The Kids Are All Right

The Disappearance of My Father

When I turned 12, my father vanished and became a ghost of himself

My childhood, for the most part, was a happy one. I had two young parents who put all their energy into our family. We’d picnic, hike, take trips to the beach, sit outside our tiny broken trailer and lick melting ice cream cones in the summer. We didn’t have much money, but it never really seemed to matter.

Things began to change when I turned 12. I was too caught up in my own drama at the time – being a tween girl dealing with typical adolescent issues like my changing body, what clothes to wear and musician friends with eyeliner pushing me to become more angsty. The most dramatic change in our household that year, however, was that my father became deeply sad.

It started around the time he was having problems with his health and when my younger brother’s Aspergers began to cause some tension in the house. I'm sure these issues weren't easy to deal with, but I could still never put my finger on why my dad was sad or angry.

It was just a general malaise and total disconnect, like he had pulled himself from the big game with no intentions of ever returning. You could see it in the way he monosyllabically spoke to my mother. You could see it in the deep bags under his eyes. You could see it in the plodding gait of his walk. Our religion didn’t believe in depression, but it was obvious that that had pervaded his soul.

“What's going on with dad?” I finally asked my mom.

“He’s in a lot of pain,” she answered. I think she was talking about his health at the time, but she was right on a number of levels.

I hoped things would get better, but they never really did. In the ensuing years, I graduated high school, went off to college, and every time I came back home for a visit, he remained as miserable as ever. I always wanted to fix it, but I never knew how.

I'd talk to my mom a few times a month, and she'd inevitably ask, “Do you want to talk to your father?”

“If he wants to,” I'd answer.

I’d hear him whisper in the background, “I’ll just get the update from you,” to my mom. A mumbled “Love you, too” would sometimes come from him after much prompting. And that was that.

My father’s primary method of communication – and really, the extent of our relationship – was via email, mostly to exchange articles he had read in The New Yorker. My father was no longer my father. He had vanished and become a ghost of himself.

Last May, I graduated college Magna Cum Laude. I didn’t make a big deal about it, so neither of my parents came. I didn’t mind. Then a play I wrote premiered in Hollywood. I would've loved for them to attend that, but I didn’t feel right asking them to leave my brothers and a new house.

“It’s totally fine,” I told my mom. “I totally understand.” (I liked the word “totally.”)

I turned twenty-one last summer, and didn’t expect anything from my parents. I was an adult now, and the small amount of interaction with my mother and even less with my father somehow seemed the norm.

However, I did receive something. At midnight on June 7th, my father sent me an email. Slightly drunk from my first legal drinks, I opened it at 2 am.

“I realized how far behind we've fallen in our duties as parents,” he began.

I froze as I read this sentence, and then, suddenly, I was crying. I was crying because I never thought I had any right to demand their attention; to ask them to fly so far for my silly milestones, it seemed so selfish. But here he was saying, you are allowed to feel that way. We are sorry we missed pieces of you growing up.

I realized how badly I’d needed to hear those words.

"You should know that on June 7th, 1992, you were the most exhilarating thing to come into our lives," he wrote. "Some of the happiest moments of my life were with you as a baby.”

After that day, there was another shift. No, this isn’t a “and they lived happily ever after” kind of story, because, as we all know, that’s not how life works. My father didn’t get medication or suddenly become cured. But something did flip on my 21st birthday, and things got better.

He made a real effort in the following months to be a presence in my life. To reach out and see how I am. To encourage my dreams. To get the updates from me directly, not just from my mother. For the first time in a very long time, my father is my father again. And sometimes, he even says, “I love you” first.

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