I first learned my Dad's birthday when he sent me a request on Facebook. For years, it was one piece of information that haunted me. When had the person that had given birth to me received life? I contemplated it as much as wondering the exact day he decided to leave me behind.
I am my mother's only child and she never talks about him, not even the basics. He has other children. He lived with his other children and their mother. Although he was in and out of jail, drugs, and other women’s houses most of our childhood, I wondered what it was like to be there when he came home. To have a picture with him. I wondered what it was like for him to fix a scraped knee or pour juice in the morning during his good times.
I thank God I was protected from the in-person consequences of his drug abuse and stealing but that never made me stop worrying about juice and pictures. Perhaps even some of his time would have been worth it all.
I wondered what it was like to hear his empty promises face-to-face. The scraps from his table seemed like delectable goodies to a love-starved daughter.
"I never came around because I knew you would be fine. Your mom is a good mom. I was really messed up," he said one day when I was a teenager and he had been released from jail (again).
What a poor excuse.
Eventually I would become bitter toward him for making that assumption. I needed male guidance even if it was part-time. I had been anything but OK in my dealings with men and soon realized my mother was less than stellar herself. She told me one day, after realizing the root of my problems, "I never knew how to love myself, so I could never teach you. You have to learn now."
Maybe that was supposed to come from Dad. In time, my mother and I learned together and I shut down the part of my heart that beat for him.
Years would pass and he would appear here and there. He tried, I guess, to establish a relationship with a few calls and a birthday card, but I was already dealing with enough empty promises and I didn't have room for another. I stopped responding to the infrequent attempts perhaps out of bitterness or fear of disappointment. I didn’t know how to be a daughter any more than he knew how to be a father. When he faded to the background again, I let him stay there.
I was content hearing whispers of his whereabouts at family reunions and knowing he was alive somewhere living without me as he had always done.
Until the Facebook request. There he sat. "Dad (name removed) wants to be your friend."
The request sat for a few days while I deep dived into wine and rhetoric. What was he thinking? Is this how he expects to catch up on my life? Through my online ramblings and memes?
I lingered for a while thinking about a past I couldn’t change and future I wasn’t certain about. I was OK without him as I had always been. Wasn’t I OK?
The dam finally broke and I cried for the girl who wanted a daddy and the woman I had become too late. I cried for all the lessons I learned the hard way. In my apartment I yelled to no one, “Why didn’t you want me, do you know how long I’ve been pretending that not being wanted was OK? It’s too late.”
I shoveled my blame on him for every statistical mistake I’d made hoping to bury the truth I didn’t want to admit –- maybe I still needed him. The part of my heart I shut down pulsed loudly until I couldn’t ignore it anymore.
After a few days of stewing in my thoughts I sent, “Hi Dad,” and opened the door to a man that I hated to love. After the pleasantries and discovering that he was helping other substance abusers who have been estranged from loved ones. Was he doing that to help himself too? I finally asked what I never could: “What about me?“
He sang his familiar song. I slammed the mental doors again at the things I’ve always heard.
Me: “How do I know you are who you say you are this time?”
Dad: “I don’t even know who I am sometimes.”
He said he joined the social network so he could find me and talk to me. His other children had found and friended me some time before. I sighed at a man who was facing the consequences of his actions with a sober mind for the first time. The man who thought the only way to reach a daughter he never really knew was through a request. Maybe this wasn’t a lazy act of love after all, maybe it was desperation.
Maybe I mattered that much.
My heart broke for a different reason. I couldn’t punish him anymore for milk already spilled. I granted him grace to be a human on the other side of mistakes and put down my last bit of anger.
I ended the conversation that day but not before I gave him my number. He can be the same as he’s always been or he can be different, what is most important is that I finally let it all go. I am still thinking about unfriending him because I’m not sure how far into my life he can come just yet. Not until he shows me something different, for real this time. This is my boundary. I’m learning that boundaries in love, even with parents, are OK.
I needed that moment of healing. I needed to know his birthday. Most of all, I needed the freedom that came with asking, “What about me?” and knowing that I did matter to the stranger I tried to make myself stop loving but never could.
Our relationship will take time, patience, prayer and a lot, a LOT, of wine for me. But I am willing and hopefully so is he.
If he disappoints me again, I now understand it isn’t a reflection of me but a reflection of someone still searching for self. Like the grace I gave my mother when she said she could not teach me to love myself because she didn’t know, I can extend the same grace to my Dad for not knowing how to love anyone but himself.
While I’m sure he can’t be my Facebook friend yet, maybe he can be my father one day instead.