It seems fitting that the only photo I have of my father by himself is a photograph of a photograph.
I don’t hate Father’s Day anymore, but now Dad is gone.
I have written so much about my relationship with my biological father because it was so complicated. He wanted to love me, I think, but I represented a time in his life that he could never return to. He was a little mean and reclusive, but he also tried to show me parts of the country I had never seen. Several months before she died, he introduced me to my grandmother. He had just told her about me months earlier. She welcomed me into her home, my high school graduation picture on a side table among all the others of her many grandchildren. She gave me a $100 bill as a gift for graduating high school.
Before he died in 2010, each year, I struggled with this arbitrary holiday. First, I did not feel I really had a Dad, even if I had a father. Then, after I met him, it turned out that he hated holidays, so he couldn’t be a container for my desire to celebrate him. I knew when I was younger that I picked complicated and often unavailable partners for this reason. It seemed normal and familiar for a man to reject me. Love was suspect.
We reached a truce before his suicide. I was grateful. I sometimes mourn what could have been, but there is no changing what happened between us, and now it’s in the past. What helps is to think about the wonderful surrogate fathers I’ve had in my life, and the amazing Dads my friends have become and are becoming. They remind me that fathers don’t have to be toxic or twisted. They can be incredible, heroic or simply, and beautifully, normal.
I knew which gifts my mother had given me—endurance, faith and an almost extreme optimism—but there was no telling how much you would add to my life. I didn’t think when I sat down to write you the first letter—which you ignored—that I was hurt by your absence. There were the obvious things that your presence in my life would have prevented: homelessness, constant moving, poverty. But I didn’t seek you out to blame you for my childhood tribulations. To me, not knowing you was normal.
Most of my friends had fathers missing in action, too. It never occurred to me that if you wrote me back or if you called that I would be confronted with my anger towards you, that I might not be able to forgive you in this lifetime. I poured my life out on several pages, including my illustrations, a picture of me and some poetry. My mother prodded me at first, to be honest. It was she, after all, who told me that I should get to know you. And although I rarely listen to my mother, I figured that it couldn’t hurt me to listen to her just this once. I sent the letter and counted the days until I heard from you again.
As the days turned into a year, I made excuses for about a week before I could write you again. I didn’t want to include you in the ranks of the stereotype that says black men shun paternal responsibility. Maybe you were on vacation. Maybe you were busy. Then it occurred to me that maybe, and most likely, you just didn’t want to be bothered. After all, I had taken all of these years to write you when my mother had your address for years. I hadn’t learned, at the time, to surrender and have closure when I had already tried my best.
Instead, I was thinking like the average abused child—it was my fault. Maybe you were hurt and didn’t count my one collect phone call from a subway station in Philly when I was seven as an effort to know you on my behalf. So, I wrote you another letter. I decided, after weeks of mulling over what you might respond to, that the passive, sweet approach might have invoked some disgust in you. I am a black woman to my heart, needing a call and response relationship with everyone I invite into my life—but somehow my call to you had been disconnected.
I’ve been working on a memoir that’s centered around my relationship with my mother and she used to call me every Father’s Day and say, “Wish me a Happy Father’s Day! I was your mother and your father.” She’s not around this year to do that. And I don’t think too often about what my father’s relationship meant to my life. He was a safe harbor for me when he could be and when he wasn’t able to, he disappeared. I wrote more about him at the Good Men Project in March. The only thing I can think, now, is that he did his best. That will have to do.