I pull up to a place by the door. There are a few cars in the parking lot, a man and woman follow a child through the double-glazed doors to the coffee shop. The one I imagine is the father, placing 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 barely stand to watch them.
I sit and wait. If I am not sure what he will look like now, 32 years later, I remember his overgrown, dirty blonde hair and half smile, hoping to perhaps hide crooked, neglected teeth. Maybe it was the drugs or the malnutrition that comes with addiction. He was also poor; his mother left them. She abandoned all five of her children, and left them in the care of her husband, while she married another man and had his children. When I had four children, I let the seriousness of it wait for me while I kept waiting to think of her disappearing, just getting up one day and leaving. Did she pack things, or simply walk out into the bright sun of the afternoon amidst the carpet suction? Maybe she waited until she heard the laborious snoring of a man she no longer loved and slipped into a robe of darkness I heard a rumor somewhere, though I no longer remember what it was. My brother kept in touch with my father’s side of the family even after he left.
I wore some pink corduroys, and a white shirt with pastel colored silk bows. The one birthday present he ever bought for me. The silk was a synthetic fabric, not real. My father was broken, all his money went to drugs and to support his wife, the new one, the one who looked like my mother. I wonder if she was an addict too, since I was looking at my phone at the time. He’s late, not worrying, but after all this time I thought he would be punctual, as if something like that would compensate for the last time he left us.
“Never trust him,” I hear my grandmother say, even though she’s been dead for a year now. That’s the only reason I met him, the only reason I sent Jim a message.
“Daddy’s on Facebook,” says my brother, who is two states away, and then he waits. “He lives one city away from you with his wife and our half-sister.”
I let it sink in.
“Do you know who that man is?” whispers my foster mother as I stand outside the church after receiving my first communion. My mother, the biological, has been dead for less than a month. Her cremated remains were shipped on a Delta flight halfway through the country. An epileptic seizure caused by persistent and extensive drug use, an overdose of drugs that I would not discover for more than a decade. Instead, my grandparents tried to protect me from my addicted generation by relieving the blow with a less treacherous cause of death. My mother, they said, drowned in the shower.
“I think it’s my dad,” I say, wrapping my white dress belt around with blinkers. My foster mother nodded. Across the courtyard, just next to the Blessed Virgin, with the baby Jesus stuck, my grandmother shakes the priest and looks at Jim. Her face hardens. She stands between him and us, our watchdog, our protector. They exchange words. Eventually it’s my one obstacle past her, my father embraces us, me and my brother, and cries, because he missed us, because his ex-wife, the one who left him like his mother once did, is dead, because he wishes he had never let us down. At least those were the reasons I imagined a grown man would cry. I could have been wrong. I was seven.
‘So I sent him a message. We can meet each other. You know, to talk, ”my brother pauses.
“I do not know if I will talk to him. I mean it was a long time, ”I quickly do the math in my head and realize that at different points in my life I could remember the number of years my father left for the second time without a memory. I followed his absence on an internal calendar through missed milestones, birthdays and holidays without tickets, gifts or him.
‘Thirty-two years’ spit my brother faster than I can calculate. I was never very good at math.
Damn, the DJ on the radio announces the time. Now my father is alarmingly late.
I watch the couple inside with their daughter. I get out of my car and walk across the length of the coffee shop. An older man smiles, but he’s not my father. He’s too tall. His teeth too perfect. He’s never been a drug addict, he’s never left his family. I think of him on a journey home and make up a history for him: wife, child, a long career helping people as a teacher or detective. I think of him, so I do not have to think of my father.
“He did not show,” I say to my husband, feeling ashamed of a sin that is not mine. My father owns this offense and a myriad of others.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“I’m used to it,” I reply, sorry I told my children I was going to meet their grandfather. Too bad I allowed him to go back, even if it was only for a moment.
“I will never leave you again,” his eyes, brown, are my own and stare at me like a mirror. “I promise.” We sit with my grandparents, where I have lived since he first left us. I was squeezed under a top sheet, the warm breeze of a July night coming through an open bedroom window and pushing white lace curtains like a ghost into the air. My dad does not call tomorrow or the next day. I will not hear from him again until I reach out to Facebook 32 years later.
The message comes in while I’m on the computer. “I waited at the coffee shop from 6:30 to 7:30 and now I’m home,” I reply. I was there. He was there. Just a mistake, two people, a father and daughter, who missed each other because it’s been 32 years since they last met. I forgive him again. This is a pattern. It’s a disease.
Weeks later we finally meet. I ask him about his life. It was more miserable than I imagined. We chat daily on Facebook. He likes writing, like me. My dad went back to university after getting clean, meeting his wife, having a child and doing his best to stay sober. He loved my mother, he tells me, but they were dumb, they were addicted, they were not strong enough to love each other through everything.
The box arrives in the afternoon while the children ride their bikes in the driveway. I see on the return address that it comes from my father. Inside, there are gifts for all of us. Shirts for the boys, jewelry, fine gold strings, for the girls, and for me a necklace, for my birthday. The date he could not remember before he asked me about it on Facebook messenger. I often wondered if he thought of me every day on the day I was born. I know now that he did not do it because he forgot my birthday. Like so many of the details of my life, it was captured and engulfed by its addiction.
“I’m sorry I forgot your birthday,” he tells me, as he has done several times a day since we fell into each other’s lives. ‘I wanted to get something for you, but I can never make up for everyone I missed. In my family, we never received gifts. ”
And now I’m ready, after receiving my dad’s second birthday present. The thin necklace, scarce gold and of nominal value, is a testament to his transformation from a wayward addict to a loving and affectionate father. People change. Jim has changed. I’m sure of that. My children, I say, it would be good if they met them, but only if you could promise not to go. You have to hold on this time, otherwise you can not see it. I make these demands on him as my grandmother used to do. He is sober now and has been for decades. He promised. I believe him. I always believe my dad.
Kyle takes him right away. Young and confident, she is a replica of me. He was equally beaten. Seeing the two heal together hurts, but I did not know I was still holding on. My dad throws a ball at her, like he would have to do to me if he were to stay like all my parents’ parents. She hits it back and likes to show off the skills learned in T-ball. The day has a natural and easy flow, so different from the other times. It’s going to work. He is different. The man I’ve always called Jim is, after all, my father. “Daddy,” I whisper it out of my mouth, practicing as I imagine him babysitting the kids, or coming with me to the park to keep us all company during the sometimes long and lonely days of motherhood. He does not hear me.
“Nicole,” my grandmother called me into her bedroom, the one right next to me. It’s a Saturday. In her hands she holds a piece of paper. “Your father wrote you a letter. Well, you and your brother. ‘I’m both stunned and numb. It’s been seven years since he left. Seven birthdays, seven Christmases, seven Father’s days, without him. I got used to his absence and trusted it more than the short periods when he was present.
“Okay,” I say, sitting on the bed that will make his wrinkles smooth when I get up. “Should I read it?” I ask the woman who helps me make all my decisions.
“I have no idea.” My grandmother cleans a junkyard, some disorganization she allows in an orderly life, and gives me the letter. “Do what you want with it. If you do not take it, I will throw it away. ‘
“I’ll see,” I say, doing my best to appear unmoved. I feel like the letter is somehow my fault.
‘Honey,’ she said, pausing for a moment, ‘your father is in rehab. This is one of the steps. ”
Steps to what? I wonder.
“He has to correct the people he hurt while using drugs. That’s why he writes it. My grandmother turned away from me and went to organize again. Our discussion is over.
I prepare for the party while my husband runs to get beer, wine and soft drinks for the people who do not drink, like my dad. He challenges at the right time, and there are awkward launches because so many people know our history.
“I thought your father was dead,” one friend whispered as she filled her glass with sangria.
“No, we are estranged,” I say, unable to give a better explanation.
I meet my sister, she is young, 18, and is going to university in the fall. I can imagine her getting to know my kids while attaching them to her as if they know there is some kind of bond that connects their lives to hers.
We eat, we drink by the pool. I have a normal family, I think, brother, sister, father, for the first time. This is the fourth of July.
Later, my brother sends a wonderful time today. ‘
“Perfect,” I replied, because it was.
The next day I wake up and look at my laptop. There is no message from my father, no morning greetings. I do not think much about it. As the day goes on and the morning sun gets stronger, pushing the clouds away and leaving a clear blue sky behind, I wonder if I should reach out.
I go in to make the kids lunch and there is a message from my dad. I start reading and realize what it is, goodbye. He’s too old, too much time has passed. The letter he sent to my grandmother all those years ago after he was cleansed, the letter I never responded to, is quoted. I did not try hard enough. The last line, “We have decided that it is better for us not to continue this attempt at relationship,” threw out and followed by a simple note, ‘Dad’. When I search for my dad on Facebook, his account no longer exists. I have no way to respond.
I’m eight again, he’s next to me. His eyes seek my own for forgiveness. He will leave tomorrow and disappear from my life. Jim, my father, the man I will never name as a father, is young and bushy of hair. I’m 40 and wander back and forth through time. “I forgive you, Jim,” I whisper, because I finally understand who he is. He’s not my father. He never was. This is the end. This is closing. I’m free.