My name is Michael. I’m thirty years old. Both of my parents are living, but I’m an orphan. This has been a part of my identity for as long as I can remember – the orphan part. And now I have to get used to a new identity, one where it looks like I might have a father. I am both happy and terrified and I don’t know how to navigate any of it…
I had parents in the conventional sense for the first seven years of my life, and then they got divorced and everything came apart for me. My mother was physically, verbally and emotionally abusive. My dad had been her target and when he left I became the substitute.
I think calling my mother a monster would be unfair, because it’s not that simple. But saying she did monstrous things would be almost understated and entirely accurate. Being punched, kicked, shoved became the norm for me. Being screamed at and berated and kept in the basement, not allowed to use the phone or have friends over or go outside – also the norm. And occasionally knives, being strangled and other more serious things were sprinkled in because the normal abuses just weren’t cutting it. From the ages of eight to fourteen, the time that I finally left her home for good, home was a warzone and existing was all about strategy. I always had a sharp tongue, and if she shoved me I would just stare her down. For me survival was about making sure she knew she couldn’t break me. I was stronger than she was, and she could not destroy me or control me no matter how much she tried to break me down. Some people thought this made things worse, but to be 100% honest, it was the only way I could keep going, and not break.
My father was mostly absent, especially in the first few years after the divorce. When he made an effort to have both my brother and me back in his life, it seemed to fall short when it came to me. If my mother beat me he asked what I did to deserve it. He refused to help me, no matter how bad it was. And then my mother crossed a line and dumped me on my father’s doorstep after I was strangled. Both of my sides were black and blue, finger marks still present on my neck. My father couldn’t turn away from it anymore, but he didn’t seem happy that now I was his problem. He had a wife and two new kids. I was just an unfair burden to darken his doorway.
And he treated me as such. The way he would talk to me and how I had countless chores and expectations, while my three younger brothers had nothing. How he would barely acknowledge my birthday while my brothers would get gaming systems and fists full of cash (my father is very comfortable). He did more damage than my mother did, because he was a good dad, to everyone but me. He wasn’t crazy, and yet he made it clear that I was the problem. Something was wrong with me…
After less than two years at his house I was done. I lived on my own, bouncing place to place, sometimes even living on the streets as early as fifteen until I was nineteen (with the exception of when I was in college and the dorms were open). I knew I was on my own. In some ways I always had been. Even if my father thought I was homeless I would not be welcome or I would be shoved off to a relative… that’s how it had been since I was a sophomore in high school. If I didn’t initiate contact, we could easily go a year without speaking.
Growing up knowing that I was an orphan, motherless and fatherless, while both of my parents were alive and healthy… it hurt. There was anger and resentment and pain and hurt, and all of these other negative emotions rolled up into a big ball of crap. It seemed impossible to separate one emotion from the next in this big ball, with the exception of one: longing. I longed more than anything, to know what it was like to have a parent. What would it be like? Would I feel loved and safe and accepted? What would any of those things feel like?
Three years ago, I finally cut my mother out of my life for good. It wasn’t out of spite or anger, and it had nothing to do with her, and everything to do with me. Cutting a toxic person out of your life doesn’t mean that you hate that person, it just means that you love yourself enough to let go. And now I do. And I love my husband and our future children enough to make that clean break. But the break with my father was less clean and less clear. Even if he did more damage in some ways, he was still more salvageable between the two of them. But things had to change, and he had to change towards me, and he had to realize I had already changed.
The last three years have been… awkward. I send him birthday cards, but he doesn’t send me anything, and sometimes he’ll forget it entirely. We barely communicate, maybe just a few times a year. Now with my deafness as bad as it is, the phone is not an option anymore and that is certainly part of it, but texts and emails… same story. I’ve felt like it was me reaching out repeatedly and while he didn’t spit on my efforts, they weren’t really reciprocated. I told him at one point that while I don’t need an apology, we did need to talk about the past. I don’t hold onto it anymore, I’m not angry, but to move forward there had to be some acknowledgement. I didn’t tell him what needed to be acknowledged because it had to come from him. But this was important for me, like some sort of closure. That was two years ago…
And then a few months ago he said he wanted to come out and visit us. At first I didn’t take him seriously, because broken promises and empty gestures were kind of his thing. But then he had an itinerary and it was real. And then he arrived for his visit…
I welcomed him to stay with us and that’s what he ended up doing. I was anxious to say the least, but I was also hopeful because you have to be. And then he did something that I never expected him to do, without warning, after we showed him around our house, he wanted to talk. My husband was present, as was my father’s wife, and without introduction he gave me what I had told him I needed years ago. He apologized and it wasn’t some empty thing. He talked about how he treated me, ignored me, didn’t support me… and he said he would always live with that regret. But out of all of his children, he was the most proud of me. I never had anything handed to me, and I had to fight like hell just to stick around (lots of medical issues, including a brain injury from being abused as a baby) and I did. I made a life for myself, a life with a man that I love more than anything, and we have a house that is a home, and I have my own business doing something that I love. I have my shit together, more or less.
He talked to me about my childhood, when I became a teenager, when I was a baby, both the good memories where he stepped up and acted like a father, and the times that stay with him because he didn’t. At the end, I was so… I don’t know. I thanked him for talking to me, and how much it meant and that I didn’t hold onto any ill feelings for him. I told him everything I should have, and I meant it all, but in that moment I felt only half there. It was a lot to take in and digest, and for a conversation that I waited so long for and my exceptional memory… it’s all kind of a blur. I never dreamed such a talk would happen, and now that it has I feel like the invisible wall between my father and me has fallen. But there is still a lot of figure out.
I’m an adult now; I was never really a kid. Not having a parent as a kid, but suddenly having one as an adult it tricky. There is no transition to figuring out where or how a parent fits in when they come into your life much later. And like my father always lives with his regrets, I’ll always live with the hurt. Not the anger, the big ball of crap came apart years ago, and the only things left behind were hurt and longing. And now the longing has been satiated, but the hurt I’m sure will always be there. We don’t have a time machine, and it is a lot. I don’t focus on it, and I won’t, but it’s this shadow, much like I imagine my father’s regret is for him.
I think the hardest thing for me now is figuring out how to have this relationship, because it’s new to me. I never had a substitute parent, let alone father, in my life. It’s probably like an only child finding a long-lost sibling decades later. A parent/child relationship is different from friendships and siblings and romance and all of the other relationships I have had. The dynamics are different, and I am trying to figure it all out because that’s who I am.
But while I am anxious in some ways, and still uncomfortable or confused in others, I am mostly happy, and even excited. I never thought I would be able to renounce my orphan status. I never thought I would have the chance to have a parent. And now it seems like I do. It feels like an emptiness that was inside of me is starting to fill. And maybe I don’t have to look at where or who I came from, and feel nothing but sorrow and loss. Because for the first time in my life, it looks like something, someone, is actually there. And it’s healthy and good and love.
It’s an adjustment, but the best kind of adjustment I could possibly imagine. Strike that – it’s better.