Relationships

Getting to Know My Father Before It Was Too Late

It took almost a lifetime to finally reconcile with my part-time dad

Father and child reunion.

For most of my childhood and all of my adult life, I had a part-time father. My parents were separated by the time I was 4 and they divorced when I was 7. I had a full-time mom and a weekend dad.

Seeing my dad on weekends was enough for me—or so I thought. From early on, I told my friends that having a different address from my father didn't mean we weren't close. In truth, I pretty much hid my dissatisfaction that I only saw him when he could fit me into his schedule.

Ten years ago, I spent 11 days with my then-71-year-old father, his ailing second wife and their home/healthcare assistant in a spacious condo in Aventura, Florida. Eleven days may not seem very long, but after decades of weekend visits, one-week college breaks and vacations, and meeting for layovers at airports, 11 days felt like a lifetime.

In the nine years since I had lost my mother in a tragic car accident, my father finally started to open up about our life together and apart—which is why I had high expectations on the second day of my visit when we ditched his wife and home care assistant and went to have lunch at a French bistro.

"There are some topics that I've always stayed away from when we talk," he began. "My marriage to your mother, what really happened when she didn't join me in Mexico where I had a Fulbright scholarship—and my relationship with my second wife."

I already knew that my father had an affair while studying in Mexico and that, after returning to New York, reconciled with my mother. A year later, I was born. I wasn't sure what else he could add to that soap opera.

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"While I was in Mexico," he said, "I received a letter from a friend saying that he was at a club in New York and saw your mother there with her arms draped around a date."

So, I guess that made it OK for you to have an affair, I thought to myself. The fact that my mother had a date while her husband was studying in Mexico somehow didn't faze me.

My father continued, "After we reunited, your mother said she was pregnant and I'd have to get a real job, and stop being a student. Then, to get back at me, she told me she had pierced the condom we used during our reunion and that's how she got pregnant."

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I silently thanked my mother, who I now realized had single-handedly planned my conception. My father went on to say that his second wife was really his "one true love," running down all the things that went wrong in his relationship with my mother, stressing her mistakes and conveniently leaving out most of his.

"Your mother was a wicked, wicked woman," he said self-righteously.

By that point, my blood was boiling. Was this the same man who yelled, "No, No, No," when I called to tell him my mother had died? Trying to create a revisionist version of his marriage to my mother—who was my best friend—only earned my disgust, especially since my parents had a healthy post-divorce friendship for decades.

"You know, you abandoned me. Your career and the women in your life always took precedence over me," I said, finally letting loose. "I've existed on the crumbs of your time and accepted that was all I'd get. I'm the one who always bent over backward to fit you into my life, not the other way around. My mother was my rock—not you!"

My father just bowed his head and didn't have anything else to say.

When it was time for me to leave, my father told me the best part of my visit had been hearing me call him "Dad" while we shopped together in a local Wal-Mart, me pushing a shopping cart while he was rolling behind me in his wheelchair.

"No matter what you may think, you are my only child and daughter," he said, with tears in his eyes, "and your visit here meant a lot."

It's a funny thing, but when fathers leave children behind, not only do they not hear "Dad" but we left-behind children have fewer opportunities to say it. I realized then that he missed out on being a full-time dad just as I missed out on having one.

After many years of fighting complications of myositis, my father lost his battle in 2011. A year before he died, we spent another week together at my father's home in Kingston, Jamaica, where the photo above was taken. He was extremely frail at the time and would often just reach out to hold my hand without uttering a word. Nothing more needed to be said.

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