My parents divorced when I was twelve years old and my father remarried a short time later. He took a job on the East Coast, and they decided to drive from California across the country in a hired moving van. The morning arrived when they would leave, and I was there, helping with last minute odds and ends. I had written a letter to my dad, wishing him luck and telling him I loved him. We are not a demonstrative family by any means, so I tucked the letter up into the sun visor above the driver's seat, knowing that as he headed east the sun would eventually be in his eyes, and he'd pull the visor down. Sure enough, he told me later, that's what happened; somewhere around the Arizona border, my goodbye letter fell in his lap.
At eighteen years old, after I'd left home, I wrote my dad another letter, this time telling him that I felt abandoned, like he didn't know me, or love me, or care, and how hurt I felt. He wrote back, saying that he thought that at the time he left, we (my 11-year-old brother, my 15-year-old sister, and me) were old enough to get by without him. Now that I have two children of my own, I can only shake my head at his naiveté. I only saw my father once a year after that, for the next 25 years. Either I flew back to see him for a few days, or later, in my twenties, he flew out to California to see us, my brother, my sister, and me. We would spend a day or two driving around, share a meal, exchange pleasantries, and then off he'd go. Through my years of angst over school and career decisions, my marriage, the births of my two children, my divorce, and even my later, second marriage, he still remained a once-a-year visitor. I traveled back there a few times, but it was so expensive, and such a hassle. And he didn't seem like my dad anyway, at that point; more like a friend of the family I'd known a very long time.
In my teens, I could have used a dad to tell me about boys, and growing up, to set limits, to help point the way. I needed my dad in my twenties, when I couldn't decide on a career path, to offer some wise advice about money, and work ethics. I needed my dad in my thirties, with two small children to raise and a painful marriage, to make me feel less alone. I would like a relationship with my dad today, as questions of mortality, and how to find purpose in the larger world, loom large.
Rather than spend lots of years fueling resentment or bitterness, I realize now that instead, I wrote my dad off. I had gradually gotten used to his absence, but I firmly shut the door on my expectations around the time when I wanted some strong male support and I realized that he couldn't help me with a falling-apart marriage. He continued to send friendly notes and call once every few months, inviting me for a visit, but that was it. When I asked him once in desperation (calling from a motel I had fled to with my two children) to please talk to my by-then-abusive husband, he agreed, but when he called our house and no one answered, he settled for leaving a firm message on the answering machine. When he told me that, something inside me detached, like letting go of a kite string, and I watched my last faith in a father who would be there for me float gently away.
I like my dad. He has a good sense of humor, we read some of the same books, he gave me his love of gardening and nature, and he's good with my kids. But I expect nothing. E-mail has opened up our communication quite a bit, since I can dash off notes easily, and as my spiritual search has deepened over the last few years, I have even broached the subject with him to some good effect. He can be affectionate in an e-mail in a way he cannot bring himself to be, in person. And last fall, after he retired, he and his wife moved back across the country, not to California, but close enough, just over the border in Oregon. He says he wants to be closer to his family. We've been to visit once, and he immediately wanted to know when we would visit again. Isn't it ironic, I say to my husband, that now that I've let him go as someone central to my life, he comes back, wants to participate again. As a father? A grandfather? Or as a friend? For me, as long as I don't expect too much, I will take him on friendly terms, but on my terms, my schedule, my frame of reference, because while I owe him some sort of relationship as my dad, I owe it to myself not to get hurt again.