When I was 18 years old, I began studying the impact of fatherlessness on children.
I would sit for hours, reading about theories and conclusions based on quantitative and qualitative research. I analyzed the behavior of fatherless children, who were studied for the purpose of academia. As a student, I was fascinated, but as a child who grew up without the tender love of her father, I was crushed. I’d be making invisible check marks with the pad of my finger, noting the phrases and statistics that perfectly described me. A part of me felt euphoric when I could bypass a particular trend in fatherless children, proud that I had beat the odds.
My parents separated when my mother was seven months pregnant with me, and their divorce was finalized before my first birthday. My father had been married before, for much longer than he was to my mother. He’d raised two sons already, and had fallen into a pattern of addiction and abandonment of those he loved.
Although it was no surprise that my alcohol- and drug-addicted father left my mother and her unborn child, it left a permanent scar in the heart of my mother. She never remarried. Her trust in men and her faith in marriage were permanently shaken.
I grew up knowing my dad from a distance. Recently memories from my dad’s home have resurfaced in my mind. They are cartoonish caricatures of alcoholism. His beer belly was often poking out from beneath his stained white t-shirt. He’d bend down to look for his glasses under the couch, his butt crack poking out from the top of his pants, and I’d avert my eyes in embarrassment. Budweiser cans were piled like a mountain in the trash bin. The walls were stained with cigarette smoke, and murder mysteries would play on the small TV set while vagabonds came in and out through the side door.
I remember longing for my dad from a distance. During one visit, while my stepmom was out, I sat on the couch for hours while my dad snored beside me. I was afraid to wake him, but my throat was parched and I needed a drink. I sat for hours, reading my Beverly Cleary book, while waiting for his eternal nap to end. When he finally woke up, I shyly asked, “May I please have a drink, Dad?”
He brought me a Coke and made me the most delicious pasta I’d ever tasted. I was so proud of him, marveling at his wonderful culinary skills. I told my mom on the drive home that my father had made me pasta, forgetting to mention the hours spent reading while my stomach churned in hunger.
By the time I was in my teens my father was separated from his third wife and his drinking was spiraling out of control. I became the child who heard from her dad on Christmas and birthdays, and looked forward to awkward annual visits. During our rare visits our conversation was strained and stalled. I never knew what to say, afraid of letting slip my hurt and the desire that he’d really be there for me.
I spent time getting to know my half-brothers, who were now grown and dealing with their own hurts. Despite not having much of a history with them, they understood the longing I had for our father. We were the only three people in the world that understood how difficult it was to love our dad in one breath, and hate him in another. The three of us were walking, bleeding, heart-pumping statistics of fatherlessness.
By the time I was 22, I’d found love and started my own family. As complete as I was, I still missed my dad and wished he’d overcome his addictions. I’d finally come to understand that his world was too small to contain his three kids. I realized how little control he had over himself and his life. I felt pity and sorrow for a man chained to destructive addictions, and hoped that one day he’d be free.
By the time my father turned 60, he was homeless, mentally ill, and in and out of prison for reasons unknown to me. By now his hair was nearly all grey, his skin was leathery and gaunt, and his eyes sunken.
Then my dad fell out of a third story window. He survived, and we all marveled at a man who seemed indestructible.
“Seriously, how is Dad still alive?” I quietly laughed on the phone while talking to my oldest brother, Jason.
Two months later, Jason died suddenly of a heart attack after returning from a morning run. The world is cruel. The morning I found out my brother was dead I knew nothing would ever make sense.
It took us nearly two days to locate my father and inform him that his oldest son had died of a heart attack. My father was in jail on the day of Jason’s funeral.
For months after my brother’s death, I was overcome with despair. My dad was unavailable and too ill to support me through my grief. He was in prison so often that I had the phone number for “Jail” programmed into my phone.
One night, I lay awake thinking about my father as soft snowflakes fell outside my window. It was almost Christmas, and I knew he was in prison again. He would be spending the holiday behind bars. The next morning I called my sister-in-law, a former jail guard.
“Sherry? Do you think they have turkey in prison?”
She gently reassured me, “Yes, Salvation Army will provide a few simple gifts, and they’ll have a turkey dinner for their meal.”
I imagined my dad unwrapping a gift provided by the Salvation Army and eating dry turkey in drab prison clothes. I asked my brother Aaron how I might get in touch with our dad.
“Write him a letter,” he suggested.
A few days later I was in Amish country, browsing in a quaint shop full of handmade gifts. I picked up a card with two happy children playing together. It made me smile and I thought of my father, who was raised in an Amish sect.
I brought the card home and began to write a letter to my father. I talked about the blooming personalities of my two daughters, two more children he would never know. I wrote about my career, feeling a twinge of anger that my dad didn’t even know I was pursuing a career in journalism.
I told my dad the things I always wished I could tell him. I told him that I loved him. I wrote down the hardest words, letting him know he was important to me, and nothing that he’d done had ever changed that.
I remembered sitting on his couch when I was eight, listening to him talk, hearing the vibrations of his voice. I was my father’s only daughter and I’d always loved him. I’d always been hoping for him, wishing I could curl up on his lap, not caring about the booze or the cigarettes, just wanting his love.
By the time I’d finished my letter, my writing was uneven and sloppy. I wondered how my nearly blind father would read my words, and imagined him asking another inmate to read my intimate thoughts. I pictured my dad pitching the letter in the garbage, never knowing the words that held 26 years of my longing for him.
Then I pictured him clutching the letter to his heart, feeling my love and smiling behind the cold thick bars that held him captive. I imagined my words giving him freedom, and I saw him tenderly placing my letter under his thin mattress.
I wanted to call my sister-in-law again, and ask her to describe to me how letters were delivered to inmates. I wished I could watch the entire scene, my subconscious mixing in details from “The Shawshank Redemption,” one of the only impressions I have of prison.
“At what time of day do they receive the letters?” I wanted to ask Sherry.
I licked the envelope, sealing it closed, and walked with my oldest daughter to the mailbox. I placed my trust in her three-year-old hands as she carried my heart carefully down the road. I lifted her in my arms and helped her to place the letter in the mail chute, bidding it a safe journey.
“Mommy, I love sending letters with you,” Penny said. “Carry me home, please? I’m too tired to walk.” She wrapped her legs around my waist and I trudged with her in the deep snow.
“Let’s have some hot chocolate by the toasty fire,” I said between breaths.
“Of course, Mommy. That’s what we always do.” A smile was forming on her lips, which were dry and chapped from the cold.
When we got home I snuggled Penny by the fire, telling her stories of cold winters and Christmases from my childhood.
“Mommy, who was that letter for that we mailed today?”
“It was for your grandpa. Not your daddy’s Dad. Your mommy’s Dad. You don’t know him. I don’t really know him either. But I love him very much, and I just needed him to know that.”
My daughter nuzzled her face into my neck. My child, who has everything she deserves, except of course, a relationship with her maternal grandfather.
“We should always tell people when we love them,” said Penny.
“Always.” I replied.