Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Daddy's Little Girl

My dad and I have always had a complicated relationship. Or maybe I only have a complicated relationship with him. Different animals.

My parents divorced when I was four. I don't remember them ever being happy. As soon as we walked in the door at the end of the day, they were at each other's throats. I would sit quietly on the steps outside the kitchen and wait for my dinner.

The custody battle was long and ugly. I knew how much each parent hated the other. I felt responsible for their feelings and learned how to protect them, answering questions based on who was asking at the time. Secretly, I always wanted to live with my mom but he was given custody first. Most of my return visits were tense to say the least.

After my mom remarried and moved from our home in Texas to California, she continued to fight for me and was finally granted custody. I was six, halfway through first grade.

I saw my dad for the last time when I turned seven. He made the drive to California to pick me up for a summer vacation. I don't even remember where we went. Camping. Somewhere. I didn't know when he took me back home that it was the last time. I was just happy to be sleeping in my own bed again.

Then the phone calls stopped. No more birthday cards, no Christmas gifts. There was never any child support. I'm sure Mom was relieved. Since I don't remember having my own feelings, I can only assume I replicated her relief. Dad became my "sperm-donor" at some point because I had a new dad. Life went on in California.

When I was 24, living in Oregon and married, we found out he was looking for me. He had hired a private detective, some stupid woman who called Mom's house on a regular basis claiming to be a college friend of mine. The last straw was my dad showing up at my grandparent's house unannounced and wanting to show them every picture of me he had, oblivious to the fact that his presence was desperately unwanted.

I finally called him. I wasn't so nervous as angry. Angry that he had taken so long. That he had done it this way. I was also fiercely protective of my family. My grandparents were being dragged into the drama and my mom was beside herself with anger. Livid with hatred.

That was the first call, it ended up not being the last. He asked to see me; I hesitated for months and then acquiesced. Out of curiosity? I'm not sure. That first visit was horribly uncomfortable. He was like a stranger, but a stranger that I knew. Mostly I felt like he didn't know me, he could only think of me as the seven-year-old he saw last.

It's been like that ever since. I've been angry with him for being gone. Or coming back. They're sort of mixed up together. I sent a few hostile letters at first. I didn't know if I even wanted to keep him in my life, let alone how to fit him in. He clearly wanted to be a daddy and I was past that point and had been for a long time. I needed a daddy when it was Christmas, when I got braces, learned to drive, went to prom, graduated from high school and then college. I needed my daddy to give me away at my wedding. My dad was there, but not my daddy.

When my daughter was born I felt obligated to allow him into my life. I wasn't just making decisions for myself anymore. I felt she had a right to know who her grandfather is and form her own decisions about her feelings. Of course I forgot that she takes her cue from me and won't love him on her own. She is the second generation now that won't love someone without the permission to do so.

People have said, "At least he tries." "At least he is here now." Parent/child relationships don't work that way. Seventeen years is a length of time that "at least" doesn't cover. It's not superficial, not a surface feeling. I was a child. As a parent, I would never turn my back on my daughter. Ever. It isn't even physically possible for me. He has his reasons, his excuses, whatever he tells himself so he can sleep at night. But how does the eight-year-old child understand why her father is gone? Did he stop loving her? Was he tired of her? Does he love other kids now? Is he even still alive?

He has now been back for almost as long as he was gone. He won't let me push him away. He's the first person to offer help when I need it. Even I can't ignore that anymore. He's remarried and I adore my stepmom, even though I rejected her at first too. She helps to bridge a lot of the weirdness between us. She's a buffer and I think she knows it and doesn't mind in the least. I finally call them "my parents" and it doesn't feel strained. A year ago I absolutely refused to go visit him; this year I happily accepted his invitation.

What changed? I've lost a lot of my family. There is too much distance between most of us, both physical and emotional. I've lost important relationships that I never wanted to give up. I suppose I'm just taking family where I can get it these days. He genuinely wants to be a part of my life and it just gets harder to try to turn that down. It doesn't show up every day.

At my last book club, I was asked what connects me to my dad. My first answer was "guilt". Because for a long time it was. I didn't want to have regrets later. I didn't want to be the reason I didn't have a dad. Also, selfishly, it let me off the hook so that I could continue blaming him, I could have a scapegoat. I could be self-righteous and absolved when he left again because I did my part.

It might be more than that now. And maybe it's just time. Finally.


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