‘Take me with you’: Learning to live with an absent father




‘That’s another thing you’ll never get’

I feel the sobs in the back of my throat. It’s a salty welling up that I somehow manage to choke down. I tell myself, “No. Not here. Not this. He doesn’t get to ruin any more days of your life.”

Why would I cry for the loss of someone who has never been more than a ghost in the first place?

It’s been two months since I learned my estranged father had died. Five years since I last tried to contact him. Eight since I last laid eyes on him. For over two decades I’ve lived without a dad, telling myself I never needed one anyway; that “daddy issues” was an excuse for weaker girls too wrapped up in themselves.

When I learned of his death I went numb. I couldn’t cry then because I didn’t know how to mourn a stranger. But two months later, two decades of emotion came pouring out at one of the worst moments possible.

At a wedding, as the father/daughter dance begins, I hear a voice inside my head whisper, “That’s another thing you’ll never get.” Then, as I see the face of the father of the bride – all joy and all sad – something inside me breaks. The floodgates open, and I rush to the edge of the nearby ocean where I stand, doubled over and heaving until my boyfriend finds me.

‘I haven’t seen my father since I was seven’

The thing about estranged parents is no one really gets it unless they’ve lived it. It’s full of rage and loss and unanswered questions; that other parents stick around because they liked their kids more. It’s not the same as a divorce where you get two Christmases or a parent who died. Death is clean, simple. Having to explain “I haven’t seen my father since I was seven” is rarely clean and never simple.

For the most part I had a loving, fairly privileged childhood: swimming and skating and snowboarding and even horseback riding. My grandparents were deeply involved in my life, and most of the time I felt as though it was enough to make Father’s Day cards for my grandpa, a man who bankrupted himself to set my mother up when my father left her destitute.

I don’t know how much my image of my father is created from the hate that neither my mother or my grandfather never let go. Only my grandmother ever had a kind word to utter about him, a soothing word when the vitriol of the other two adults in my life had me questioning whether having his blood in my veins somehow made be half bad too.

They always told me I looked more like him than them, and sometimes my mother, caught up in her own grief or frustrated with me, would spew, “Maybe you should just go live with your father in Florida.”

It was the worst insult my family could level.

My older brother took on a heavy burden, filling the fridge and caring for me when my grandmother couldn’t. But he was so filled with his own teenage angst and hate for my father’s abandonment that he could hardly help bring things into focus for me. And so the image of my father remained fuzzy at best, flashes of memory and likely constructed moments based on others’ interpretations of decades-old events.

‘Take me with you’

It’s my fifth birthday party, and my mom is mad. Dad is late. “As usual,” she says. But when he arrives he brings with him a big red carrying case, with a tape player and a series of books on tape for me. I loved it, and it wouldn’t leave my side for the next week of our family vacation.

That Caribbean cruise is the only clear memory I have of my family together. I have earlier, blurrier recollections of fights and ice hitting glasses and drinks being poured and crying into my pillow. But that week on a boat was magical. I spent my days playing with other kids and evenings with my family, where my parents tease me about the little boy in the other family who likes to dance with me.

I didn’t know it then, but we were living an upper-middle-class mirage. My father’s business was sinking as quickly as my parents’ marriage. A few weeks later, I walk into the family room because the sound of my parents fighting has woken me. My mom is doubled over on the couch, sobbing, her jet-black hair slicked back in a headband. She’s wearing a white nightgown with flowers on it. My dad is fully dressed in a yellow polo shirt with blue stripes. He’s holding a duffle bag and says something along the lines of “Oh good, you woke the kids. I wanted to do this without that.”

I follow them out to the car and my parents exchange words. “Take me with you,” I remember thinking. I also remember the curves of his little red BMW, and the feel of the rough pink brick of our driveway on my feet.

I’ve been told that before that night I was a typical “daddy’s girl,” always a little spoiled by my dad. Friends of my parents told me they always called me “Bonnie Butler,” after the little girl in Gone With The Wind. When my mother tells me her version of that night’s events, it ends with her asking my father what we would do in his absence, and him turning as if to say, “Frankly, my dear,” but leaving her to finish the famous line.

‘Why won’t my daddy do that?’

It’s Christmas time a few months later and I’m in grade two. I’m excited at the prospect of at least two visits from Santa Claus (sometimes he went to my grandparents’ house, too). Dad tells me that Santa knows how much I love puzzles and treasure hunts, so he’s talked to the Easter Bunny and he’s going to hide my presents like eggs. “I’ll see you Christmas,” he says, with a kiss on the forehead and a rumple of my hair as he drops me off at school.

Four days later my father boarded a flight to Florida and never came back.

When Christmas Day rolled around, my mom, brother and grandparents all tried to tell me he wasn’t coming. But I remember secretly believing he would. Deep in my heart I knew, I knew, he’d come. He’d promised.

This wasn’t the first time. Every other weekend and Wednesday were supposed to have been spent at my dad’s apartment. Sometimes, then, he didn’t show up.

Years later, after a few too many drinks at a family friend’s cottage, my mom admitted she sometimes knew he wasn’t coming, even days in advance, but didn’t tell me because she wanted me to learn to hate him as much as she did.

And so I learned to hate my father. And I learned how to hide a broken heart, right up until the moment it can no longer be contained.

A few months after my father left, I’m in a packed hotel room in Buffalo with my mom, a family friend and her two daughters. We’d just eaten, and Mrs. Doubtfire came on television. By the time it ends, I’m hysterical. I can’t understand what was so wrong with me that my dad won’t even try to see me. Won’t write. Won’t call. And look at all that dad went through to be with his kids: putting on a dress, playing pretend. “Why won’t my daddy do that?” I sob into my mother’s arms.

‘He tried to write us’

“He tried to write us, Ashley. He did. But gramps and mom kept them back,” my brother tries to tell me. I’m now 15 and he’s picked me up from our (his former) high school.

I don’t believe him, by this time a convert to the family dogma that my father was the definition of the worst. A philanderer and white collar criminal whose crimes were committed both against my family and his former employees at his publishing company.

I feel deflated as I push the Pizza Hut deep dish and salad around on my plate. I was excited for this lunch. My brother never wanted to do things with me. But he was only there to tell me he too was a traitor. That he’d gotten back in touch with our father. He wanted to know if I wanted to come with him for a visit to Florida.

“It’s totally your choice,” his then-girlfriend Sam (pet name for Cassandra) told me.

No, never, nope, I said a million times by the time the soft serve from the sundae bar was melting between us.

‘Hey there’

Two years later and I’m driving to meet my brother and father somewhere in Michigan. I’m 19, it’s September. My grandmother had died in June. My nana, as I called her, was of a generation that would never go against her husband, but she would also never partake in the vitriol my mother and grandpa reserved for my father. I’m looking for the answers she always hinted at but never confirmed.

My mom is out of the country, and I feel like a criminal in her car – borrowed without her consent for a trip I know she’d resent.

I pull into the parking lot of the motel, and take a deep breath. I’m on the verge of a panic attack. I breathe and I tell myself I can go to my brother’s room, have a drink, calm down and prepare myself. I’m about to open the door to the reception area, when a voice behind me says, “Hey there.”

It stirs no depths of memory, but it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. I turn, slowly, and I know it’s him. My father emerges from behind a white pillar, with a slight stoop to his significant height, his shoulders rounded in abashment. I know the posture because it’s what I look like when I know I’m in the wrong.

My eyes dart wildly around for an escape, but I shift and slouch instead. “Hi,” I hear myself saying. He hugs me. I want to hug back. I want to scream more. But instead I just shake a little.

I end up staying overnight even though I didn’t plan on it, but we barely speak a word the entire time. I take his email and he takes mine.

It’s the last time I see him before he dies.

‘Access to Ashley’

The longest email I ever receive from my father is his version of events that led him to leave the country in 1994. It goes something like this: the judge in the divorce had awarded my mother control of their company; he was ordered to pay an eye-popping amount of child support, but couldn’t afford it without being able to run the company. He was broke and without any assets to his name by the settlement. He paints a sob story around his efforts to reach out to us, saying he was devastated when he never heard back from us. I can’t tell if this is true or a version of the truth.

Years later, after getting into a master’s of journalism program at Ryerson University. I send him a note when I remember my mom saying he went there for his accounting degree. “Yes,” he replies, “because your mother wouldn’t move to Toronto for my engineering career, so I had to find something I could do in Waterloo.”

I don’t reply back.

Later that summer, I’m cleaning out an old dresser of my nana’s, and I find a series of yellowed legal-looking pages against the back of a small drawer. It’s a letter from my father to my mother dated January 1995, the month after the Christmas hunt that never happened.

It’s written in semi-legalese, full of reasons for his departure and requirements for his return. At the top is a request the child support payment be halved from $6,000 a month to $3,000, then again when my brother Jay turns 18 that year.

And there it is in black and white: “Access to Ashley.” The next line, “And Jay, if he wants.”

I shake under the weight of the discovery. I’m about to start journalism school, and in my hand is a document that debunks the most important narrative of my entire childhood, my father’s villainy.

I send my father a lengthy note explaining what I had found. I apologize for not believing him sooner. I say I want to open the lines of communication; I want to come visit. And then I wait for his reply.

It’s not instant, but when it comes, it shatters me all over again. He accuses me of being my “mother’s agent,” of just “trying to get cash out of him,” and worse.

‘I could never leave a kid behind like that’

When my father dies, an estranged cousin searches for me on Facebook, contacting friends of friends on mutual networks until finally reaching me. She apologizes for my loss, and I don’t know how to tell her that I’d already mourned the loss of my father years ago.

All I know for sure about my father can fit in a tweet: He went to the University of Waterloo for engineering, but became a CFA. When he made shrimp, he kept the shells on. He had a moustache. He told me he’d see me Christmas.

I was so over it, so over his choices defining my story. It was finally over. I was done and there were no more tears. Or so I thought, until years of pain bubbled up as I stood with my feet in the sand of a foreign beach. I guess the ghosts of our fathers always find a way to haunt us.

Over the years, when friends learn about my family history, they almost always say the same thing: “I could never leave a kid behind like that.” To which I reply, “I think my grandmother summed it up best when she used to tell me, ‘Your father wasn’t a cruel man; he was a weak one.’”