The man who was not my father | United States and Canada


I pulled up to a spot near the door. A few cars punctuate the parking lot, a man and a woman follow a child through the double-glazed doors into the cafe. The one I imagine is the father, he puts 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’t help but stare at them.

I sit and wait. I’m not sure what he’s going to see now, 32 years later, I remember his invaded, dirty blonde hair and half-smile, hoping maybe to hide his crooked and neglected teeth. Maybe it was drugs or malnutrition that go with addiction. He was also poor; his mother left him. She abandoned all five children, leaving them in the care of her husband as she left and married another man, and had children. Having four children of mine, I let the gravity of that weight weigh on me as I continued to wait, to think about her disappearance, just to stand up one day and leave. Did you pack things up, or just soak up the bright afternoon sun in the middle of vacuuming the carpets? Maybe she waited until she heard the tired snoring of a man she no longer loved and she slipped into a shroud of darkness? I heard a voice somewhere, even though I no longer remember what it was. My brother kept in touch with my father’s family even after he left.

I wore a pair of pink corduroys, and a white shirt with pastel-colored silk bows. The birthday present he never bought for me. 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, who looked like my mother. I wondered if she was a drug addict, too, as I watched the time on my phone. He’s late, not alarmingly, but after all this time I thought he would be punctual, as if something like this could compensate for the last time he left us.

“I never trust her,” I hear my grandmother say, even though she’s been dead for a year. It’s the only reason I met him, the only reason I sent messages to Jim.

“Dad is on Facebook,” says my brother, who lives in two states apart, and then waits. “He lives a city by you with his wife and our sister.”

I let it sink.

***

“Do you know who this man is?” my adoptive mother whispers as she walks out of the church after receiving my first holy communion. My mother, the biological, died less than a month ago. His cremated remains were shipped halfway across the country on a Delta flight. An epileptic seizure caused by a continuous and extensive use of drugs, an overdose of drugs that I have not discovered for more than a decade. Instead, my grandparents tried to protect me from my additional strain by letting go of the blow with a less insidious cause of death. My mother, they said, was drowning in the shower.

“I think he’s my dad,” I say, flashing the waistband of my white dress with eye-catching details. My mother adopted me last year. Across the courtyard, right next to the Blessed Virgin, holding the baby Jesus, my grandmother shook hands with the priest, and gave Jim a look. His face hardens. She stands between him and us, our guard dog, our protector. They exchange words. Finally he makes it pass, his only obstacle, my father hugs us, us and my brother, and weeps, because we missed him, because his ex-wife, the one who left him like his mother once, she is dead because she wants him to never leave her. At least those were the reasons I imagined a grown man crying. I could have been wrong. I was seven years old.

[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

“I have already sent a message.” We can meet. 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 coming, ”I immediately put the math into my head, realizing that at some point in my life I could remember the number of years my father had left us, for the second time, without thinking. I trace his absence to an internal calendar for missed stages, birthdays and holidays without cards, gifts, or him.

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

***

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

I look at the couple inside with their daughter. I get out of my car and walk all over the cafe. An old man smiles, but he’s not my dad. It’s too high. His teeth are too perfect. He has never been a drug addict, he has never left his family. I think about him on the trip home and build up a story for him: wife, child, long career helping people as a teacher or detective. I think of him so I don’t have to think about dad.

“He didn’t manifest,” I say to my husband, 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 replied, sorry to have told my children they were going to meet their grandfather, sorry to be allowed to return, even if only for a moment.

***

“I’ll never leave you again,” his eyes, hazel, mine, staring back at me like a mirror. “I promise.” We are going to sit in my grandparents ’house, where I have lived since he left us for the first time. Hidden under an upper sheet, the warm breeze of a July night enters through an open window of the room, pushing the white lace curtains into the air like a ghost. My father won’t call me tomorrow or the day after. I won’t hear from him again until I get on Facebook 32 years later.

[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

The message comes while they are on the computer. “I’ve been waiting for coffee from 6:30 to 7:30 and now I’m home,” I replied. I was here. It was there. Only one mistake, two people, a father and a daughter, who were missing because 32 years had passed since their last acquaintance. Forgiveness, come back. It’s a model. It is a disease.

Weeks later, we finally meet. I ask him about his life. It was more unfortunate than I had imagined. We talk every day on Facebook. He likes to write, just like me. My father returned to college after cleaning up, met his wife, had a son, and did his best to stay sober. She loved my mom, she tells me, but they were dumb, they were addicted, they weren’t strong enough to love each other at all.

***

The box arrives in the afternoon while the children are cycling in the street. I see it from the return address that is from my father. Inside, there are gifts for all of us. Shirts for boys, jewelry, delicate gold cords, for girls, and for me, a necklace, for my birthday. The date he couldn’t remember until he asked me about it in Facebook Messenger. I often wondered if he thought of me every May the day I was born. I know now that he didn’t, because he had forgotten my birthday. Like so many of the details of my life, I was taken in and swallowed up by her addiction.

“I’m sorry I forgot your birthday,” he told me as he has done so many times a day since we fell into the lives of others. “I wanted to get something, even if I could never replace all the ones I missed. In my family we never had gifts.”

And now I’m ready, after receiving the second birthday present from my dad. The skinny chain, worth its weight in gold and of nominal value, is proof of his transformation from a addicted drug addict to a sad and loving father. People are changing. Jim has changed. Of this, I am sure. My children, I say, it would be good for you to meet them, but only if you can promise them that you will not give up. You have to attack them this time, or you can’t see them. I make these requests from him as my grandmother once did. Now it’s sober and it’s been for decades. He promises. I think so. I still believe in Dad.

Kyle wears them right away. Young and confident, it’s a replica of me. He is equally impressed. Watching the two together healed some evil I didn’t know I always had. My father would throw a ball at him, as he would for me if he had been like all the parents of my friends. In return, happy to show off the skills learned in T-ball. The day has a natural and easy flow, so unlike other times. This has to work. It’s different. The man I’ve always called Jim is finally my father. “Dad,” I whispered forcibly from my mouth, practicing as I imagined babysitting the kids, or joining the park to keep everyone company during the sometimes long, lonely days of motherhood. You don’t hear me.

[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi]

“Nicole,” my grandmother called me to her room, the one right next to mine. It’s a Saturday. In his hands, he holds a piece of paper. “Your father wrote you a letter.” Well, you and your brother. “They are both dizzy and foolish. It’s been seven years since he left. Seven birthdays, seven Christmases, seven Father’s Days, without him. I’m used to his absence, grown up to trust him more. of the short periods when he was present.

“Okay,” I say, sitting on the cover so she’ll smooth out the wrinkles when I get up. “Shall I read it?” I ask the woman to help me make all my decisions.

“I have no idea.” My grandmother cleans a scraper drawer, that piece of disorganization she allows into an orderly life, and gives me the letter. “Do what you want with her.” If you don’t take it, I’ll just throw it away. “

“I’ll see,” I say, doing my best to seem motionless. It seems to me that the letter is somehow my fault.

“Dear,” she says, stopping by her police and soaking for a moment, “your father is in rehab. That’s one of the steps.”

Steps towards that? I wonder.

“He has to remedy those people who are injured while using the drug. That’s why he’s writing this.” My grandmother walks away from me and gets back to organizing. Our discussion is over.

***

I prepare for the party while my husband runs to get beer, wine and soda for people who don’t drink, like my father. It presents itself at the very appointed moment, and there are awkward introductions because so many people know our history.

“I thought your dad was dead,” a friend whispered as he filled his glass with sangria.

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

I know my sister, she’s young, 18, she’s going to college this fall. The image of knowing my children as they attach themselves to her as if they knew there was some sort of bond that connected their lives to hers.

We ate, drank in the pool. I have a normal family, I think, brother, sister, father, for the first time. It’s the fourth of July.

Later, my brother writes, “What a beautiful time today.”

“Perfect,” I replied, because it was.

The next day, I woke up and checked my laptop. There is no fatherly message, no morning greetings. I don’t think about it that much. As the day passes, and the morning sun grows stronger, clearing the clouds and leaving a clear, blue sky, I wonder if I should stretch out my hand.

I go inside to make the kids lunch and there is a father message. I started to read and understand what this is, a goodbye. It’s too old, too much time has passed. The letter he sent to my grandmother every few years after it was cleaned, the one to which I never replied, is quoted. I haven’t tried hard enough. The last line, “We decided it was best for us not to continue this relationship test,” was thrown out and followed with a simple sign-off, “Dad.” When I searched for my dad on Facebook, his account no longer existed. I have no way to answer.

***

I’m eight years old again, he’s next to me. His eyes search mine for forgiveness. He’s leaving tomorrow, disappearing from my life. Jim, my father, the man I will never call as a father, is young and hairy. I’m 40, volleying forward and on time. “I’m sorry, Jim,” I whisper, because I finally understand who he is. He is not my father. It never was. Here is the end. This is the closure. I am free.





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