Live Through This

Halfway Home

Even when he lived with us, my father was always vanishing.

Illustration by Marjainez

Whenever I hear the first few lines of the Tori Amos song “Winter,” I’m 15 again, lying awake in my bed well after midnight. Tori whispers, “I get a little warm in my heart when I think of winter / I put my hand in my father’s glove,” and I can hear my dad working away in his office down the hall. I wish more than anything that he would come and peek into the room, like I imagine he did when I was little. If he did, I might spill everything, all the problems that are keeping me from falling sleep. I might tell him how scared I am about how controlling my boyfriend has gotten lately. I might admit that I smoke pot sometimes, and that some of my friends are using heroin, which scares me too. I might even show him the cuts on my arms, and tell him how I feel like the world is closing in on me. But he doesn’t check on me and I don’t go to him. We don’t have the kind of fairytale relationship that Tori sings about, one that’s full of fatherly encouragements. Our winter is cold, and it feels like there are 10-foot-tall snowdrifts blocking the road between us.

It wasn’t always like this. Both of my parents are nurses; when I was in grade school, my mom worked 12-hour shifts in a hospital, often on the weekends, and when she was gone, my dad was there. He helped my younger brother and me with our homework. We rode bikes and played catch. In the summers, we went to the pool and he’d hum the Jaws theme while making a fin with his hands, splashing through the water after us. My fondest memories are of the nights he treated us to pancakes or popcorn for dinner.

But by the time I got to third grade, he was…“busy.” Every Sunday afternoon, he met with friends to discuss workers’ rights and Marxist theory. I had no clue what that meant—all I knew was that whenever he left, Peachy, our poorly behaved Collie mix, perhaps sensing the lack of authority in the house, broke out of the yard and ran around the neighborhood. But my dad didn’t give up his meetings; we gave up Peachy.

When I was 10, my father was running an organization that he can co-founded that provided housing and social support to people living with AIDS. The year after that he went to grad school. I understood why he was so preoccupied—my parents had taught me the importance of being educated and helping others. But I missed him, and he was missing things that were important to me. I went to three major gymnastics competitions during this period, and he never saw me do front walkovers on the balance beam nor win a regional trophy for my trampoline routine.

On the days when he was charged with a task like taking me and my brother to school, he would run late, and I had major anxiety about walking into class behind schedule and getting scolded by the teacher in front of everyone. He was forever correcting my posture at the dinner table, but he never asked why I was slouched over and grumpy all the time. Throughout junior high and high school, my dad’s catchphrase was “absolutely not.” I’d ask to go to a sleepover, to a concert, out with my best friend and a few guys, and the answer was always no, which would result in my screaming and swearing about how unfair he was being until my mom proposed a compromise. What I couldn’t tell him was that I wasn’t angry just because he wouldn’t let me do things; I was angry because he was hardly ever around except to prohibit me from doing things. He didn’t know who I was or what was important to me, even though what was important to me included him.

My mother was my advocate, but my father was my hero. It was his book collection (Stephen King, J.R.R. Tolkien, Leslie Marmon Silko) that I raided in sixth grade and his cassette tapes (the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Woodstock soundtrack) that I stole in seventh. When we had to do a major research paper in eighth grade, I chose to write mine on the Vietnam-era antiwar movement, so I could interview my dad. He wore black armbands to high school and went to D.C. to protest the war during his senior year, in 1969. He didn’t register for the draft, and he got arrested for picketing a local supermarket in support of migrant workers on California grape farms who were being prevented from unionizing. He was a regular person doing the kinds of things that the near-mythical people I only read about in history books did, and I was proud of him.

When he got involved in helping AIDS patients in the ’80s, many people still viewed the disease as a plague that junkies and gay people contracted because they deserved it. That he was doing good work made it hard to be resentful when he wasn’t around. My best friend and I would go into his organizations headquarters and giggle at the dishes of condoms that were there for the taking, some of which were wrapped like chocolate coins. “Go ahead and take some,” he’d say, and we did even though at the time we would have preferred candy. I used one of those chocolate-coin condoms the first time I had sex. I was a sophomore then and I wasn’t dating a good guy, but my dad and I never talked about that either. Strict as he was about my curfew, he never gave me the “that boy better treat you right or else” speech that dads give on TV.

My junior year of high school, I started publishing feminist zines, and I wanted so desperately for him to be proud of me for following in his footsteps with my own brand of social activism. Once he took me out for coffee and we almost had an incredible conversation—he told me more about his boycotting days, and I told him that the zine I was working on was about my relationship with the guy who abused me. I opened up like I never had before, and I wanted him to get angry, I wanted him to take a little time away from saving the world to save me. All I remember him saying was: “You can’t print his full name. He could sue you for libel.”

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24 Comments

  • rosiesayrelax January 28th, 2013 3:07 PM

    This makes me kinda sad, but happy too. Thank you for sharing Stephanie

    http://rosieandthewolf.blogspot.co.uk/

  • talia anais January 28th, 2013 3:14 PM

    this is so moving. thanks for sharing.

  • JoanaNielsen January 28th, 2013 3:39 PM

    This article is really moving. I’m about to cry.

  • melloncollie January 28th, 2013 3:55 PM

    Hi Stephanie,

    Thank you so much for writing this. I’ve had similar feelings towards my dad. He was around a lot when I was a kid, but cheated on my mom when I was 12. When they split, I was angry but the anger didn’t hit until later. I was more angry at what he did to my mom. She hasn’t gotten over it. But I need to let that go. She has chosen to hold on to the past. I was lucky, looking back, because my brother and I saw him twice a week and we would always do something fun like go to the movies or mini golf. I’m an older Rookie reader, 29, but I find this website helpful for my adult self. My dad is a lot busier these days, but I know he cares about me which is all that matters. I’m glad you got to work things out with your dad. Thank you for writing great articles (and books)!

  • evagm January 28th, 2013 4:05 PM

    This was so relatable. My parents are divorced, and my dad and I never had a great relationship even when he lived in LA. So when he moved to New Mexico, I thought it wouldn’t effect me in the slightest but it totally did. Thanks so much for knowing that there is someone out there who understands.
    gurrlpowerr.blogspot.com

  • BREECHEE January 28th, 2013 5:04 PM

    I feel this way about my father, too. Ever since he and my mom divorced, he has gotten remarried. Because of this marriage he writes absolutely horrible notes to my mom claiming that she’s a “Bad Mom.” He also said that my back surgery was not as important as camping with my family. What hurt the most is the straight face he said it with. I still can’t bring myself to forgive him.

  • StrawberryTwist January 28th, 2013 5:21 PM

    I can also relate, by not having a close relationship with my father. My parents got a divorce two years ago, and it’s been a long journey in coming to realization how draining hatred can be. Forgiveness can be a tough thing. Thank you for sharing Stephanie. Your story really touched me.

    http://fashiononfire.org/

  • Melisa January 28th, 2013 5:39 PM

    I don’t have any experience similar to this, but your story really touched me, Stephanie. Teared up right there. Hope that with time, all will be even better with your dad.
    :)

  • ___ellarose January 28th, 2013 6:25 PM

    I’ve also had a pretty tough relationship with my dad. He’s done some things that really hurt me and weren’t necessary but the worst part is that he couldn’t even understand why they hurt. I really actually hated him all through junior high but after a good amount of therapy I’ve realized how it’s extremely easier to forgive. I love my dad very much now even when he still does things that I can’t understand. This article explains things really beautifully and I hope it helps anyone who needs it.

  • scarlettO January 28th, 2013 6:36 PM

    I, like many other readers, can relate to this. Such a touching article, especially opening with that lyric from “Winter”. I grew up without my Dad, who has a whole complex range of issues. I was raised by my Aunt who married a stern, strict man who I hated and fought with until I went to College. I didn’t grow up with any good father figures and as a result ended up marrying someone completely opposite from both my dad and my uncle, someone who is sweet, caring, and emotionally available. What drew me to him almost from the first moment was I knew he’d be a terrific father, something I never had.

  • llamalina January 28th, 2013 6:44 PM

    i cried as i read this. stephanie, my relationship with my dad is almost exactly like yours, except that my parents are still trying to work through their problems, and my dad and i aren’t quite okay yet. as a kid, the most important person in the world to me was my dad, and it really hurts that our relationship will never be that way again. growing up i felt exactly like you, like my dad was out there so busy saving everyone else that he forgot he even had a daughter. it feels so good to read a story that feels so familiar to me. i hope someday i can repair my relationship with my dad like you did.

    http://llamalina.blogspot.com

  • thefilmrookie January 28th, 2013 7:33 PM

    this is so beautiful. thank you so much for sharing this wonderful story, it even got me a little misty eyed

    http://www.pink-lantern.tumblr.com

  • lizzyheinie January 28th, 2013 7:49 PM

    Tears <3 This just makes me miss my dad, who is luckily awesome (I'm 90 minutes away at college, so basically I'm a wuss).

    Literally the only thing I have in mind for my potential future wedding is the song for my father-daughter dance. I don't care about anything else really, I'll get to it if I get there, but my dad and I WILL be dancing to Fine Young Cannibals, dammit.

  • chloegrey January 28th, 2013 8:18 PM

    wow. wow wow. this is so touching, and so much more true than a simple sort of ‘my parents divorced and I was angry at one of them’ story (not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just really special to hear something so nuanced and emotional as this). Thanks you Stephanie!
    I value my dad a little more after reading this.

  • violetfairydust January 28th, 2013 11:37 PM

    This was very touching and I can definitely relate. Going through kinda the same thing but not quite. Thank you for sharing this. Glad you and your dad are working on your relationship.

  • Stephanie January 29th, 2013 12:57 AM

    Thank you all for your very kind comments and for those of you going through something similar, that is exactly why I wrote this because I know it just helps to hear something kind of similar and know you aren’t an alien for feeling like you do. Of course it also helps me to read your comments and know I wasn’t an alien for feeling like I did. And I hope it helps everybody to be able to say something here. That’s what I love about Rookie :) For those of you still struggling with this stuff, hugs. I hope your fathers open their eyes and see what beautiful daughters they have. Forgiveness is tough and in some dads’ cases they will never deserve it and in all cases they do have to work to earn it, but yeah being angry sucks so much energy, so I hope all of you can find some peace. xoxo

  • eliza dolittle January 29th, 2013 1:58 AM

    “It was so tiring, hating him so much. Even more draining was how much I hated myself for still loving him, for still wanting him to be the dad I remembered from when I was little.”

    My dad died when I was 7, but the past few years I’ve been experiencing a similar break down of the relationship with my mum, and these words hit me so, so hard.

    She didn’t date for 9 years, and then she started 3 years ago and the guy was awful (smart, rich and the most emotional abusive coward who was a terrible father to his own daughters) and my brother and I were forgotten and the way everything changed from our previously close relationship was, and is, impossibly hard to deal with. The amount of times she would come to me, complaining about this guy and how she would leave him this time, and then proceed to get back together with him broke my trust, care and love for her severely.

    She remarried less than a year ago, to another man who is boring but incredibly kind to her. It’s a hard thing to feel nothing but pain for your mother’s happiness, but we were still so broken and she didn’t realise it, didn’t see that letting him move in 6 days after they started dating and not explaining why, ceasing to involve us at all, would be damaging.

    I’ve been trying to work through this for the past three years, and am getting back to a place where i want to know my mum and have her know me, but as you said, it’s exhausting. It’s embarrassing to have to repeatedly ask your mother to care about you before she does.

    Things aren’t fine yet, but I hope I’m working towards a better relationship.

  • mjeano January 29th, 2013 2:12 AM

    when i was in junior high, my father cheated on my mother. i found out by hearing a phone conversation between my mom and my aunt. i pretended that i didn’t hear it. a couple of days later they told me that my dad was going to go away for awhile. the next few days my mother was on the phone constantly looking for my dad. i made the mistake of telling her that i knew why they were fighting. she proceeded to tell me every last detail of the affair. my dad came home after 3 or 4 days, but my mother decided that i was her confidante. she told me everything. down to every last detail. the lady had a daughter named Molly as well.

    • Anaheed January 29th, 2013 2:25 AM

      Wait. Is your name Molly? That is the creepiest detail ever.

  • lottie January 29th, 2013 9:10 AM

    This article is so great and it’s helped so much. My dad moved out about a month ago and he never gave a reason and he still gives vague ones now. But it’s just nice to hear what i’m feeling from someone else. He was a hero to me and my mum and now he’s a completely flawed human being who’s hurt everyone. I hope one day i can make the decision to stop resenting him and this article gave me hope. <333

  • Jen j. January 30th, 2013 5:54 AM

    I’m 20 this year and this year, my family found out that my dad had married another woman (polygamy is legitimate here). yes, it is legal, however he never told us anything, it was a secret that even my late aunt carried to her grave (the beans spilled during her funeral). the marriage has been for one and a half year and he has been lying through his teeth to my mother and siblings and me. my mother is filing for divorce, she gets angry a lot nowadays. I can understand why. I am disappointed by him too. I felt so betrayed but at the same time I don’t have the heart to hate him. he’s my father after all. it’s so confusing, trying to walk between hate and the requirement to love your own parents.

  • Annie at Cher Ami January 31st, 2013 2:40 PM

    This was such an amazing article, that i feel i can relate to. My mum and dad are split up (not divorced yet) and he had an affair, which both he and my mum kept quiet about for a year before telling me. I found out later that they had tried one or two counselling sessions (before he cancelled them) and then he had the affair, and this made me angry at him because it seemed like he wasn’t bothered about my mum or me. So, yes i can totally relate to the whole ‘didn’t try’ thing. I really loved this article, thank you Stephanie!

  • mjeano February 1st, 2013 2:37 AM

    yeah, my name is Molly as well. that almost hurt more than my father’s indiscretion. i was wondering, “how could he possibly do this with someone who has a daughter with the same name?” (insert the appropriate feelings: “is he trying to replace me?” “am i not good enough?” and of course, “i was adopted, so i pretty much don’t count as much as natural born children.”)

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica June 3rd, 2013 9:23 AM

    This was such a touching, moving article. You are one of my favorite writers on Rookie, Stephanie – you manage to articulate everything so well and it all flows perfectly. I’m very glad your relationship with your dad has improved and I hope it continues to get better. ♥♥♥