It doesn’t hurt as much to not have a father when your mother gives you double the love.
Spike Lee’s film Da 5 Bloods recently debuted on Netflix. Whether Spike Lee is cancelled or not, his characters speak to my existence in ways that I would be hard pressed to express without his artistry. Da 5 Bloods juxtaposes two absentee fathers–one who was physically present, but emotionally abusive and another who didn’t know he had a child. I cried watching their relationships unfold and without spoiling the film I have to say that it influenced me to dig deeper into my feelings about my own father.
All the repressed depression and feelings of worthlessness flooded every part of my soul when my mother died. I remember sitting in her room upstairs with my sister while we cleaned and packed her things before the funeral. I found a stack of love letters between my parents. There were trinkets, and photos, and books, and bottles, but the letters stood out to me. The words reflected an innocent and promising passion that I had no recollection of.
My parents were married at one point and there are photos of us together, but my father was–and is possibly still–a dope fiend. The term is harsh, but I don’t say it with malice. I actually find comfort in the possibility that he was not in my life due to addiction or mental instability. That doesn’t cut as deep as the idea that he just didn’t want to be my father.
Over the years he blamed me for our lack of a relationship. My mother always encouraged me to reach out, but I would usually refuse. Who wants to chase someone who doesn’t want to be caught? I try to find closure and I have even tried reaching out to him, but we always hang up on bad terms because he insists on blaming my mother for his mistakes. I am a huge advocate for Black women’s self care, so why do I keep reaching out to someone who hurts me?
Periodically when I hear my friends talk about how corny their dads are or I watch a movie with a tumultuous father/child relationship, I think back to being in my mother’s room. My parents had me when they were teenagers and the letters were dated before I was born. It was a mirror to all my relationships at the start: seemingly pure and irrevocably simple. So how did they become the people I knew?
I held the letters in my hand and decided to call him. Getting his number usually involved calling around until I found someone who had seen him sober. I had his contact information within the hour.
Before I dialed, I paused to think about the time he was supposed to help my Great Aunt Mary Ann move. She has lived in Brooklyn my whole life and my father’s whole life before that. She was a religious woman and I only saw her once as an adult. When I visited for Thanksgiving she was nervous about me staying the night because I was my father’s child. And everybody knew my father would steal as soon as he looked at you, so I could tell that she wondered the same thing about me. After dinner she told me about how he packed up her tiny apartment to help her move to a different part of New York, and instead drove back to Kentucky with all her furniture.
Why would I call a man who would trick an old woman and steal her furniture?
But I did it anyway. I dialed. It rang. He answered.
I am still not connected to my father beyond sharing DNA. My mother died ten years ago, so when I made the call, I was a different person. At that point, I had still never purchased a real mattress (#futonlife), I didn’t have a driver’s license, and I wasn’t a mother yet.
And, after the awkward call that was one part scolding and one part obituary, he didn’t show up to the funeral. This man couldn’t even bother to come by the wake or say sorry. I mean, it was definitely on brand, but damn.
There are some very obvious, unclever cliches I can attest to about the daughters of absentee fathers and the sorts of men we date. It is tempting and easy, but I don’t want to do that. While interacting with my son’s father is an exercise in insanity, I still make sure that he calls his father. I’m sure that if his father read this, he would say I don’t do enough. But my own longing for a father drives me to push through my irritation and be a decent co-parent. My son is seven now and I think about when I was seven. My father would randomly show up with gifts I didn’t want or offer to take me shopping. All I really wanted was to know he would be there when I lost a tooth or got an award. That is something that still bothers me and somehow I feel like if I can forgive him, then I can forgive others in my life. Forgiveness is not my strong suit and if I feel betrayed, it’s a wrap for that relationship. I don’t want my son’s love to be as conditional and fearful as mine.
The challenge for me is forgiving and letting go. I talked to my therapist about the intruding sense that I am perpetually behind–like I am not good enough. I crave praise. Sometimes to my detriment. There have been times when I’ve rationalized my father’s absence by blaming his addiction or experience in the military. Similarly, I’ve also done this with romantic partners. In one relationship, my partner was still living with his ex. Eventually he cheated with her. In another relationship, I was pressured to have sex and after I finally gave in I felt terrible. I tried to talk to him about it and he ghosted me for a week. When he finally called, he dismissed my feelings and asked to come over. I actually agreed. I compromised over and over because I didn’t want to be considered a bitter Black woman. I didn’t want to be the irrational or unreasonable Black woman. My friend Minda told me once that I was too reasonable. But the way through this grief is to be unreasonable.
Which makes more sense? Should I make peace with losing my mother and having no father to pick up the pieces? Or should I try one more time to see what all the hype is about with this Daddy’s Girl situation? Is it pointless? Will it make me feel better or worse? Am I even capable of that version of love where I forgive him, then allow him to be part of my life?
I know one of the men who sells (or at least used to sell) my father dope. It would only take a little effort on my part to get in touch with my father. Whether he is his usual revisionist aficionado or a completely different person ready to apologize, I can only control how I show up in the space. I am definitely not ready to sit down with him today, but I am preparing myself. I’m gearing up to be someone who is capable of forgiveness. My anger and resentment and defensive insults are the armor I built to protect myself from that original shot to the heart when my father rejected me. When I was bullied I realized I had hands and the arsenal expanded. Over time I realized that I could use my words like grenades which kept people from getting close enough to hurt me. But I don’t have to be at war all the time. I am not ready to put away all my armor, but I can at least drop one of my swords.