my own paths. I adopted her view, and put the blame on my father, and held onto those lies most of my life.
It wasn’t until a sunny day on the beach, forty-two years after all the damage was done, that the truth wrapped itself around me and I began to really work on healing… and finding my father again.
My father was a remarkable man. He wasn’t remarkable because I remember him that way, or because my childhood memories have created something to believe in. He was remarkable because so many people have told me he was, and because I remember his enormous capacity for joy, adventure and love. He was a free spirit who kept his surroundings impeccably neat; who would rather spend any day in wild places, and who showed his children a world full of beauty. At a time when men did not routinely have custody of their children, Dad moved in with his grandmother and tried to help us forget our mother had left us behind. He did everything he could to take care of us, and help us feel loved and safe. He wasn’t just a good daddy, he was a good father.
In pushing all of these things down, and repeating an almost mantra-like revision of the truth: “my Dad was a good ‘daddy-‘ he liked to have fun, but he wasn’t a good father- he didn’t take care of us,” I changed the course of my own history, and the truth of my past. In repeating this revision to friends, who wanted to know about my Dad; to my own children, who never knew their grandfather; to myself, I not only denied all of the powerful memories I have of my father’s love and our life with him, but I stole from him the truth of his love, and the very things which made him remarkable. I allowed lies to strip him of the place in my heart, and the place in my life, he worked so hard to create.
My father never saw us again, after my mother took us. He grieved our loss until the day he died, in a motorcycle accident, June 9th, 1973, just weeks before he was to visit us. His best friend has shared pieces with me; his sisters have shared parts with me, and I know the truth. He grieved the loss of his children, just as I grieved the loss of him.
I was ten and a half years old when he died. The hole his death left has never been filled. I’m not sure it can be. The day he died, I knew I could never go home again, and happiness would always mean something different. Of course, I grew up and learned that happiness is not determined by any one thing or event. But, I lost a world of happiness when I lost my father, and that is not easily replaced. The shift that came with his death changed so many things about the way I saw the world, the choices I made, and how I lived my life.
Like him, I have always been a nature-loving, free spirit. However, I didn’t feel like those things fit into the life I lived with my mother. I learned to adapt to situations and play whatever role I needed to play. Like him, I am happiest in wild places, especially when I am alone and quiet and I can feel the Earth. I’m impulsive, adventurous and playful. The first trait I get from my father, the latter ones from both my parents. When people who knew my father talk about him, they always mention how readily he just stopped in to visit, or how happy he was in the wilderness. Family was important to him, but he could also be quiet and disappear. My father was impeccably neat. My surroundings are rarely uncluttered; in that, the apple fell far from the tree. I love fully, and hold on to connections, like my father did–– and because so many important connections were broken, when I was too young to understand it wasn’t my fault. I cling. I grieve ties that break… even when they should. I hope to fix, even the unfixable.
Everything felt like it was my fault, from the time I was eight until just recently. That’s a hard load to put down, after carrying it for forty-five years. I trip on it all the time: with my husband, my children, friends, and anywhere life throws me a curve ball. I feel the pressure to fix and assuage.
I’m working on changing the damage that was done so long ago. I’m working on healing. Some days it’s like being in a very dark, unfamiliar room and feeling around for the light switch–– you know it’s there, but it can be so disorienting to try and trace walls you don’t recognize, in order to find a small switch that will illuminate your way.
Part of me: a space where my magical child’s brain still lives, and was traumatically frozen in time, just wants her Dad back. I want to undo all the times I repeated the lies. I want to say I’m sorry Dad–– I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I’m sorry for burying the love that you gave so fully. I want to be picking strawberries and flying a kite again. I want to go back and change the course of so many things that were forged in the knot of lies which became my life.
An equally big part of me knows I need to grieve these “new” truths; come to terms with the realities, and let them go. I’m grieving my father in a new context. I’m processing the rage and disillusionment I feel, in learning the truth. I’m trying to forgive my mother. I’m trying to heal, and move forward into a lit room.
Time did not stop. If my father were still alive, he would be seventy-six years old now, not the thirty-two year old father who died, in 1973, a year after we left him. I believe we would be close. Life has a way of making things hard, but I want to believe that he would eventually have found a way to be with us again. I believe the truth would have come out at some point, and all of my memories of being precious, would have filled the other dark places with something better. In learning the truth, I am seeking to rediscover his light. I’m working to embrace the love my father gave me, and finally feel whole again. I couldn’t write this for Mother’s Day; it would have felt like a further twisting of truth. I wanted this one story to be as true as true can be.
When we are children, we are often helpless to exert any control over our own lives. The adults we trust to care for us, and do what is best for us, are not always capable of that. And our brains do what’s needed to make sense of painful things. Sadly, parents do not always consider the long-term impact of their decisions on their children. As an adult, I now have the ability to choose for myself how to live my life, and determine what’s important in that life. Piece by piece, I’m restoring my father. I’m restoring the love that was given to me and is still there. I’m healing. Piece by piece. (*a must listen)
I’m writing this for Father’s day, but posting it on June 9th, the forty-forth anniversary of my father’s death. I’m writing this because I had a father who loved me. I lost him, but now I have him back. I’m writing this to heal and feel his love again.
Thank you Dad. Thank you for being there, and for loving me completely.
To all the fathers who love their children and are there for them, Happy Father’s Day!
To Cokie and Pat, who changed everything. I love you.
I played this song over and over again, the year my father died. Time In A Bottle, by Jim Croce, who also died in 1973.
On My Father’s Birthday, A Letter To The Man Who Killed Him: it was Fresh Pressed 2x
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