I had always expected to feel a sense of relief from the news that my father had died because it would mean the end of suffering the indignity of knowing that he was out there but we had no relationship with one another. I could hopefully put to bed my guilt, disappointment and anger associated with the man who left me behind. For years I anguished, imagining what it might be like to have a loving father/daughter relationship and quietly I kept the secret – even from myself – of how desperately I craved that. When Dan and I were getting married, I saw an opportunity to extend an olive branch to my father and try to create a fresh start. We had become estranged again after I returned home from college. The difficulties of trying to construct any kind of relationship with him when I was hundreds of miles away at school overwhelmed me especially since I had escaped there in order to overcome so much of the pain that he had inflicted on me in the first place. As a result, we really never had a chance to develop a healthy dynamic and I often felt uncomfortable in his presence because he was such a stranger to me. My mother had pushed me back into his life when he returned from his journey to Hawaii and was looking to re-establish himself in society. My under-ripe adolescent brain could not possibly understand the complexities of his life and the depths to which he had sunk as a result of his alcoholism and, surely, depression. So, my encounters with him were forced and strained. I did as I was told and visited him in his apartment located around the corner from our house. I could see his place from my yard yet I couldn’t make sense that he was there – my father – after having been gone all those years. When I walked over to visit him, he would invite me into his bare, depressing studio apartment where I would sit on one of his old metal kitchen chairs with the soft cushiony seat and try to come up with things to talk about. Should I fill him in on all the years he was gone? Should I tell him all the thoughts racing through my mind about how sad I am? Could he possibly rescue me from the torture I was enduring in the house with my mother? I simply sat there, quietly, waiting for him to speak. It was a standoff. He was even more uncomfortable than me and I always wondered if he really wanted me there or if he was doing this because my mother badgered him into it. He would smile at me with his big white teeth and I studied his face trying to understand what was going on behind his eyes.
In the year or so preceding my engagement, my father and I were no longer in communication. Despite his efforts to be a parent, including buying me a brand new car during my senior year in college, the relationship never gelled. I was so awkward around him and I started avoiding him because I simply wanted to escape the nightmare of my childhood and leave all the pain behind. I moved to Brooklyn and got an apartment with friends and tried to start over. The car he so generously gave me was now a nuisance to me because there was no place to park it and I really did not need it. My life was about Manhattan and Brooklyn and subways and cabs. I never drove anywhere and I was becoming a slave to my sporty little car in order to hang on to it. I finally decided to sell it because I had no use for it any longer and relished in the idea of being freed from the burdens. My sister’s ex-husband offered to buy it from me and I happily agreed. When my father learned that I had sold the car without telling him, he recoiled with anger. He was betrayed. I had no way of understanding how insulting and offensive my actions would be yet, as a result, I was dead to him. It was the ultimate offense to him.
To begin with, the gift of the car was unexpected and unfamiliar to me. Since he had been gone most of my life, I didn’t have many positive experiences with him. I recognized that the car was a make good for everything he had not done over the years. It was a way to say “I’m sorry.” It felt like a bribe.
After my parents first split up, my father stepped in and out of our lives a lot. I never had any clear sense of whether or not he had any interest in me because I was so young and he was so distant. I always felt like the extra kid – coming along so late in life for both him and my mother. My siblings were so much older and, while i was doted on when I was a baby, as I grew older, the doting quickly faded and I was ignored and forgotten. There was too much turmoil going on for anyone to turn their attention to me. My father was never an overly affectionate man to begin with, unless he had a few drinks under his belt, so it was hard to understand what he was feeling. He was a dark, brooding Italian who had grown up with immigrant parents who worked hard to provide what they could for their children. My father’s siblings were typical New York Italians – loud and all about the family. After my father divorced his first wife, who had a very similar background, he became distant from his own family. They never truly accepted my mother because of the circumstances surrounding their relationship and because she was Jewish. They tolerated her, at best. Despite my limited interactions with my father’s family, some of my most cherished memories of childhood revolved around the time we spent with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. I have a hard time remembering any of them now, though, because the last time we came across each other I was still in grade school. As a child, I often wondered why they left me behind. I adored them so much and could not understand why they wouldn’t keep in touch or try to rescue me. But, as an adult, I came to understand that I was a fruit of the poisonous tree and represented an extension of the embarrassment and disappointment that my father bestowed on his family. I was just collateral damage.
Before the car, the last gift I could recall my father buying me came right after my parents had split up. My father was riding high financially, living in a swanky bachelor pad in a tony town while my mother lived in our quickly deteriorating house in Queens with me and my brother. My father had promised us that he would take us to the toy store and buy us anything we wanted which filled me with tremendous anticipation and excitement at the prospect of a shopping spree. My mother was very tight with the dollar and rarely let us get much more than basic necessities. Toys were frivolous in her estimation and, completely unnecessary. I typically played with my brother’s old toys like matchbox cars or war men. Sometimes I would save up money and buy coloring books or paper dolls which delighted me no end.
My father came to the house to fetch us in his brand-new little blue Mercedes convertible, the car he bought when he left my mother and moved in with his girlfriend. In the summer, we drove around with the top down, with me squeezed into the tiny backseat and my brother riding shotgun, while he blasted Donna Summer on the radio. I always felt a little uncomfortable hearing “I love to love you baby” in the tape deck and watching my father sing along passionately. This was the same car he parked in our driveway one night, in a drunken stupor, and sat on the horn screaming obscenities at my mother at 2am. That night, I kneeled down in my frilly nightgown, in front of the window in my room, and pushed aside the sheer white curtains. I watched, filled with fear and shame, as the police entered our house wondering if everyone on the block knew what was happening. I listened to the muffled voices coming from the living room as the police tried to calm my mother’s hysteria and watched as another officer spoke to my father in the driveway, trying to talk sense into him. He was never arrested. He was a former cop and they always look out for their brothers.
So, when I reached out to my father to invite him to my wedding and ask him to walk me down the aisle, I hoped that we could use this as a starting point for a new, adult relationship. Despite his anger and resentment towards me for selling the car and my pain from his abandonment, perhaps this would be a moment that we could see each other in a new light. And, even though I had been rejected by my father before, I had high hopes that he would welcome me back into his life now that I was ready to see him through a new lens. I was ready to be two adults who could find a way to love each other. I was prepared to become his daughter and let him become my father. With all this anticipation of a fresh start for us, my heart sank and was crushed into a million little pieces the day I received the invitation back in the mail, marked, in his distinctive handwriting, Return to Sender.
I buffered myself as I had so many times before, reminding myself that he was a sick man – an alcoholic – and I could not expect more from him. I rationalized that it was all for the best because, now, he would not be afforded the opportunity to cause chaos like he did at my sister’s wedding nearly 20 years earlier. Cheryl’s paternity was always a looming question as my mother played a shell game with her, moving around the truth about who her biological father was. My mother had capitalized on her affair and, without the technology that exists today to remove any doubts, she manipulated both men – and my sister – by telling them both that they were her father. Cheryl spent a portion of her life with the understanding that my father was the one and then, for a larger portion of her adolescent and young adult life believing that my mother’s first husband was actually her father. It was just months before her wedding that my mother chose to share the truth. Nick was her father and he should be walking her down the aisle, my mother asserted. Cheryl was devastated and confused and, while she allowed him to attend the wedding, she maintained her loyalty to the man who had cared for her for the past decade – her fake father. While my sister lived with my mother and father after they were married when Cheryl was 7, she and everyone else was unaware that my mother had been collecting child support for years from her first husband. She duped him into believing her child had been conceived in their marriage and, always an opportunist, devised a plan to bank some cash for a rainy day. She was as surprised as anyone on that day, when my sister was 12, that her ex-husband decided it was time to cash in on his investment. My mother called out to my sister, asking her to pick up the phone in the dining room. On the other end, a man introduced himself as her father. My sister looked around, confused, staring at the man sitting in the easy chair in the living room and said to the stranger on the line,
“But my father is sitting right here.”
And so her new version of the truth was formed. From that day forward, my father rejected her and refused to even call her by her name. Cheryl became “it” and my father no longer assumed any responsibility for her. Within two years, he kicked her out of his house and my mother sent her to live with our aunt and uncle in Brooklyn. My father’s hurt and anger over the deep betrayal from my mother was manifested in an abusive outlash towards an innocent adolescent. And my mother stood by and let him do it.
On that day, many years later, that I learned that my father’s life was drawing to a close, I really thought I would be relieved to know that I would be able to begin to bury some of the painful memories that were burned into my heart and mind. It had been nearly a decade since I had last seen him in Florida when I was there for our dear friend and former neighbor, Billy Levin’s funeral. Billy and his wife Evie were like surrogate parents to me and took a special interest in me after my parents divorced. Their granddaughter, Staci, was my best friend all throughout childhood and I was a permanent fixture in their family. They took me in like a stray cat. I kept showing up on their doorstep looking for company, looking for someone who would listen to all the ideas that were desperately looking for an escape from my brain. I would come outside into my backyard and look down the block to see if Evie was perched in her regular spot on a lawn chair on her stoop and, if so, I would race over to chat. I needed someone to talk to. I needed someone who would take an interest in me. I needed someone to reassure me that life wasn’t limited to what was going on inside my house.
I walked into the chapel at Billy’s funeral with a very heavy heart as i felt like I was burying my own father on that day. Staci and I came in together, with her parents following behind us, and I was staring straight ahead looking for other members of their family that I wanted to console. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a slight silver-haired man who looked vaguely familiar. It took me a moment to realize that this frail creature was my father, nearly 80 years old. He was standing with my brother who I had also not seen in years and was not on very good terms with. I contemplated continuing walking past them but could not be that person. I was not going to tarnish this occasion by reducing myself to being rude and disrespectful. Regardless of whatever had happened in our lives, I knew the right thing to do. I walked up to them both and gently leaned in to peck them both on their cheeks. I had to hold back my overwhelming desire to raise my hand and slap my father right across that same cheek when he responded to my outreach by turning his face away from mine as my lips were about to graze his face. It felt like every ounce of genetic connection was stripped away in a single moment as he rejected my advance. He refused to acknowledge me and I ceased to exist as his daughter. In that split second, I realized that this was no longer an illness that he was struggling with. In that moment, I knew for sure that the kind heart that the very man we were about to bury had raved about, had officially turned to stone.