Until yesterday, I hadn’t seen or spoken with my dad in seven years.
I used those seven (or more accurately, 7+) years to build an emotional protective fort to guard myself from any additional hurt. Simultaneously, I tried to make sense of the heartbreak, anger, and abandonment I felt in the direction of my father, only to come up empty with no answers, a void I couldn’t fill, and a growing list of counterproductive behaviors that were ultimately hurting me, anyway.
Before we reconnected just 24 hours ago, I struggled to assign words to the emotions I felt; my sense of partial identity, 50% of “me” who I didn’t understand or know.
I’m so glad that I took a leap of faith yesterday; that I finally put my words into actions, got into my car with my always-supportive mother by my side, and drove three hours to a mysterious part of Upstate New York, where I honestly didn’t know if I’d actually find my dad, and if I did find him, what shape he’d be in.
I’ll take it a step back for a minute. For more context, when family or friends would ask me about seeing my dad again, I’d often refer to the movie Riding in Cars with Boys. More specifically, I’d refer to one of the later scenes where Bev (Drew Barrymore) and her now-adult son, Jason (Adam Garcia), visit Jason’s father, Ray (Steve Zahn), in the trailer park in which he now resides.
When I’d rewatch this movie, I’d see my mom in Bev and myself in Jason. Two individuals who feel the same uneasiness, even if for different reasons. A general fear of the unknown; an immeasurable amount of uncertainty plus a hurricane of conflicting emotions; a hatred for someone who has caused so much pain and destruction due to his struggle with addiction, but a love for that person at the same time.
(Image borrowed from Girls Do Film)
I’m not really sure what clicked inside of me and told me to go through with this trip. Maybe it was the advice of my grandmother, the buildup of emotions as we count down the days to my brother’s wedding, my grandpa sending me some sort of message, a combination of all three, or just an overnight spiritual growth spurt that confirmed that it was time. Whatever the reason, I’m forever grateful that something (or someone) led me to follow through with it.
When I pulled up to my dad’s apartment at the Rescue Mission in Upstate New York, I had a moment of panic. The fact that I had no idea how my dad ended up here – or even an inkling of what he’d been doing over the past seven years – was enough for me to almost back the car out and gun it home. But with the support of my mom and a newfound strength that I didn’t know I had, I stayed, and I’m so glad I did.
It’s hard for me to describe my initial interaction with my dad after all these years. I wouldn’t say that it was like coming in contact with a stranger, because it was so much more than that. I suppose it was more like coming in contact with a ghost. A creature from your nightmares. I had built him into such a monster over the years, finding that the only way for me to make sense of our strained relationship was to pretend he wasn’t real. But he was real, and he was standing right in front of me.
Once both of our nerves subsided, we did our best to squeeze seven years of catching up into six (ish) hours. He gave me a full timeline of what he had been through since 2010, which included everything from living in multiple states, to various detox and rehabilitation centers, to periods of homelessness, to his 2.5 years (and counting) years of sobriety. It was the most open, honest, and vulnerable I had ever seen my dad, which allowed me to be open, honest and vulnerable with him in return. It’s crazy how something can be so heartbreaking and healing at the same time.
And then something truly remarkable happened. After emotional walls started to crumble down, my dad that I had known as a child started to come through. The guy to whom I attribute my quirkiness, hazel eyes, crooked elbows, and strange hairline. The guy who did make me laugh and feel loved when I was a little girl; the times I forced myself to forget over the 7+ years that I spent hating and resenting him.
My dad’s storytelling abilities are truly unmatchable. A personal favorite from yesterday was his recollection of his days in Arizona (one of the states in which he lived during our separation period), where he was a rattlesnake exterminator at the Rio Loco Ranch aboard his trusty horse, Master Blue. I swear, not even my dad (a master of making up stories) can make this $%&# up. And with each new ridiculous story, our feelings of distance and pain turned into familiarity and hilarity.
Sometime during our meet-up yesterday, the solar eclipse happened… and we completely missed it. It’s funny how things work out sometimes. While everyone else was witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime natural phenomenon, I was experiencing one of the most important moments of my life reconnecting with my dad. Had I made the decision to get in my car and drive to Upstate New York at any other moment – one minute, one month, one year earlier or later – the outcome could have been totally different.
I’m not saying that all wounds are fully healed, because without a doubt, my dad and I have a long road ahead of us. Our relationship is in need of a lot of repair.
But that’s just it – we have some sort of a relationship. Until yesterday, I wasn’t sure I’d ever see my dad again. And today, not only did I wake up feeling 10 pounds lighter (I’m not sure how since my mom and I hit up a Krispy Kreme factory on our way home), but I also feel hopeful. Hopeful that we can build our father-daughter relationship into a normal one, whatever “normal” ends up meaning for us.
And although I’m sure there are plenty of tears and hardships ahead of us, I’m eager to start this new chapter with my dad. To figure out how we can balance one another; not only how to provide support when it’s needed, but also how to reach out and ask for that support. To re-learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses. To understand and take a true interest in what’s happening in each other’s lives, even if we’re hours apart from each other. To take everything a day at a time.
Still overwhelmed by the events of yesterday, I find it difficult to close this post. I think it’s because my key takeaway from yesterday’s reconnection with my dad is that it’s not the end of something; it’s the start of something. So instead of finding a few words to land on, much like how I plan to move forward with my dad, I’d like to leave this post open-ended…