I remember when my father left. He didn’t just leave my mother, he left me. His only child, he left without a fucking backward glance. He didn’t feel bad at all, he just cut me off. I didn’t hear from that man in 3 years. If he was dead, I wouldn’t know. I’d find out through the extensive grapevine of my mother’s friends but I sure as hell wouldn’t find out in time to make the funeral.
You don’t know what it’s like. So I’ll tell you.
When you’re 12 and someone leaves, it doesn’t make much sense. Divorce doesn’t make much sense. When you’re 12, your greatest concern is the social nexus of school. Your other greatest concerns are Nintendogs and what happens on the playground after class. Tamagotchis may have also made it on the list of priorities at one stage.
Even if I knew the definition of the word, I didn’t understand it. I understood that people didn’t love each other anymore – I stopped loving my best friend and replaced her with Sarah, and her me with Maggie. I understood that, but I didn’t understand the concept of unconditional love.
Most people by the age of 12 have not gone through enough to know that their parents love them unconditionally. I definitely hadn’t. I know some people will have leukemia and their parents will spend sleepless nights in a hospital waiting room chair. I know some people will experience things I never will, I know some parents will have made unimaginable sacrifice for their kids by the time they’ve celebrated their 12th birthday. Mine hadn’t. Even if they had, I’m not certain I could have known that this was a symbol, a token, of unconditional love that comes from creating a human being. Your parents will tell you, like mine did, “I’ll always love you” but it won’t always feel like that. They’ll shout, they’ll scream that you let the rabbit out again, or that you dropped a bowl of fish soup on the wool carpet. They’ll yell at you for what you did to your brother or your sister, their faces a cast of disappointment for getting a call from school for failing the 2nd grade spelling test.
When someone, who is supposed to unconditionally love you, leaves, what do you do? You don’t do anything. Your mother will tell you it’s nothing to do with you, it’s between mommy and daddy but you won’t believe her. And for once, she won’t be right. You’ll realize it’s all daddy, and mommy was left in the dust, too, just like you were. You suppressed the memory, you don’t forget what happened but you don’t think about it either. Your mother’s friends will not bring up that man in conversation in front of you, though you’ll hear a snippet of gossip from behind closed doors. If he has to be brought up in conversation, he is now your father, not Dad, or daddy. His name will be hissed with a whisper of malice.
You’ll see court proceedings on your mother’s desk and you’ll skim the legal jargon then put it right back where you found it, like a thief not daring to leave any fingerprints. You’ll wonder what’s going on in your father’s life, you’ll wonder where he’s been recently. He’s always traveling, he always used to bring back keyrings, trinkets and charms for you. A keyring from the Olympics, a stuffed bear with a Union Jack on its foot from England, a leather bracelet from South Africa. Postcards he never sent but promised to give you when he next came to see you because back then, there was always a next time bobbing in the horizon.
You’ll be constantly reassured it’s not your fault but you still wonder. Rationally, you know better but you wish there was something you could do. You’ll call and he’ll pick up but he’ll the cut the conversation short. He won’t even sound like your father, sometimes.
The worst part is, your mother won’t demonize him. She tells you about how he’s doing well at work and that he’s a very ambitious man. He’s a bit of a public figure, apparently. You’ll think that’s rather cool – isn’t it? – but you’ll still wonder if a truly good person would have left their wife and child like that.
One day you’ll lose your temper over something, like all children do. You’ll have a little tantrum and your grandparents call at the worst time while your mother is trying to deal with you. She’ll tell them what happened to try to get them off the phone but you’ll hear your grandfather make a comment. You’ll hear only the tail end, but it’ll be enough. He says, “…just like her father” and that will cut you more than it should. You’re genetically at least 50% identical to your father, what did you expect? You’ll still hate the idea that you could be the offspring of a man like that. A man who did things like that, who just left.
You’ll be fine, though, you think. You’ll go to school, you’ll have off days like everyone else and you’ll be cast in the school play as Townfolk 1. You’ll do well at school, your teachers will expect great things. You’ll consider studying liberal arts at college and your mother will be concerned that the local universities aren’t good enough. She’ll discuss it with the careers counsellor who says that the Ivy Leagues are expensive, are you aware of that? My mother will waive her concerns away, telling her, “her father is a bastard but god be damned if she gets in and he doesn’t pay tuition.”
You won’t find out about that until later, much later.
You’ll be fine, you’ll cruise along at school until your father reappears in your life. He’ll show up at school demanding to pick up his daughter at school. Your school principal will panic, your mother has mentioned that something like this could happen. She comes to the locker room which is, quite frankly, filthy. She’s worried about child abduction, she’s worried about lawsuits, she’s worried about the wrath of my mother. She’ll tell you that you can see your father in her office or you can go home and she’ll handle it. You’ll thank her, let her know that you’re fine and you take the bus home with your best friend like you did most days. Your mother calls you, but your phone is out of battery. Your mother calls your best friend’s phone, she asks for you and her relief is palpable when she hears your voice. She’s nearly in tears, she’s terrified of what your father wants, of finding out why he’s here after all these years. She tells you to go to Sarah’s house, no one is at home and she doesn’t want you to be home alone. Sarah’s happy to help, she’s actually rather excited you’re coming to her house. Maybe we can even get fish and chips near the bus stop, have we got enough coins between the two of us?
She doesn’t realize that your father’s reappearance is a terrible, terrible thing. She doesn’t realize his reappearance opens up a world of hurt that you were once too young to understand. She doesn’t realize that you probably would have made it all the way to the end of high school without much trouble but now that he’s here, things aren’t quite so peachy. That man turned your world upside down once and you’ve coped just fine, possibly because you were too young and too ignorant, but now you’re older and you’re wiser and ignorance was bliss. You can’t plead ignorance anymore. Ignorance was a kind of bliss you’re no longer entitled to.
When he came back, he took you to dinner. Your phone is having one of its daily seizures and your father offers to buy you a new phone. The iPhone has just launched and he offers to buy you the smartphone on everyone’s lips. You didn’t say no – you were 16 and you were rather curious about the phone that threatened to make all other phones look like Fred Flintstone’s. You don’t realize that your father buys your love just like he buys everything else – houses, cars and clothes.