The dad I had, and the dad I wanted
Today is my birthday. It is the fortieth anniversary of my official entry into adulthood. Forty years ago today I attained the right to vote, get married, and in the great state of New York, take a legal drink. I had been pushing hard for independence for several years and had not looked back, until a couple of weeks ago when my brother called to tell me my father died. Suddenly, I found myself flung back into childhood and I am having some trouble crawling back out.
I am the baby in the family, the youngest of seven children. The first six children came in a cluster, all born within an eight year span and then I came along five years later, stealing my sister’s place as princess. Some might guess I was an accident, at the very least, a surprise. Some would be correct. As a result of my late arrival, my experience and memories of childhood are a bit different from my older siblings. One of the largest disparities comes with the amount of time they had with our father. I felt cheated. Unlike my siblings, I only have a few clear memories of my dad living at home.
My parents had, what I understand to be, a difficult union. They married young. They had a slew of children and not very much money. There were issues with fidelity. In my memory, dad was there on and off, mostly off, and then he was gone for good. When I was eight, my father moved across the country to Arizona, divorcing my mother a short time later.
In his place came a step-father and a move to the suburbs and my almost immediate push toward adulthood.
Over the course of the next decade, I saw my dad three times that I can recall. But in my mind, he was everything my stepfather was not. He lived in a great castle and would surely come to rescue me one day. He was part Mr. Cunningham, part Daddy Warbucks.
When I graduated from high school, I applied to Arizona State University and went to live with my father and step-mother. We all underestimated what we were getting into. I quickly found out my father was a long way from what I had fantasized he would be. I am not sure he gave what I might be like much thought at all.
Our reunion lasted less than a year. I dropped out of college and moved back to New York. We did not keep in close contact but held onto a loose relationship. Time marched on. There were visits — lunches, dinners, family events — and I found I had less and less to say. The pedestal on which I had put my father was long gone. His humanity was, in a word, disappointing.
We resumed our distant relationship not as strangers but not close. We exchanged Christmas cards and sometimes birthday calls. He would offer unsolicited advice and relay memories, anecdotes and history that may have had “altered facts.”
Our last visit was six years ago. We went out to an early dinner. I listened to his version of the past. We took photos and I said goodbye. No ill will. No animosity. Just, I love you and good-bye.
He left me a voicemail on my birthday a couple of years ago, telling me he wasn’t feeling well but wanted to say happy birthday. I do not believe I called him back, but I saved the message.
For the last month, I have been hearing a voice in my head telling me to call my dad. I meant to call on Christmas, but I did not. I just did not know what to say. My walking partner/girlfriend/therapist suggested I call and say just that. A couple of weeks ago, I finally picked up the phone, but the call did not go through. He died later that evening.
I am sad. It is crazy to say, but I have had trouble realizing that even though I knew I did not get the dad I wanted, I finally realized I am never going to get the dad I wanted.
One of my more “take no prisoners” girlfriends offered this advice: Get over it.
“You are a grown woman,” she said. “Most people did not get a great dad. Accept it and get on with your life.”
I have spent the last couple of weeks searching my memory of good times with my dad. I remember being small and sitting on the gas tank on a motorcycle he would drive around our property. I remember riding somewhere with him in his red Comet when a truck slammed into the back end of us, throwing me from the back seat to the front. I remember tagging along on the weekends when he worked as an announcer at a local race track, crawling onto his lap when he would let me. I remember crawling up next to him one afternoon while he was napping and falling asleep as well. That is the dad I will remember.
If I had the chance to say what I wanted to say, it would still come down to this: “Hi dad. I just called to say I am thinking about you and I love you.”
All the “if only” would still sit silently between us and I would not know what else to say.
Hollie Grimaldi Flores is a Nevada County resident and freelance writer for hire. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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