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Please, please don’t pick up, I thought as I paced the bathroom floor.
The automatic voice messaging system picked up — not him — and my heartbeat slowed.
“Hey, Dad,” I said into my cell phone. “I hope you’re doing okay. There’s something I called to tell you, some really important things we need to discuss. Call me back when you can, if you want to. I love you, Dad. I always will, but things are going to change. Bye.”
I hated myself for caring that my father would be mad at me for accepting my boyfriend’s marriage proposal without asking his permission first. Why should my dad get a say when he’d physically and emotionally abused me my entire childhood? He still called me names and yelled at me when we talked. And yet my chest constricted at the thought of confronting him, or worse, finally letting him go.
Beginning when I was 12 years old, I lived in six towns in the six years I was in the Nevada foster care system, after Child Protective Services removed me from my father’s home. The last year and a half before graduating high school, I lived with one of my teachers. *Betsy, my biology and P.E. teacher, took me in, and later my brother, after she saw what I was going through in foster care.
Betsy was one of the first people I was able to talk to about my past and insecurities. She was encouraging and loving and always had ice cream for me when I was sad. She adopted my brother, but I didn’t allow her to adopt me until I was 20 and had long moved out of the house. Trust issues, I guess.
Life became busy. Betsy and I rarely talked anymore. We saw each other on holidays, though, and that was always nice.
I had always been close with my maternal grandmother, who couldn’t care for me when I was a child because she has a mental illness. I had kept in touch with a few phone calls here and there with biological mom’s father and her sister, my aunt *Raquel. Sometimes they’d visit, usually when Grandpa and his wife wanted to gamble in Reno. So when I accepted a newspaper gig in Santa Barbara (they lived about an hour away), I visited them.
Grandpa and Raquel, who was in her 30s and had a daughter in high school and a son in middle school, insisted I stay with them instead of moving into Grandma’s nearby one-bedroom apartment as I planned. I was skeptical, but I thought maybe we could get to know each other a little better, make up for lost time.
That time was much better spent lost.
See, you learned to take care of yourself in foster care, they would say. You were given scholarships and went to college. You have a wonderful career ahead of you. And now you’re here with us, your family. Everything works out the way it should.
You know, Nikki, your mother didn’t want you to get adopted.
No, I would think, they wanted you to take me in so I wouldn’t be in foster care. Did they want a medal for leaving me there to rot? When they showed my byline to their friends and bragged about me, they seemed to forget they told me I was alone when my mom died, that I had no one and couldn’t count on them to help me. Or the few times we visited them and they wouldn’t let me use their shampoo, because they said it was too expensive. Grandpa had me wash my hair with soap. And they told me I should chip in for expenses, even though I was in foster care and had no income. All the while, Grandpa and Raquel bought her children clothes and gifts.
Away from the Reno area, where my father, brother, and adopted family still lived, I began to gain perspective. After I was hired full-time as a features writer for the paper, I moved out of their house into an apartment in gorgeous Santa Barbara. I began to distance myself from that part of my family and started building a new life.
As a teenager and young adult, I had dated far too many men who either behaved similarly to my father or grandfather or used me for one reason or another. I kept repeating the cycle, wanting to be loved, until I vowed to be single for a year. Better single than to end up with an abusive man or loser like my birth mom did, I thought. After that year, I met Robby.
When I started dating Robby, a freelance photojournalist with the same newspaper in Santa Barbara, I knew he was the one. He was pensive and loyal and funny and ambitious and kind. I loved everything about him.
Robby respected me. I felt I was valuable to him, not just by his words but through the way he treated me. I beamed not only when he was around, but even when I just thought about him. When Robby loved me, I saw myself as lovable. His dad had nicknames for me and we joked together often. His sister, Julie, was fun to be around and we grew close. Robby’s family didn’t judge me or put me down. I couldn’t envision a life with Robby that included my father.
I started going to counseling after months of having nightmares of my father abusing me. A few months before Robby proposed, I decided I didn’t want my dad in my life anymore. He hadn’t returned my call in the months since the engagement. I was sure he’d heard the news and was still angry.
I remained close with my adoptive mother Betsy’s eldest daughter, *Scarlett, and her husband, *Justin. I asked Justin to walk me down the aisle.
In Betsy’s absence, Robby’s mother *Anne planned the whole wedding with me. She came with me to choose my wedding dress, was there for tastings and fittings. She worked out all of the paperwork with Robby and me for the ceremony, reception, vendors and everything else.
Still, I missed my biological mom. My siblings and I had lived with her growing up on and off until she was busted for selling drugs and then later died of colon cancer the year after we entered foster care.
And I missed my adoptive mother, who hadn’t attempted to be involved with wedding planning. We’d only talked a few times during the several months since the engagement. Did she even care about my wedding? Did she even care about me?
My adoptive sister, Scarlett, gave me ideas and advice and helped my best friend/maid of honor plan the bachelorette party. Scarlett’s sons were ring bearers and she was a bridesmaid. My other two adopted sisters were supportive, but we don’t stay in touch much. I hoped they wouldn’t be hurt that they weren’t asked to be bridesmaids and that my biological sister, *Danielle, was.
My dad abused us both in different ways and it affected our dynamic. But the past is the past, or so I hoped. At my bachelorette party in Las Vegas, in front of the other bridesmaids, Danielle laughed as she told a story about me when I was dumped, involving me crying inconsolably for days. I was uncomfortable, but she just kept talking and didn’t seem to mind it was bothering me.
The next day I told my sister what she did wasn’t okay and I wouldn’t accept her belittling me at my wedding or anywhere else. I was so angry.
Fast-forward a few weeks, through more wedding and family drama and stress, and I was on the phone with Betsy. She told me she wasn’t going to be in town until early Saturday, the day of the wedding. There was a mix-up; she hadn’t received the rehearsal dinner invitation.
“I figured you might have something like that, but isn’t it for the wedding party only?”
“No,” I said. I tried to mask my tears by speaking slowly. “It’s for family. Everyone expects you to be there. I want you to be there.”
I pulled the phone away from my mouth so Betsy couldn’t hear me crying. Robby walked into our bedroom to see what was wrong. I waved him off and pulled the phone closer to my ear.
“Well, I’ll see what I can do,” Betsy said.
“It’s really, really important to me that you come. I really want you there with me.” I cried away from the phone some more. Betsy still hadn’t noticed.
“I’ll do my best to be there.”
After I hung up, Robby rushed from the other room and held me as I sobbed for hours. The next morning, Robby and I went to his grandmother’s house for Sunday breakfast with his family, like we did every week. Robby’s grandmother — everyone calls her Nana — watched me from the head of the table. After a few minutes, my future mother-in-law, Anne, and Robby’s sister, Julie, cleared our plates and took them to the kitchen. Robby and his dad got up for coffee.
Nana and I were still seated. “Nikki, is something wrong?” she asked me.
I started crying immediately. I told her about Betsy. Eighty-eight-year-old Nana stood up and walked over to sit next to me. She put one arm around me and held my hand. Everyone came back from the kitchen and stood over us watching as Nana comforted me.
“You’re never alone,” she said. “You have us now.”
“Betsy was there for you when you really needed her,” Anne said. “That’s the most important thing. She loves you.”
“It’s okay,” Julie said. “Nana’s right. You have us, now. We’re around for everything, whether you want us to be or not. That’s how we roll.”
I laughed and cried into Nana’s shoulder. Robby came over and wrapped his arms around the other side of me.
A few days later, Betsy called to tell me she bought a plane ticket to be in Santa Barbara on time for the wedding rehearsal dinner. I was so happy and I told her. I also told her how heartbroken I was when I thought she wasn’t coming. I told her I wished she’d been more involved. I said I knew it was my responsibility to tell her these things, and it’s not just her job to call me but that I wished she did more.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ll try to call more, because you’re very important to me and I love you very much.”
Betsy came to the rehearsal dinner, along with many other loved ones including my biological siblings and adoptive sister and her family.
Before my brother left the rehearsal, he said, “I have something for you.” He handed me a plaque I received in college for outstanding community service. I left it with my dad before I moved to California. “Dad had me come pick up some of your things to give to you.”
“You have to do this right now?” I said as I took the plaque. I should have known my dad would try to find a way to become relevant.
But I wasn’t going to let my dad manipulate me or ruin my wedding.
And he didn’t. Justin walked me down the aisle on a grassy hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I didn’t once think about my father or wish he were there. I didn’t miss my aunt or grandpa, who I didn’t invite and who are no longer in my life. I didn’t think about any of the people who have brought me down or tried to; I only thought of the people who love and support me.
That day was about Robby and me and our future together. It was almost like the closer I stepped toward him standing at the altar, with our friends and our officiant — his uncle — the further I walked away from the pain and hurting of my past.
And at the reception, the most unexpected thing happened. No, my dad didn’t show up and ruin the whole thing, as Danielle worried he might. It happened when a Savage Garden song came on. (Danielle and I have an embarrassing shared love of Savage Garden; it’s kind of our thing.) She squealed and I asked her to dance. We slow danced like we did when Danielle taught me how to when we were little kids.
“I’m so sorry about what happened in Vegas, Nikki,” Danielle said. “I’ve thought about it a lot and I’m so embarrassed.”
“It’s fine,” I started to say but then stopped myself. “I mean, thank you for saying that. I was really mad, but at least it taught me to stand up for myself, to tell you I didn’t like it.”
Danielle got quiet before telling me how much she loved Robby’s vows.
“Hey, what about mine?” I said with a laugh.
“I mean, I always knew you were a great writer and expected your vows to be good, but Robby’s, I mean those were amazing," she said. "You’ve always been such a great writer. You don’t know this, but I brag about you all the time. You’re so poised and well-spoken, and you can make friends with anyone. I wish I was more like you.”
I remember thinking if 12-year-old Nikki heard those words come from her big sister, she’d cry from joy.
Maybe even my 26-year-old self will, later, I thought, when everyone’s gone.
That was May 10. Robby and I have started our new life as husband and wife. About a week after our honeymoon, we moved to Seattle so Robby can attend law school here. We talk to his family on the phone often, and chat with my grandma on the phone daily.
Betsy Facebook messages, calls, and texts me regularly. She has already visited Robby and me in Seattle.
My father has since texted me the closest thing to an apology he is probably capable of, but I didn’t respond. When I decided I didn’t want him or other abusive people in my life anymore, it was because I imagined a happy family of my own someday, with children who I’d want to love and protect. If I would never let my children near these people, I thought, why should I allow them in my life to hurt me?
If you’re reading this now, this story is published somewhere other than my journal. And even though that makes me happy, part of me worries. If my family reads this, will they be angry? Will they abandon me?
I really hope they don’t. I hope I can disagree or argue with them without it ending relationships. Either way, I know I’ll still have the one person who promised me he will love me forever.
But no matter how much I love and trust my husband, sometimes a small part of me still feels like that scared 12-year-old girl.
And I think, please, please don’t leave me.