Fatherless Once Again

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Sometimes, it feels like I’ve spent more time fatherless than I did having a dad. This comes off a bit strangely because, well, I had more than one.

My parents divorced when I was five, with shared custody for the first few years. I have whispers of memories- he would always blow dry our hair because he didn’t want our wet hair to get us sick. He wore a Stetson cowboy hat in California. He made Bisquik chicken and sang “Cookaracha” while he shook the bag. He moved out of state by the time I was eight, and from there, phone calls and visits gradually declined. I don’t know that it was ever intentional- as an adult, I understand and appreciate that he had to work, pay bills, child support, and there were travel costs for us to see him. These choices might have been a domino effect, but they ultimately led to periods of extreme estrangement and even a transition from being a Dad to just a Father. A different kind of Fatherless. It’s funny how time skews the perspective; I have always remembered entering my tween years with the understanding that even though his job moved, he left us; he stopped supporting me emotionally and financially, and he willingly let another person feed me, house me, and guide me into adulthood. As a child, understanding the grey zone here wasn’t inherent- it was black and white.

By the time I was ten, my stepdad had entered the picture. Boy, did I put him through his paces. Very early on, he came to our home to put together a new computer desk for my mother, and I eventually had to go to sleep in my sister’s room because he was still mid-construction; I don’t remember what exactly I said, but I know that I questioned whether or not he would actually stay and complete his task; a challenge, a gauntlet thrown. The following day, I awoke to a fully assembled desk and a note, the first time he’d show me that I was his and he was mine. For the next decade, he would continue to prove himself; his love hand is commitment. He was so ingrained in my life that there was never any “step” anything between us; when we lost him, the kind of loss that changes your very DNA, people I had known for fifteen years didn’t even know we had a different last name. He chose me; he chose early on and for every single day of the rest of his heartbreakingly short life, to be my Dad—no grey area, black and white.

From adolescence into my teenage years, both men were in this vague place of dad. Neither quite ever fulfilling the role wholly, through their own choices or my inability to let someone in completely. Did I feel fatherless then, despite a sort of overflowing of the role? Yes. I’ve spent a lot of time considering how my memories are of absence (both the physical and the emotional) and of my reluctance to trust and accept love. My memories from birth to the age of five are few and far between, but I imagine that my father’s were as rich and full as mine are of my own children’s first years; his memories of parenting me were probably so deep and true- injuries, toddler tantrums, potty-training, etc. My memories of who taught me to change a tire, held me through my first heartbreak, or took me to college visits, however? Those are sharp and permeating. Perspective.

I’m 37 now, with three kids of my own, and they’re both gone. I’m fatherless once again. I wish so much that that wasn’t true. There have been hurts and heartbreaks, and navigating being the daughter of these two men has been devastating to me at times. I’ll be honest: it’s felt at times that they were both stolen from me, one tragically and the other, from their choices. Both of them were heartbreakingly young to die, and the grief I feel for both of them has been…messy. Though one was technically a stepfather, he was more of a dad than my father ever was to me. As a parent, though, I spend so much time wondering about how a series of completely unrelated events led us to the relationship that we actually had.

There’s a story narrated by me and another that my dads told to themselves. There’s a little girl who carried some wounds all the way through her life, and now, she is a woman who understands the nuances and challenges that come with life. In the end, I had TWO dads, and for most of my life, I always felt a bit fatherless. Now, they’re both gone, and I’m left with two messy parts that made some version; maybe it’s just my life’s version of a whole.

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