When I look back I’ll be able to say
You didn’t mean to be cruel.
Somebody hurt you too.”
Madonna — Oh Father
His image has always been indistinct in my mind. It was kind of a blur. But I have always clearly remembered his smell: harsh, musky, like a mixture of alcohol and perfume for men. Every time he left, that smell was in the air for the next few hours. My father didn’t come often and disappeared quickly — he and my mother had some kind of “guest marriage.” He brought sweets or gifts, tried to play with me, but then something always happened, and he closed the door from the other side. There was a time when he grabbed me, a five- or six-year-old girl, because I said something bad laughing, something that I had heard from my grandmother. I was so terrified then, and his musky smell felt even stronger than ever before. He was driven away and very drunk.
After that scene, he never ever came. All my questions like “Where’s daddy?” were strictly nipped in the bud by my mother and grandmother. “Don’t even talk about him; consider him not existing,” they said. And sometimes, when I raised my eyebrow, surprised amidst the talk, they remarked strictly: “Stop it, you resemble him doing that.” I felt ashamed right away, because I knew who they meant.
Years passed. I gradually got used to my father’s absence. But I always remembered that he existed, and didn’t consider mother’s new husband my father. From time to time, I thought about my father with mixed feelings—on the one hand, I wanted to meet him and get to know him better. I was interested in figuring out what he was like, how he looked, what our inner and outer similarities were. But on the other hand, I was hurt he didn’t even try to reach out to me, and this feeling made me delay searching for him. “If he isn’t searching for me, it means he doesn’t want it,” I told myself, “so I don’t want it either.”
This year, I got interested in genealogy and decided to make my own family tree analysis. I realized that I didn’t know anyone on my father’s side, and I almost couldn’t remember him, either.
Yet I could clearly remember the days when I needed him so much.
I was 10 years old, and a girl next door and I were playing together. She was picked up by her smiling mother and father, and I was picked up by my grandmother. “But where’s your father? You don’t have one?! How come? Oh, it’s such a pity that you don’t have a father!” she said—or shouted, to be exact. I blushed on the outside and shrank on the inside. And all I wanted to do was run away, or better yet, disappear into thin air immediately to avoid that oppressive feeling of shame and something else — disappointment, I guess.
I was 13 years old. I was rushed to the hospital — fooled around, accidentally punctured my tongue with scissors, so much blood around, an ambulance, my grandmother wailing. I was scared and hurt. Where were you, Dad?
I was 16 years old. It was my school graduation. My classmates were crying, but I was glad because I never liked school. I wanted to share my happiness with my relatives, and here I was, sharing it with my mother, grandmother and grandfather. But where were you, my father?
What could be different, then, if my father were there for me? It isn’t possible to find out now. But there is one thing I know for sure: the feeling when your friend wishes you had a father out loud is the one that I wouldn’t like anyone to experience.
It took me a few sleepless nights and bottles of wine to make up my mind to start searching for my father. I sorted out many things and surprisingly realized that I didn’t resent him anymore. It was like a small pleader of his settled inside me and began to tell me that I had to hear out my father and not blame him. Finding him turned out to be easier than I expected — he was still living in my hometown. I asked my uncle to pass him my phone number, and my father called me. I recognized his voice instantly. Just like good old friends, we arranged a meeting in a café. I didn’t sleep until morning. My mind was filled with many questions: How had his life turned out? What did he do? Did he have any other children? What did he remember about me?
It was raining really hard in the morning. He came into the café dressed in a wet raincoat. I saw an elderly yet strapping man whose eyes and facial shape was just like mine. We hugged. It seemed like he still used the same cologne as many years before, yet he didn’t smell of alcohol anymore.
“I don’t drink anymore. I had two heart attacks,” my father said, as if explaining himself.
“Really? You look well,” I said, just to say anything to support him, feeling a bit nervous. For some reason, I ordered a cup of strong black tea instead of my favorite cappuccino. We hadn’t seen each other for 26 years. I hadn’t called anyone “father” for 26 years, so I had a lump in my throat. He was the one who was talking and I was listening to him and staring into his eyes, at his face and his hair, which hadn’t turned grey yet.
He told me that after divorcing my mother he had gotten married three more times, that he had had a son and an adopted daughter. He also had engaged in business and had founded a company. In general, he had been doing well, but then things had gotten complicated — he had had two heart attacks due to stress and problems with business. I was listening to him, staring at him, still unable to wrap my head around who was sitting in front of me.
Had he been searching for me? He told me that he had wanted to meet me indeed, that he had willed to contact me many times, but he hadn’t managed to save friendly relationship with my mother after divorcing her, so she had been against our communication. Also, some “dear friends” of his had told him that my patronymic had changed and that I had a new father, which of course hadn’t been true. All in all, they had advised him not to interfere in our new family, which had nothing to do with him anymore.
“You know, I still have your patronymic,” I told him, hoping to keep my voice from faltering, and I nearly succeeded. It felt like I was saying the most important words in my entire life, even more important than ‘I love you.’ “And have never called anyone else father.”
He was staring at me as if he couldn’t believe what he heard. Was it just me or was he happy? I remembered about all these questions I had wanted to ask him, but only kept on replaying them all in my head without letting them out because they seemed so rhetorical to me. I doubt father could answer them in a way that wouldn’t sound like an excuse, which is the burden of the guilty. I didn’t want excuses. It was all in the past, and the only thing that mattered was that moment, there and then. We were sitting next to each other, my father in his early 60s and me, who was half his age. We left the café. It was still raining hard, and neither of us had umbrellas.
“Let’s go, I will buy you an umbrella,” my father said. We linked our arms and walked. We had a lot of time, that day and ever after.
Few days after our meeting, I flew out of town on business trip and called father from the airport. I took a deep breath and pronounced, “Hello, father.” That time my voice didn’t falter, and I even liked the sound of that long-forgotten word.
To be honest, my father has never left my thoughts. I could keep on silencing the call of my father’s side for a long time, but I couldn’t escape myself. I am glad that I understood it in time. I also realized that it takes time to find the strength to forgive somebody, and that that time varies with each person. I can’t say that my life changed dramatically after our meeting, but I definitely got a little happier. And a little more whole.