If there’s anything to recommend about the emotional process of pregnancy, it’s ups and downs, highs and lows, it might most be the degree of self-reflection and processing it forces upon you. The questions of how you’ll do things, what your parents did, what parents you admire do–all of these, for me, have been prompts for some of the deepest self-examination I’ve ever experienced.
And, for me, that means a lot of time to think about dads. Dads have always been extremely, extremely complicated for me. My own dad, a shadowy memory that plays in the back of my mind in random spurts like errant lightening; my gentle and kind father-in-law, who has become all the things I could have ever asked for in a dad and a friend; and, finally, my husband, who is already an extraordinarily tender and attentive father to someone who won’t even be earthside for four more weeks yet.
My father is one of the grandest mysteries of my life. My memories of him are often dark, fearful–me sitting on a toilet in the middle of the night yelling for him to come and help me, an overturned table and a sonorous yell, a goodbye kiss at a train station before my mom whisked us away, never to see or hear from him again. In the years that followed, I had a wonderful live-in grandfather–an artist, a thinker, a kind man who bought me a tiny kitten and yelled at me for wearing blue lipstick, and who died too soon for all of us to handle. This is how dads have been in my life–fleeting, fraught, complicated. I would refer to my own, during my angst-ridden teenage years, as a “sperm donor,” a title I gave him to mask what I truly felt he was–someone who did not know or care to figure out how to love me.
When my mom received a phone call to let her know that he had died, I was a sophomore in high school, obsessed with my own ennui. I knew the second she hung up the phone and furrowed her brows what she was coming to tell me, like a psychic shock to my system. I remember pulling out one ear bud, letting We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes keep playing, and saying, “My father is dead, isn’t he?” while I sat and pet that same cat my grandfather had given me years earlier.
As I was clearing out the baby’s room closet today to try to find a way to stack diapers, I found a photo of him that I find while rummaging around once in a while. It reminds me of the stranger who gave me my nose, my wild hair, my charisma, my impulsiveness, my arrogance, my hedonism, and whose darkness I often worried is buried in me somewhere to emerge when least expected.
I won’t ever know, really. I’ll know when my brother looks over with the same sharp, dark eyes—a stranger’s eyes, a vagabond’s—that we will never piece together the life of this veiled stranger. I think of him sometimes dying alone in that duplex in Brockton, Mass., almost 50, still a giant, still searching for something. And this is how I imagine his wandering too, a search. He loved the greyhound tracks, the soft thudding gallop of graceful dogs, and he loved to gamble on them so much it sent us to live in tents, in basements, in tiny ramshackle New England homes with dirt floors and windows of clouded glass. I don’t know if he wandered lost, or if he built a twisted life he may have loved for its sordidness. I’ll never know.
And now, we prepare to build a family unlike one I ever knew firsthand–two loving parents, with a dad who already cares so much I can see it radiating from him every day. I’m grateful that our daughter will get to experience the complete love of her father, but I can’t say that I’m not also, even now, maybe especially now, envious of her for that.