Seven days after you passed away, I found myself on the rooftop of one of my favorite hotels in West Hollywood. I had spent the last week in bed wrestling with my emotions, falling in and out of tears, at times overcome by sadness, at times feeling nothing at all, mostly trying to grasp how I was supposed to feel, and finally deciding that maybe what was best for me was to stop thinking so much and resume living. Funny how you had been preparing us for your death since before I can remember, and maybe the preparation worked, because what I felt most of all after the initial shock of losing you had passed, was a calm – like your death was the end of a beautiful, but broken, love story.
The story began in Portland, Oregon in 1981, when we were acquainted for the first time. You took me under your wing immediately, mostly because Mom was preoccupied with her Gerber baby who required a bit more attention than I did. And so we became. Of course we did! I was my father’s daughter from the start. You were always the model of the person I wanted to become – independent, strong, proud, quick-witted, charming, worldly, sophisticated, and beyond intelligent. I always wanted to be close to you, even if it meant playing with tools in the garage on Delma Way, learning how to check the oil in your car, or accompanying you on various errands around town. And more than anything I wanted to make you proud of me, which is why I relished those nights when we would watch Jeopardy as a family and I’d shout out the correct answer only to sneak a glimpse of you from the corner of my eye, hoping that you’d noticed. Even to this day, I have an absurd obsession with mail, because when you and Mom were divorced, I felt honored that you gave me the responsibility of collecting your mail. And I’ll never forget the day you moved out – you were in the garage packing the last of your belongings and I sat watching until I couldn’t bear it anymore, so I snuck off to weep privately as I didn’t want you to know how much it hurt me to see you go.
You told us that nothing would change, but of course everything did. And I probably knew that it would, which is why the moment will never escape me. It’s the most vivid memory I have of you from my childhood. Leaving.
Much of my adult life has been spent observing other fathers and daughters and wishing our relationship could have been like theirs. We never held hands. We never had sleepovers. We never took trips together. We didn’t talk every day or even every week or month. Our affection was limited to hello and goodbye hugs. You didn’t move me into college. You weren’t there to help with my homework. You never sat down and had the “father talk” with my boyfriends. You never even knew about them. In truth, there was a lot I wanted in a father that you didn’t deliver on. But shame on me for letting the hugeness of that swallow what we did have. There was immeasurable depth in the moments we spent together, limited they were.
About ten years ago, when I was living in San Diego, you drove down from Sacramento to visit a woman you were seeing. At the time, I was just happy to have you there, as I’d invited you on many prior occasions, knowing that you loved the city I had chosen to make my home because of its similarities to where you had grown up in the Caribbean. I had you over for Thanksgiving dinner – made lasagna, your favorite meal – it was probably the only Thanksgiving we ever spent together since the divorce. I remember buying you a pecan pie, and being nervous that it wasn’t good enough because I didn’t bake it myself. My own happiness was so intricately entwined with yours, always. Naively, I believed I could make you happy. I thought I could fix your life, heal your wounds. My relationship with you, at least on my end, was exclusively devoted to the cause.
A few years after your San Diego visit, after I had broken up with my long-term boyfriend, and was going through an intense period of growth and reflection, it occurred to me that you didn’t come down to San Diego to see me. You came down to see a woman you had barely known. And though I’d asked you many times, there was always a reason why you couldn’t. But you could for her. And then I started thinking about our relationship over the past two decades since you left Mom, and I realized that other women, and other things, always came before me. Before us. And then everything changed. My life at the time was a series of fragments – and that revelation was the glue that pulled them all together. I understood myself better than ever. But in gaining self-knowledge, I lost something incredibly valuable. I lost you.
A year and a half ago, I was sitting in the office of my therapist, discussing whether or not it would be a good idea to call you on your birthday. We hadn’t spoken in some time, and somehow I felt I wasn’t ready to forgive you for your latest slight. She told me that we don’t always have to have relationships with members of our family, especially if doing so causes more pain than good. I made the small decision not to call you and wish you a Happy Birthday. But it wasn’t just about the phone call. Really what I was deciding was that I wasn’t going to have a relationship with you anymore, because you’d hurt me one too many times. I remember driving back to my law firm after therapy and considering the ramifications of my decision. You might die, and if you did, that would be how our story ended. Of course, I didn’t want that to be the ending. I wanted you to be my father, the hero, the knight in shining armor. I wanted you to save me, save us, by loving me the way I loved you.
The day I left for Paris was one of the most exciting days of my life. I was setting myself free after having been broken, sad, and caged for far too long. It was the culmination of everything I had learned about myself in the last few years of being alone. It was me mending my own broken heart and taking back my life. So when Cecile called to say goodbye to me when I was driving to the airport, and then gave the phone to Amala, who gave the phone to you, I didn’t have it in me to talk to you, so I hung up. Any other day and it would have been different. I had waited months for that phone call. And I had given my entire life for the happiness of you and everyone else. But that was my day.
The first book I read in Paris was Cheryl Strayed’s “Tiny Beautiful Things.” In responding to a letter from a single mother who had been abandoned by her child’s father, she writes, “One day, years from now, your son or daughter will have to account for his or her father (and for you, as well). There will be a reckoning. There is always a reckoning. For every one of us. Accounting for what happened in our childhoods and why and who our parents are and how they succeeded and failed us is the work we all do when we do the work of becoming whole, grown up people.”
Here is mine. You left us, Dad. We were your children, and you left us. And then you came back when you wanted to, or when you needed something, but once you were gone, you were mostly gone. And there was a huge gaping hole in my heart the shape of a father who walked out on his little girl who loved him more than she loved herself. And for years, I put everything I had into filling that hole, but to no avail. They loved me the way you loved me. They left me the way you left me.
But that is not how our story ends. Seven days after you passed, a guardian angel found his grieving daughter on a hotel rooftop in West Hollywood. You’ve been with me ever since. And seven days after you passed, a wonderful gentleman found your grieving daughter on a hotel rooftop in West Hollywood. And he’s been with me ever since.
I know you’d love him, Dad. Thank you for watching over me and sending me someone to finally fill the hole.
With love forever,