July 4th, 1980. I am five-and-a-half years old and visiting family with my dad. But when it’s time to go home, my dad leaves me with my aunt and uncle, telling me I am going to live here now.
I don’t cry, there is no dramatic scene straight out of a Lifetime movie, no one has to tear me away from him. I am used to being left by now.
For nearly three years, I’ve moved around between houses, but this is the first time I am told that I’ll be staying for good. This is now where I live.
I can still picture my dad’s Camaro driving up the road in the wrong direction, leaving me sitting on the lawn in my sundress, too stunned to fully comprehend what the hell just happened.
I was a month shy of 3 years old when my mother died. Despite the fact that people tell me we were inseparable, I have only two memories of her: One is riding in a car as she and my dad bickered about needing to stop at the drugstore for pantyhose, the other trying to fit on her lap but her swollen, pregnant belly took up all the room.
At 4 foot 10 inches, there wasn’t much room to take. I remember her telling me that pregnant ladies “lose their laps.” I thought she had done something wrong that made this happen, like not taking her vitamins.
She went to the hospital to deliver my new sibling, which turned out to be siblings -- surprise twins -- and never came back. The doctors think it was a blood clot to the brain, but no one really knows.
My brand new twin brothers were immediately turned over to my dad’s brother and his wife, my uncle and aunt, who had three children of their own. It’s all still foggy, what with my having been a preschooler, but I split the next few years between my grandmother, aged 79, and my maternal grandparents, only slightly younger.
I don’t know all the specific dates, but I distinctly recall standing atop a chair in my grandparents’ dining room and blowing out candles on a Cookie Monster cake for my 3rd birthday. That would have been three weeks after my mother died.
My aunt and uncle felt it important that my twin brothers know their father and their sister. I would travel the two hours to my aunt and uncle’s home to visit my brothers with my dad every few months, usually near holidays and birthdays, but never for more than an overnight or two.
My brothers only knew my aunt and uncle as Mommy and Daddy, while they called my father, “Other Daddy.” Even though they were my brothers, they were also my cousins’ brothers. But my cousins were only cousins to me. My preschool brain, no matter how advanced, had a difficult time comprehending.
One summer, my dad and I were supposed to meet up with my brothers and their family for a week-long beach vacation. I remember driving through the pouring rain, the window cracked slightly to accommodate the uninterrupted Chesterfield Kings he lit and sucked down, my tiny 3-year-old self riding shotgun, a cooler full of Miller Lite under my feet.
After traveling for what seemed like forever, after crossing the Bay Bridge and driving nearly to the beach, we turned around abruptly and went back home. I remember my dad saying the weather wasn’t safe for driving any farther, but I think he just didn’t have it in him to spend an entire week watching someone else raise two of his children.
It may also have been that this was going to be a trial run of what was to come. Maybe he wasn’t ready. Maybe he would need a cleaner break.
During a stay with my mother’s parents, my Grandma Ida fell and broke her hip. Since caring for her would take all of my Grandpop’s time and energy, I was sent back to my dad’s mother, switching homes, schools, and friends.
I would request to visit my grandparents from time to time, always being put off, told that it wasn’t a good time, or that my grandmother hadn’t quite recovered from her injury and wasn’t up for visitors.
During one particularly frustrating exchange where I, the exasperated preschooler, wouldn’t let the topic drop, my dad was worn down and finally confessed that my Grandma had died. It had been a full six months since the funeral, but no one had the heart to tell me.
As an adult, I can now recognize that my dad was a broken man. His life leading up to marrying my mother had already been difficult, even already tragic, so after finding happiness and starting a family only to have it ripped away in a matter of 4 short years was too much.
And I was a walking personification of all his failures and losses. No matter how much he loved me, he couldn’t be my dad. He could barely be anything. I get that.
Much like a woman who gives a baby up for adoption, he was making an impossible decision. And he’d already done so with my brothers, but unlike them, he had raised me and known me. He had changed my diapers, given me baths, watched me sleep, taken me to the zoo, and all the other seemingly mundane, yet somehow profound moments dads share with their children.
But all of that was before his world came apart. In some ways, I think he’d been delaying the inevitable since my mom’s death. And there was no possible way for my dad to look me in the eye and tell me that he was giving me up. I was the last piece of his family, but I needed more than he could give.
I am no longer the little girl sitting on that lawn. When I think about that day, I don’t think about how she felt, but rather I think about my dad.
As a parent now myself, I think about what it must have been like for him to make that decision. How he probably spent two-and-a-half years working up to it. How in the last few weeks before he was to give me away, he couldn’t bear to prepare me for my new home because he couldn’t prepare himself.
I think about the number of Miller Lights and Chesterfield Kings it must have taken for him to get home that night without me.
I think about how the subsequent days turned into weeks, then the months into years, with a few visits here and there, still my dad, but no longer my father. The times where he canceled last minute, or left early, or snuck out without saying goodbye.
I no longer think about how that made me feel, but rather how much pain he must have been in watching someone else raise his family. And how he eventually died alone of a cancer which could have been wholly avoided had he not needed his vices to withstand the unbearable grief.
I wish that he could have known my children. And I look at my four babies and wish that they could have met him, the irrevocably broken, yet completely selfless man who was my dad.