But then came the real betrayal. The fall of my senior year, my father announced that he was moving out. The coffee date, I now realized, had been a ploy to soften the blow, or to keep me from reacting the way I did, which was to blame him. He’d used his work to distance himself from all of us for years, but that didn’t get him far enough, apparently—now he was leaving. My mom, I could tell from her shell-shocked expression, had not been prepared for this. I later learned that they’d gone to a few couples-counseling sessions, but he’d already made his decision. I was furious. I felt like he didn’t even try to fix things.
Shortly after my parents split I got feverishly sick while my mom was out of town at a conference. Even though I was fully capable of being alone, I’d wanted him to stay home with me. It seemed like such an easy opportunity to show me that, in spite of everything, he still cared. Instead he left a list of which pills to take at what time. Less than a year after separating from my mother, he left Chicago for Atlanta. It seemed like he was casting us off entirely, perhaps to punish us for being angry about the divorce, or perhaps he’d never really cared about our feelings as much as he said he did.
Every time he visited, we fought. The summer after my first year of college, he sat down with me in his old office, which I’d started using to do my own writing. He was drinking from a bottle of seltzer water when he told me he was planning to remarry. He’d only been divorced from my mother, his wife of 18 years, for a little more than a year. When he set the seltzer down on a file cabinet, I leaned back in my chair, brought my foot up as high as I could, and kicked it straight into his face. I didn’t go to the wedding. I didn’t meet his new wife until two years later, when my dad bribed me with the promise of dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, and I was broke enough to accept. The next time he visited, he announced that his wife was pregnant. My brother ran out of the house in tears. Before storming behind him, I told my dad how messed up I thought it was—he was old and he’d messed up two kids already. I didn’t speak to him for over a year. Not on Christmas, not on his birthday, and not when my half-brother was born four days after I turned 21.
In college, I thought about Dad often. I was in school for writing, a dream he had encouraged me to follow, because we had that in common, too. (On the computer with all of his scientific papers and articles, I’d once found a locked file of poetry.) I had friends with dead fathers or abusive fathers they could never forgive, but my dad sent emails and cards, even when I refused to respond. He wrote to me about his relationship with his own father, how it was distant because my grandfather was mentally ill. Sometimes it felt like he was just making excuses, but I knew from his efforts that he must want a relationship with me, too. Strangely, we were two writers who couldn’t communicate with each other through words.
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. Despite my anger, I missed that dad so much, and I missed the conversations about literature or politics that I had with him even when I’d gotten so used to being disappointed by him. I started talking to my therapist about all of these feelings, and I eventually realized that I had two choices: I could resent my father forever for not being who I wanted him to be, or I could try to understand where he was coming from and build a relationship from there.
My dad actually flew to Chicago from Maine to attend a few therapy sessions with me, which proved he cared at least a little, but those sessions weren’t easy for either of us. I just wanted him to somehow take it all back, to tell me that every decision he’d ever made that had hurt me, especially remarrying and having another child, was a mistake. And he couldn’t give me that.
Right after college, when I was 24, I finally ended a codependent relationship with an alcoholic after eight long years, and even though I knew it was the right thing to do, I was gutted. I felt like I’d made so many mistakes, especially when it came to guys. I was always dating these broken, distant dudes in the hopes of fixing them. I used to think the idea that women pursue men who are like their fathers was silly and outdated, but I was starting to think maybe it was true. The loss of his presence in my life hit me anew, and hard. I called him sobbing, admitted that I was messed up and had been messed up for years, and told him I needed him. “I just want you to come here and help me fix the leaky faucets,” I sobbed. “I want you to do stuff with me. I want you to take care of me.”
I poured my broken heart out, terrified he’d break it even more, that he’d have other things to do. Instead, to my surprise, he quickly arranged to get off work and flew out to Chicago, where he stayed with me, sleeping on the floor because my ex had taken most of the furniture. We fixed the faucets and we talked. I told him that I wanted to keep talking, but I found it hard to do when we were miles apart. He responded by finding a job in Chicago and moving there.
I don’t think that my father suddenly felt a need to be close to me; but I think my anguished phone call finally got him to understand how much he’d let me down. And so when I offered a concrete way for him to prove himself to me, he took it. I wish I could say this fixed everything, forever, but it was hard to let go of the anger and resentment I’d been hoarding for years. I was glad he was there for me then, but I wanted him to have been there all along, and to have understood that that’s what I needed. I told him so. He told me he wished I could just accept how things are now. Together we realized we both have wishes that will never come true, and others that might.
In recent years, my dad has helped me work through my fears and doubts about my life and my work, becoming the advisor I always wanted him to be. He walked me down the aisle at my wedding, an honor that during my most outraged moments I swore I would deprive him of. I’ve tried to be as supportive as possible in return. I listen to him talk about his own hopes and frustrations, and I recognize how very alike we are. We’re both passionate about our work, and we tend to throw ourselves into it completely. And so he has served as a kind of cautionary tale for me: because I know the effect his absence had on me growing up, I’m careful to make sure make sure my loved ones don’t feel shut out of my life. He’s careful now to do the same. And last year, when he got offered a dream job back on the East Coast, I was proud of him and knew he had to take it. I trust that he loves me, and I don’t need him to constantly prove it. We’ll never have a fairytale relationship, but we do have something real. ♦