Over the labor day weekend of 2012, I went to a little dusty town called Friendship, LA to visit my paternal grandparents. My father was back in the town of his birth, as he had moved a few months prior to help look after my ailing grandparents. My mom, going through a healing process and sensing that she needed to ask my dad for forgiveness for some things in their relationship – not only for him, but for her as well – had called him Saturday morning. They became friends for the first time since their divorce, and on a whim she decided to head on down to see him and my grandparents. We grabbed my young nephew whom my grandparents had never met, and headed East on I-20 from Dallas. Friendship is about 20 miles outside the city of Homer, which is outside the city of Minden, which is outside the city of Shreveport. If you blink, you’ll miss the trees, dirt, and waving, smiling people. Grandpa JC was nearing 89 and declining in health and his wife, Grandma Mary who was celebrating a 79th birthday, was in worse health. They depended on my dad for doctor visits, lifting and pulling, and everything else that their ailing health deprived them. I enjoyed the time with them but also the time spent with my dad. We shared a bedroom with two twin beds and would talk a little before we both drifted to sleep. I hadn’t spent more than an hour or two with my dad since I was at least 13.
First, a little background:
My parents were forced by their parents to marry in 1979 because mama was 17 and pregnant. They kept it going until 1989, when I was seven years old. Mama finally decided to leave daddy when he developed an addiction to crack cocaine. He has been on crack since then and hasn’t been in me and my siblings’ life much since then. Now back to the story…
While the trip was mostly for my grandparents, I did spend a lot of time with my dad. I asked him questions, watched him cook (he‘s an excellent cook btw) and of course being a master storyteller, he told lots of hilarious stories. One time, when we were both laying around he intimated to me that he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression. My mother later told me that he had been diagnosed with manic depression when they were together. He said he had attempted suicide three times but it never worked. I had discovered where my own cyclical depression probably stemmed from – my father.
My mom’s kindness to him for the first time in over 20 years had done something to him. There was an eagerness to please us, and a zeal to show us a good & relaxing time.
Daddy still wanted to be with mama.
On Sunday night as Elijah was playing with his toy garage and matchbox cars, my grandparents, my parents and I sat around the kitchen table talking and laughing. My dad, feeling confident, mentioned something about waiting on my mom to take him back and she politely but definitively told him that they would just be best friends.
I didn’t notice it right away, but something in my dad’s demeanor changed. He was initially staying at my grandparents’ house with us because his plumbing was broken, but he abruptly decided to go home that night. Within 10 minutes he left and we all retired to bed. Ten minutes after we had been in bed, daddy returned to the house, banging on the window. He had changed his mind and said that he had just gone down to the street party around the corner to get something to eat.
Prior to tonight, I believe my dad had been clean in Louisiana. He had gained weight. His mannerisms were familiar. His eyes were bright. He was staying away from friends and women as he didn’t want to disappoint his dad and he didn’t want to disappoint himself. That night as we lay in bed, I looked over at my dad, huddled in a fetal position, his back to me. It was dark but in the moonlight that streamed through the window blinds, I could see that he kept stretching his neck towards his hands. He was snorting crack. It didn’t do anything to me then, as few things do immediately. I just rolled over and continued to play with my phone.
That morning, my dad woke up early and prepared a lackluster breakfast unlike the one the day before. He hardly said a word to anyone that entire morning. Around midday, when we decided to leave, he followed us out to Homer and made sure we got on our way. We hugged him goodbye, but his embrace was half-hearted. There was a sadness on his face that can only be described as despair. Even thinking of it now weakens me. As mama and I drove off, I felt a lump in my throat and a wide sadness came over me. I realized for the first time how similar we were. He was funny, a good cook, personable, dawdling. But he was also deeply sad, anxious about life, and complex. I didn’t cry. I didn’t want to burden mama with my heaviness. I had to drop Elijah off with his mom and then mama at her house. And with each unloading, the lump in my throat got bigger and harder to swallow. As I drove away from mama’s house, I wept bitterly, replaying daddy’s face in my mind. For the first time in at least 23 years, I felt an emotion for my daddy. I wept for his humanness that I had never considered. I wept because he felt like a failure, especially to me, his most distant child. I wept because I realized that though I thought I never had ill feelings towards him, my non-feeling was a shadowed unforgiveness. I loved him for the first time that I can remember, but in sadness and some pity.
That weekend was a mercy. I had repressed my feelings for my daddy for so long that I thought we were okay, but we weren’t. And I realized I had emotional work to do. My daddy had never been there for me or my siblings, but now I realized, that at that particular moment, he needed us way more than we needed him.
My heart began to open.