I Broke Up With My Father

After years of dealing with her father’s fair-weather parenting, the writer did the hardest thing a daughter can do.

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When I look back, I can see our breakup coming from miles away. It is a fault that traces to a late summer afternoon in 1987, the day Dad’s Pinto broke down for the final time in the parking lot in a warehouse district outside of Philadelphia.

I was 5 and my brother was 7 and we had to walk miles to a bus stop. There wasn’t money for a tow truck or a taxi, only enough to cover three bus fares home to New Jersey. Our family was constantly on the brink of falling apart whenever the car broke down, Dad’s hours got cut, or mom got pregnant again. To stave off complete ruin, my father repaired his car himself, picked up a second job DJ-ing weddings, and my parents placed five of my younger sisters for adoption.

The sun was setting, it was close to dinner time. The river, the trees, and the lack of sidewalks convinced me we were in wilderness. Daddy crowed about how many stars we could see without the city lights polluting our vision. He was tracing the outline of the Big Dipper for me when it started to rain. We walked for what felt like hours, the rain soaking through our clothes, adding weight. When my brother wailed that we were going to get pneumonia and die, Daddy chuckled and promised that one day we will look back on this and laugh.

Over the years I have checked in with my brother about that rainy walk, wondering if it was truly as awful as I remembered it. “Oh, yeah,” he says, “That’s gonna be Pop’s legacy. Optimism. Even after everything hits the fan. He thinks it’s gonna magically work out.”

My brother reminds me that Dad spent most of that walk with his thumb out, hoping someone would offer us a lift. No one stopped. We had to hug the shoulder of the road with nothing to buffer us from the tire spray. At one point Dad ran into the street and knocked on the door of a half-full charter bus when it stopped at a traffic light. They didn’t let us in. But they couldn’t pull away with Dad standing so close to the tires. The cars behind started honking when the light turned green and he had to give up. Even with curses on his lips, my father still smiled.

When we made it to the bus stop, our rain-soaked bodies shivered. The bus ride was more than hour, and when we alighted, we still had a mile to walk. It was hard, harder than it needed to be, because we were poor and when you are poor everything is harder than it needs to be, even getting home.

I never knew my father’s age. His hair was grey for as long as I can remember, but his beard was boot-black. He had the sort of charisma that pulled you in close. A quality best displayed when he picked up a guitar. I frequently requested that he play “fast songs” like “Johnny B. Goode” so I could watch his fingers blur over the guitar strings. Guitar playing rarely pays the rent, and charisma certainly doesn’t, so Dad worked construction most days. And then he added the DJ job. He was hopeful that one day if he worked hard enough he would achieve the American Dream, or at least know what it felt like to have his head above water.

My father was not our primary caretaker. Every month or two he popped in to take my brother and me for a day. My parents were married then, but separated. My mother, brother, and I lived in an apartment complex full of single mothers and their children. My father lived in a one-bedroom apartment one town over. I thought this was how all families operated.

When I was alone with my father, his optimism seemed fascinating rather than useless, but I suppose this was because he was rarely present for the hard problems; the meager potato dinners, the cut off electricity, the child services officers knocking on the door. Which must be why that rainy walk has stuck with me. It was the first time that his hope seemed like a tone-deaf punch line. It was the first time I stopped, stomped my squishy sneakered feet and hollered into the rain, “Daddy, I will never laugh at this.” I think I needed my father to see the truth of our situation—the rain, my brother’s growling stomach, my parched throat, the lack of anyone willing to help, our frailty, our sheer precariousness—so I wouldn’t feel like a little crazy person.

When I was 7, my father filed for a divorce. Neither of my parents could afford to keep me on their own. Family court and child-support payments were impossible considerations. I was sent to Oklahoma to live with my maternal grandfather and step-grandmother. When I was 10 years old, they adopted me. Then I had two men to contend with; a father and a man-who-was-once-my-father. My new father was strong and quiet. He braced himself for things to go awry. My new father developed plans and fallback plans. He would never be caught walking five miles in the rain. If his car broke down, he had AAA and cab fare. The man who was once my father remarried a woman with three children of her own. After I left New Jersey, I rarely heard from him.

I have heard stories of other fathers and other daughters. Stories that speak of deep fervent affection, or internal, un-nameable aches, longing to make these fathers proud, to feel firm hands on shoulders, hear warm voices. The man who was once my father was never so deeply integrated into my life that I felt attached on the one hand or hollowed on the other. The closest things I could feel were pain from having my family amputated from me, and anger for the part the man who was once my father played in that dissolution. Perhaps if he’d been less optimistic and more practical? Though if he had lost his hope, I don’t know what would have remained of him.

I didn’t see him again until I was 19, during my sophomore year of college. I was studying English Literature at a small liberal arts school in central New York. After years of unemployment, the man who was once my father had begun a career installing security systems at nursing homes. His alarms were designed to locate Alzheimer’s patients who had wandered away. After he lost all of his children, the man now spent his days preventing other people’s family members from wandering off. I was reading lots of Dickens and Brontë, then; the poetry of this situation was not lost on me.

Over a dinner of mixed vegetables and meatloaf, he recited a prayer of thanks for my “safe return.” He sat on his living room floor with his guitar, his eyes shining with the same hopefulness that I seen on that rainy walk in 1987. He had grown plump and had a silver beard to match his silver hair. Overall he was very much like a Santa Claus. I still had no idea how old he was. But he was charismatic as I remembered. I left his home that night feeling as if I had sat too close to a campfire, singed by his desire to be close in a way that we never had been. I didn’t know what to do with that feeling.

When I returned to my dorm, he called so much that I stopped answering my phone. He left so many messages that my voice mailbox filled to capacity. Then he wrote letters. Then emails. I read them. I was unsure how to respond, how to diagnose this peculiar sense of displacement.

Initially he was light, telling me about his wife the nurse, and his step-daughter who was pregnant with her second child.

His final letter was angry. Why wasn’t I responding? Why was I such a dishonorable daughter? He thought I was bitter because he had never sent me Christmas or birthday presents, because he hadn’t called more often. But then I had never called him. I never sent him presents. He doubted I even knew his birthday. He doubted I knew he had been unemployed for many of those years.

In this final message to me, the man who was once my father tied our dissolution to a lack of presents and long distance phone calls. He wrote, essentially, about money and his lack of it. People say that financial struggles are the top reason relationships end. They aren’t usually referring to fathers and daughters, but the universality of that idea struck me as I read his email.

Even given the bombastic language, his strategy was obvious; the man who was once my father hoped to provoke a response from me, a response that might grow into a father-daughter connection. Neither one of us had ever made room for such a relationship. I didn’t have the energy to build one from scratch. I knew he didn’t either. He simply hoped it would happen.

I wrote back, saying that the way I saw it, our paths in life had split many years before. As a result, we did not know one another. I did not know his birthday, not because I was a bad daughter, but because I never remembered celebrating it with him. I was glad that he found a place in a family that needed him, and that he seemed to be well. We were both, I thought, doing fine without being father and daughter any longer. That was enough for me and I hoped it would be enough for him.

I felt compelled, as I had on that rainy night in 1987, to poke a hole through his expectations so he might see us as we truly were. I needed him to see that we were merely a relationship that didn’t work. It wasn’t me; it wasn’t him. It wasn’t any one thing; it was everything.

It just got so hard.


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