Wednesday, July 31, 2013

We Were Young


August dust settles upon
overgrown fields of grass.
Under a dark canopy
of late summer green,
six skinny legs, bitten and brown,
splash heedlessly 
among smooth rocks.   

Skippers dance over the
surface, innately aware that
summer won’t last.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Fatherless: It Doesn't Have to Mean Less



Snapshot

My Mom did not set out to have a daughter (or sons). Like most kids on this planet, I was not a planned creation, but rather the physical manifestation of what happens when two young lovers do what lovers do.

One of my favorite stories about my Mom is a snapshot in my mind. I wasn’t there; she was only a teenager in this story. She ran away from home with her guitar, hitchhiking from the rural farm in Cabot, PA where she grew up and making it all the way to New Castle, PA—about a 40 mile trek. I don’t remember how it started or why she did it or how it ended (obviously she didn’t become a famous singer). There may or may not have been a friend with her. She may or may not have even had a plan. 

Those are details that don’t matter in my snapshot. The picture in my mind was and still is this: A girl, 7th of 8 children from a big Catholic family is striking out. She is a song; her hair is long and dark, and slightly wild. With her, she carries a guitar, the clothes on her back and a hope for something different. 

Granted, there is obvious transference on my part going on in this story. And as with all stories we tell ourselves, I cradle and polish this story in my mind until it has become a picture of a singular defining moment. I define my Mom as poetry, as a pure soul, as an eternal girl who seeks freedom even as a woman. This is how I will try to define myself, but my mirror is blurry and the pieces of me do not fit this mold. It takes years, joy and pain to gather your own pieces and accept your condition as beautifully flawed but uniquely whole. 


Choice.

My Mom is 20 years old when she discovers she is pregnant with her first child. She has been in a relationship with my biological father since she was 16. This is 1980. The bra-burning, major movement days of feminism are over, but the stigma of unwed mothers is still firmly locked in a place of silent judgment-- especially in rural, predominantly Catholic, farming communities. My father wants her to abort the fetus. 

She chooses to have me. She later will choose to have my brother.

My father goes on to choose another woman and a non-custodial, non-relationship with his children. This is his choice and one that I’m still uncertain if he has come to regret.


The Wind; It Blows

The first memory I can recall with clarity is a vision of me at 3 or maybe 4 years of age. I’m lying underneath a white pine next to the farmhouse that raised me. The wind is hot and dry. Maybe this memory stands out because arid gusts are not the norm during a summer in Western Pennsylvania. My fingers are sifting through warm, tan dirt; my young brain is reaching for the top of the pine, grasping for understanding: How do the trees make the wind blow?

I recall this memory in later childhood with embarrassment. Cause and effect is a simple concept; I mentally kick myself for not understanding something so fundamental. 

I don’t remember my father. I don’t remember his face or when he left us or if he ever held me or my brother in his arms.  He left before I could walk, speak or formulate thoughts about trees and wind. 

I do have a Dad. His love for my mother is undeniable. I’m not sure I understand how our family appears to others (and many will try to dissect it), but for us it works. He is strict, but caring. Discipline, humor and a familial sense of belonging make up the foundation of how we all love, tolerate and survive one another.  We are his rug-rats, my brothers and I, also frequently referred to as “The Gang.” A common theme that threads its way through our childhood is ripped off of The Three Musketeers: “All for one and one for all.” We go everywhere together.
                                                                               

Biologically Speaking

My father’s mother has died. She is my paternal grandmother. I like this adjective, paternal. We attend the viewing of Blanche and I meet my paternal grandfather. He is propped up against his girlfriend, who has red hair and yellow skin. His glasses are so thick that his eyes appear as though they are far away and I think to myself that this poor eye-sight is a part of my biology. Mental note: Practice touching eye balls so I am prepared to use contact lenses instead of relying on coke-bottle glasses.

As we leave the funeral home, my Mom approaches a tall man on the porch. She says, “I’m sorry for your loss.” He mumbles something unintelligible. I realize this man is my father. He will not look at me or my brother. My heart is pounding; my voice is locked deep inside of me. We leave. I will confer with my best-friend.

“Are you angry that he left you?” My cousin and best-friend, 7 months my senior, asks me about my father.  Her tongue is sticking out the side of her mouth in concentration as she prepares to launch a raisin into a bottle of grape soda. I’m 12 and she has just turned 13 this spring.  The rain has brought us indoors and we’re sprawled out on the worn pink carpet of my shoebox-shaped bedroom. Most of the raisins now litter the floor around the Faygo bottle.  Her question interrupts my current thought: I wonder if the raisins will rehydrate and become big grapes, gushing with purple sugar.

Angry? I’m not sure. I try angry on to see if it suits me.  “I’m not angry,” I tell her with assurance. “I think you have to know a person to be angry with them.”

To my friends, perhaps the absent father is a curious novelty. Mostly everyone we know has married parents.  Following a quick wedding at St. John’s, St. Luke’s or with the JP at the County Courthouse, the eldest child usually enters the family 6 to 7 months later.

My cousin moves on to talking about the boys in her class and I’m left with a new awareness. It has not occurred to me up to this point that I am entitled to a feeling of anger or loss regarding my biological father’s absence.  Since early childhood, I have been approaching the subject of the Missing Parent with a burning sense of curiosity about his relationship with my Mom and yet a detached level of expertise in explaining his absence to others.  I firmly correct anyone who would refer to this non-custodial parent as “your dad.” I say, “No, he was my biological father.” I delight in using the word, “biological.” It makes me feel scientific and worldly. My family is not like yours. We are special. I store “angry” away and settle back into “curious.” Junior High is on the horizon and my world is getting bigger.


Geography

My grandma (my middle name, LaRue, comes from Grandma) has albums upon albums of photographs. I revisit them on a regular basis during my childhood and even into my teen years. She has 17 grandchildren and I observe naming them, chronologically from oldest to youngest. These are my people; I know where I fit in the big picture. Lori, April, Sean, Jamie, Scott, Steve, Jenny, Me, Jessie, Bryan, Nathan, Louis, Chris, D.C., Bob, Nick, Zack. I know their faces as babies, children and teens. I know their parents’ (my mom’s siblings) faces as children, teens and adults. I have a lot of people and my compass will always point here, to these people, to these years on the farm. 

I’m poring over an album one day and I light upon a photo that is new to me. I recognize my Mom; her smile, her hair is unmistakable. The photo has the 1970’s yellow glow of eternal summer. There is a young man standing next to her; his hair is full and light blonde and I think he looks like one of the boys from the Dukes of Hazard, but not as happy. He seems awkward, but handsome in a familiar way and I feel as though he does not belong next to her smile. His gaze looks beyond the moment. This photo becomes part of my narrative; my father, before my time has already moved one foot towards the door. He was always leaving, always moving and never arriving.

It’s not that my father is ever far away. States do not separate us, not even a county, and at times not even a mile of country roads. He and I move along the same routes at different times. Our paths do not cross often, and never by his own navigation. 

It’s a summer day and we are exhausted and content after a weekend on the river. My mom stops at the local convenience store on the way home for fuel and bread. My brothers and I wait patiently, too tired to find anything to bicker about. My mom returns and starts the engine; her anger is palpable. She explains that she saw our father in the store. She told him that his kids just learned how to water-ski; maybe he would like to say “hi.” He told her he was too busy. I look at my brother; his face is a study in stoicism. My heart is pounding. I feel anxious that this man upset her. I feel some relief that I am saved from a confrontation of any kind.


Math; it also Blows

My second grade teacher is horrible. He specializes in shaming children’s behaviors and appearance. “Johnny forgot to comb his hair today. Please take this comb to the bathroom and don’t return until you look civilized.” If he catches a child picking her nose, “Oh look at that, Suzy didn’t you have your breakfast this morning?” The class always dissolves in giggles and a few sighs of relief from kids who are just glad they’re not up for public humiliation this time. My strategy is to lay low and exude perfection at all times. 

One day we’re all walking back from the library (my favorite class!) and Mr. M is pretending to ice-skate down the hall. He has a smug look on his face as some of the other kids reward him with giggles. I’m the last in line and he catches me before I walk into the class. “Megan, do you have a Daddy at home?” I am stunned by the question. I’m not sure how to answer. I have a Dad, but I don’t call him Daddy. I stare at him blankly. He rephrases the questions, “Does your Mom have a boyfriend?” Boyfriend? I don’t know. He is my Dad. My Mom loves him. We are a family. I nod my head dumbly. I have most likely and unwittingly saved my mom from being asked out by a middle-aged man with a bad comb-over. I do not have the words at the time to articulate this feeling, but deep in my heart I have a strong conviction that this man is a D-bag.

Fortunately, the teachers in my school district go on strike that year. I am saved from further questioning into my family dynamics by Mr. Comb-Over. Unfortunately, I’m supposed to learn multiplication this year and get ready for long division in 3rd grade.

My Dad takes it upon himself to drill me on times tables that summer. Every night, the dinner table is a cause of great anxiety for me. He is a Mathematical drill sergeant, a cobra who strikes quickly. I begin to recognize his body language. I see the question forming on his eye-brows before it can reach his lips. I shove a giant piece of meatloaf in my mouth before he can draw his weapon, “Blondie, what’s 7 times 8?!” I chew with exaggeration. Supper time decorum can’t possibly allow me to answer while I have food in my mouth!

We continue this math dance for years.

I’m in 8th grade and my dad is attempting to help me with my Geometry homework. I am frustrated beyond words and I am practically in tears. “I CAN’T do this,” I sob. Usually my crying causes my Dad great confusion and some distress. You would think after years of raising a female faucet, he would get used to the tears, but he is a man and men see the leaking thing as the problem that must be fixed. Stop the tears, problem fixed.

But this time, my tears have accompanied the dreaded phrase, “I CAN’T.”
Now he is frustrated. “Don’t ever tell me you ‘Can’t.’ I don’t want that word to be part of your vocabulary. Always keep trying. As long as you always try, I will never be disappointed.”

He is relentless in his quest for Math to not defeat me. He drives me to early morning Peer Tutoring at the High School twice a week and does spot checks on my homework. We make it through Trigonometry together with a C-average. Calculus is not an option my senior year and I gladly take Consumer’s Math and dive into an extra Literature class.



My Choice

It’s the beginning of my senior year of high school. I’m walking down the long, dusty farm lane by myself since both my brothers have sport activities after school. I hear the buzz of my Dad’s jeep and feel thankful for the reprieve from walking through more dust in my new shoes. I jump in the passenger seat and he tosses an envelope to me, “This came for you.” I don’t recognize the bubbly print, but tear into it. There are two insurance cards and a hand-written note in the same bubble letters:
            Dear Megan,
            Here is your and your brothers insurance cards from your Dad. He talks about you often but never wanted to cause problems between your parents. He would like to see you if you want.
            Your Dad’s Fiance,
            Tami

I stare at the letter in shock. We’re cresting the hill and I stare out over the fields. I’m not sure why, but I decide to read the letter out loud. My Dad, usually confident and not one to hold back opinions no matter how unpopular, clears his throat. “Well, your Mom and I always said you and Nathan, well that it’s up to you. You have to do what is right for you.” 

I ponder this.

“No.” I say it firmly. “I’m almost 18 years old. Why now? And it’s not even him writing to me. It’s some woman who writes like a 10-year old. Besides, I have a Dad.”  My face is burning with fury, the nerve of him to issue a second-hand invitation for himself into my life and behave as though it is really all my choice. I toss the cards in my backpack and crumple the letter in my fist.


Social Media: Lost and Found

I hear nothing from my father’s camp for years. I graduate college. I date. I get my heart broken; I break hearts. I find a job, meet a special guy, get engaged, get married, leave a job, get a new job, lose my grandma, battle Depression, get a dog and make it to my thirties all without hearing from my father.

This is not to say that I don’t think about him. He does not cross my mind on a daily basis. Other people find a way to put him there from time to time.

When my Grandmother is dying in Hospice, one of my Mom’s friends comes to visit. Out of the blue, she tells me, “I saw your father. He’s bald now.”

I stare at her in a daze of confusion and exhaustion. I say, “Okay.”

His absence must also be acknowledged at all appointments with Doctors. Medical History, Father’s Side. I write: Unknown. (What I want to write: Disappeared. Not sure if I too may disappear. Have not yet experienced any symptoms of magical powers such as ability to make oneself disappear).

It’s late evening, the summer of 2012. I am catching up on Facebook emails when I notice the “Other” folder. I have never noticed this folder until now. There are two emails. The first is from a random man in California who wants to meet me. “Perv”, I mutter. Delete.

The second email is from another name I don’t recognize, a woman. I open the email:
I know you don't know me, but, I am with your dad, ------ -------. We would love to get to know you, if you want, please respond back.

I stare at the monitor in shock. When I regain my senses, I do what any self-respecting social media user would do. I creep her Facebook page.

Her privacy settings are fairly low (c’mon Baby Boomers, get it together and learn how to use those settings!) She is pretty, petite and has a kind face. He is bald. Well, duh, I already knew that thanks to my Mom’s informative friend. There is a baby in the photos. It turns out the baby is her grandson. My father is holding the baby in another photo. I’m beginning to feel my skin crawl as blood rushes up my neck to my face. The anger surprises me. I race up the stairs to find my husband and I start shouting nonsense. He can’t keep up and is looking at me like I have completely lost my mind.

Okay, so it only took me 31 years to get to anger. Maybe it’s because I know so many wonderful kids who also have an MIA father. I see the confusion and hurt that they experience. I see my friends as they struggle as single Moms or with blended families.  Now that I’m in my thirties, I am finally in a place where I can look back on my childhood with some distance, as an observer. 

I reach a state of calm and go back to the email. I realize that it’s almost 6 months old. I think she/they have been waiting 6 months, what’s a little more time. So I write back:
I need some time to process this. I'm 31 years old and I don't know him. He doesn't know me. I'm not sure what to think. I mean, why now? I guess it would mean more if he contacted me himself. Does that make sense?

She tells me this makes perfect sense to her. I know I don’t owe her anything, but I am grateful that she understands and is patient.

After a couple days of meditation and conversations with loved ones, I send her a heartfelt, but direct message to give to my father. I let him know that I am open to communication. I make clear that I already have a Dad and I expect that he will respect my Dad’s place in my life.

This is not an easy decision to come to. I try to weigh pros and cons. I try to imagine why he may possibly want to enter my life at this point (Does he need a kidney?) I think about how my family would react, but push this thought away. This is my decision.  A conversation I have with another woman who does not know her father actually plays the biggest role in my decision. She tells me that when she was in her twenties, her father contacted her after a lifetime of absence. She told him to hit the road. He died not too long after that and she has lived with her rejection of him as her only regret in life.

This makes sense to me. I have lived a life without regrets. Why start now? I owe him nothing. Maybe he can give me something else besides “Unknown” to write next to “Medical History: Father’s Side.”


What now?

It has been over a year since I sent that message to my Father’s girlfriend. He has not called.
I have corresponded with his girlfriend, who is a very kind woman facing a difficult road: bone cancer. I only know her on Facebook, but my heart aches for her. I am not sure if her diagnosis has influenced his decision to not make contact with me.

I do know this: He has never attempted to contact me or my brother on his own. There has always been a woman in the middle of the correspondence.  I make judgments in my head about these women. I know the type; they see a broken man and they want to fix him. Or maybe it’s just that they love him and but they don’t love that one part about him. The part where he has kids out there he doesn’t know.

Sometimes I draw conclusions about him based on circumstantial evidence and behavior. I have Depression. He has a brother who took his own life. The Depression must come from his side. Maybe he is Depressed? Maybe he copes by using alcohol? 

People I barely know have told me that he is a bad person. This I cannot believe. There are very few “bad” people in the world. We all have struggles. We all make mistakes. We all make poor decisions. We all try to do the best we can with what we’re given.

I used to think that if I could know him that some mysterious part of me would be revealed to myself. Is some part of me irrevocably damaged because we share biology? Has his absence created a subtraction in me? Math has never been my strong subject. Everything is up for debate; black and white is only an illusion people allow themselves so that their world is easier to grasp.


Conclusions are also Beginnings

This is what I do know. I made it. I have a lot of people in my life who love me and made me the person that I am today.

To my Mom and Dad: I want you to know that you did more than good. I am your “clay.” I am shaped by your loving hands and I have love to give because of you.

To single parents and blended families, just keep going. You’re doing it already. 

To those who would look upon a fatherless or motherless child with pity. Don’t. Do not look at this child as less; he has already had a subtraction in his life, do not take more away from him. Give her your respect, your love and your expectation of greatness. Let her meet those expectations and exceed them.

To children of absent parents: your parent’s absence is beyond your control. Their absence may be part of your fabric, but it’s not everything. You are already 100% you. I hope you have people in your life who love you and cherish you. Even if it’s one parent, one grandfather or special aunt; this is your foundation. Learn from them. Plant yourself in their love and nourish your hopes and dreams with their devotion.

To the parents who have left and to my own Father: I don’t know what has happened in your life that has pushed you away from your children. I am thankful that I have not had similar experiences. I am sorry for your pain. 

Your losses are great; they include me.

 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Some time ago



What purpose does this
joyless servitude afford?
Moments do not exist,
but days an eternity
only to survive.
Hope, a meaningless
word, like the time
I said “spoon”
too many times.
Was that my laugh
a thousand years ago?