My parents married 30 days after they met. Mom's car died just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, and Dad rescued her with his tow truck. A petite orphan with a few more IQ points than Forrest Gump (her three-months-premature birth had resulted in mild brain damage), she needed a champion to guide and defend her. Dad's strength is legendary even among his legendarily brawny family of lumberjacks and linemen. He lifted and held the ends of cars while his brothers put chains on their tires at Donner Pass. He certainly could protect her.
I was born 11 months after the wedding, and things were good until Dad lost his job with the towing company. No wife of his was going to work outside the home, but his odd jobs weren't covering the rent or utilities or groceries. Then the Jehovah's Witnesses won over my mother, and they required six to eight hours of meeting attendance, 20 hours of study, and at least three hours of knocking on doors each week. Soon after Dad was baptized with Mom, he began protesting that he couldn't make a living and tend to his young family while satisfying the Witnesses.
But the real reason he couldn't be a good Witness was that he loved drugs — especially cocaine — and found them particularly comforting during his unemployment. The more Dad caroused with his hippie friends, the surer Mom became that he was possessed by a demon. My profoundly autistic sister's birth increased the pressure. Dad partied more and Mom did more worrying and complaining while clinging ever tighter to her newfound "brothers and sisters."
I have a faded memory of my parents arguing. Mom in curlers, pink fuzzy slippers, and a blue housecoat and Dad yelling something like, "If the Kingdom Hall is more important than me, you can just go now!" He seized her curlers like a toddler grabs a doll's hair and forced her out onto the front porch, slamming and locking the door behind her. But I don't know if I actually saw that or just pictured it when I overheard Mom talking about it on the phone.
When she told him she was leaving and he'd never see his kids again, he said he'd find her and she'd never see the kids again. He knew she wouldn't go without both of her children, so from that point on, he took me along wherever he went.
The minute our only vehicle's taillights were out of sight, she called the "brothers"; they came for us, and we were gone, with little more than the clothes on our backs.
We were taken in by a black family of Witnesses in San Francisco. At 3 years old, I had never seen black people in Marin County, and it intensified the day's surreality. We were embraced as family.
We eventually got our own government-issue apartment. I remember a few tearful tantrums, wailing that I wanted my daddy during the first few years, but of course, Mom kept her word. My grief and fear found no sympathetic ear, so they manifested physically. That year, I was plagued with recurring urinary tract infections, which the doctors blamed on cheap bubble bath. When a 104-degree fever didn't respond to antibiotics and landed me in the hospital playing the role of pincushion, I eventually lost patience with needles and fought the nurse, relenting when he promised that this would be the last blood test. When the next nurse came with a syringe, it took three people to hold me down. They never found the cause of the fever, but when it vanished as mysteriously as it had come, I was referred to Mental Health Services.
As time passed, my social skills were coarse enough to make people wonder if Jack Nicholson had founded a charm school, and new playmates were scarce. Instead, I holed up in Mom's room listening to her records, fantasizing that Elvis was my dad because I could no longer remember my real dad's face. Yet, even the twin healing powers of Elvis and time could not completely eradicate the constant undercurrent of fear that attended whenever I was outside alone. I once got off the sidewalk and pretended to be a lawn statue when a stranger's pace overtook mine.
Years of real and contrived illnesses, bad grades, not playing well with others — namely Mom — and a near-complete contempt for authority — namely the Witnesses — bought me a one-way ticket to the foster care system. Mom told me I would be in the shelter for only three days; it turned into nearly five years.
Shortly after I aged out of the system, which, for all its flaws, did set me on a better path than I could otherwise have hoped, I was hired by the facility that had been my home. When a Notice of Support Collection with Dad's name on it crossed my desk, I ecstatically called the office and asked for my father's contact information. Privacy laws meant they couldn't reveal those details, but if I'd write them a letter, they'd write him a letter, and if he wrote back, they'd write me.
My letter went out within the hour.
The agency must have given Dad my number, because a few weeks later, he called me. (Who knew a bureaucracy could skip a few steps?) His mumbly voice, with a volume he couldn't quite control, made him difficult to understand over the phone, but I did understand when he said he would already be on the way if he could, but as a garbage man, he had to work at 4 a.m. Could he come Friday? Friday! All week, I walked on sunshine, telling anyone and everyone that I'd found my long-lost father.
Friday evening, Angela, my absolute best friend from whom I'd been inseparable since the day we met in high school, waited with me in my freshly and thoroughly cleaned rented room in anticipation of the celebrated guest I hadn't seen since toddlerhood.
"Do you think he's rich? Garbage men make good money. Do you think he'll be tall? What kind of car does he have?" I wondered aloud.
Angela joked, "What if he's short, fat, bald, and driving a Volkswagen?" I nearly peed myself laughing.
The phone rang. He was at the Chinese restaurant next door.
"I'm driving a Volkswagen Squareback," he mumbled. "Look for it and you'll find me."
I left Angela to walk 20 yards to the phone booth, where I found a man who resembled Santa Claus — if Santa were a disheveled, middle-aged 5'7" bachelor with a bald pate, a dirty-blond six-inch Bozo-the-Clown 'do, and a David Crosby mustache. He gathered me into his Popeye-strong arms and held me tight for an uncomfortably long time, slowly rocking, savoring the moment. Like a well-trained dog at the veterinarian, I tamped down my flight-or-fight and allowed him to hold me — this complete stranger whose eyes I recognized from the mirror. He needed deodorant.
I brought him inside and showed him to the seat of honor, a Bentwood rocker that had been a going-away present from the foster care shelter. It wasn't big or sturdy enough for him and hasn't rocked quite right since.
He had a gift: a nice, crisp $50 bill. We left Angela to go to Togo's Sandwiches. When we got back into the Volkswagen, he asked if I had ever been to Tico's Tacos. I hadn't, but had seen it because it wasn't far from the children's shelter where my foster care odyssey had begun.
"You're missing a treat!" he declared. We rattled to the iffy part of San Jose, where he got a giant burrito and I got a soda since I had eaten only 15 minutes before. Dad had discovered the place when he visited his brother at San Jose State. "Whenever I need a Tico's fix," he said, "I drive all the way down here to get these burritos. They're worth the trip."
We started visiting each other regularly, and one time we even smoked a joint together while meandering down the road in one of his beat-up pickup trucks. He was nothing like the mean, domineering "goat" my mother had described. She had never mentioned how strong or resourceful he was. She also hadn't once remarked on his helpful nature. Dad's knee-jerk need to help made him stop for every stranded motorist and offer to solve any problem he overheard them mention. He never turned away a stray animal or an "outdoors" friend. Dad was accepting and supportive of all walks of life, and people could intimate absolutely anything without fear of judgment.
Over time, we tried to build a father-daughter relationship with road trips, projects, emails, visits, and phone calls, sharing news and filling each other in on the missing years, but the closest we ever managed was more uncle-niece than father-daughter. Dad eventually became a pillar of both Narcotics Anonymous and the Baptist church and stopped blaming Mom for his hardships. He repeatedly asked me to "give her my best."
One evening a few years ago, Dad went home, tired from working his day job, his odd jobs, and then tending to his new wife who was hospitalized with a broken pelvis. He put some clothes in the dryer, ate, went to bed, and died of congestive heart failure.
His well-attended funeral overflowed with tales of Herculean strength, shirt-off-his-back generosity, redneck ingenuity, and enormous-hearted kindness.
It was amazing how much we had in common, especially since he hadn't raised me. I couldn't see the man Mom unrelentingly hated, but after reuniting with him, I could finally understand how someone who hated him would have so little patience with me.
Mom's face still twists into a disgusted, spleen-venting rage whenever he comes up in conversation.