My father, the bishop of three Bible Belt churches, was ever-present in my life for 30 years, but I consider myself fatherless.
When it came to my older siblings from my father’s first marriage, it was clear from the start that they were top priority. While they needed attention, as all children do, my father couldn’t balance them and me. Soon, it became clear to me that I didn’t belong in my own home, and perhaps in this world at all. As an eight-year-old, I looked on as my father lavished my three teenaged sisters with tickles, hugs, and kisses, while not noticing that I was sitting next to them. While I was exempt from affection, I was also exempt from violence: he didn’t throw me across the room or jack me up against the wall with his hands around my throat, like he did to my siblings. Violence was just another sign of love, and it was yet one more way I was made to feel less valued.
The few precious moments my dad and I had together were ones when we were laughing. Every time K7’s “Come Baby Come” came on, he danced like a lunatic in the middle of the living room. When we watched Coming to America, he imitated the barber’s New York accent and touched my cornrowed hair saying, “That ain’t nothin’ but an Ultraperm.” And whenever Hootie & the Blowfish happened to be performing on television, my dad pretended to be drunk to make fun of Darius Rucker; he closed his eyes and slurred “I only wanna be with yoooooou.” Each one of those times, I fell over, clutching my stomach, struggling to breathe from laughter, and saying “Stop, Daddy!”
Those were the moments when I knew that I was his daughter and that he wasn’t just my father, but my dad.
When my mother and I finally left him, I wondered for years if my dad even remembered my birthday (I have a sister with the same birthday, so I know he must have), or if he cared that I was going to a prestigious university for college. On the once-a-year occasion in which we did talk—when I called him after growing exhausted of my mom telling me that I should call him—he would tell me that he was proud of me and that I was funny. “Thanks,” I would say, smiling as if I’d received the compliment from a stranger. It was nice, but merely lip service with no validating action.
Talking to my dad would make me think of that episode of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, where Will is standing in his uncle’s living room, ready to leave with his biological father, who has shown up after well over a decade. The episode ends (and this does not count as a spoiler because, really, this episode is over 20 years old, so come on!) with the father not showing up. Will first defiantly says that he’s fine with it, before he breaks down and utters the now-famous line, “Why don’t he want me, man?” There was no number of times that my being on the all-A honor roll, or my being the captain of the varsity tennis team, or my teaching a little Mexican girl English that would make my dad behave as if he truly wanted me. And I had to learn to accept that.
When I was 15, I forgave my father for making me feel inadequate and unlovable. Actually, I just said the words, “I forgive you,” so that I could start my own healing process. I didn’t let everything go until I was well into my twenties. After a while, I could call him that once-a-year and not feel heartbroken and unwanted every time I hung up the phone. I even invited him to my wedding, and he and his fourth wife came and had a blast.
By the last few weeks of his life, when cancer had spread throughout his body, we were genial acquaintances. The last time I saw him was three weeks before he died, just before my 30th birthday. He told me, “I was supposed to have been dead two weeks ago. I guess the timing’s a little bit off,” and we shared a quiet giggle.
Despite all of our laughs together, I lacked the emotional attachment necessary to feel devastated when he passed away. Of course, I missed his booming laugh that I craved but heard so infrequently, but I felt relieved. No more forced once-a-year calls, no more pretending that our relationship was natural and okay as it was. I felt horrible for feeling relieved. It wasn’t the way you’re supposed to feel when a parent dies, I chastised myself. But for me, that sense of relief was another step in accepting what our relationship was: it was not healthy, it was not happy, it just was.
I thank God every day for my life story, even though it’s not the live-action Disney movie I always wanted it to be. But through it all, I’ve built emotional fortitude, a sense of true grit. If there was one thing my dad taught me, it was to laugh as much as you can for as long as you can. That’s what he did until the day he died, and that’s how I know that I belonged in this life all along.