Ripple Effects From a Man I’ve Never Met
His name is Robert. He endured a tour of combat in Vietnam. He liked to cook with a lot of butter. He was a painter by trade and in the snowy winter months, he would also work extra shifts plowing roads so people could travel safely to wherever they were going, hopefully to warm homes full of loved ones. He helped build the lone park in a small town in northern New Jersey. According to my wife’s uncle, he apparently had a bewildering knack for eating a meal, no matter how messy, while using only one napkin. He was a great dad and my wife’s hero when she was a little girl.
He was also a raging alcoholic who eventually chose the bottle over his family when my wife was only 11 years old. He was the first person to break my wife’s heart – the last person who should have ever done it – and I’ve had to help her piece herself back together, over and over again, ever since her and I became an “us” almost 18 years ago.
When my wife, her mother, and her little sister moved out from Highland Lakes, New Jersey, to Rio Nido, California, all those years ago, my wife was homeschooled but took classes at the local junior college. One summer afternoon when we were still dating, I took a bus after school to meet her at the junior college, only to find her sitting in the middle of a big patch of green grass in the summer sun, with tears streaming down her face. I held her as she sobbed into my shoulder and told me she had just found out that her biological father, Robert, had signed over his paternity rights to her step-father.
Don’t get me wrong: The father-in-law that I’ve always known, my wife’s step-father, Marty, is a great guy. He folded my wife and her sister into his family with loving arms. He accepted me, too, even after she got pregnant in our senior year of high school. And he is an amazing Bop-Bop to our children.
But Robert – Bobby, as his friends call him – has also always been right there, adding an unwelcome shade of melancholy to our life. The birth of each of our three children. Every damn Christmas, birthday, Father’s Day, Thanksgiving, summertime BBQ, and Veteran’s Day. All of those occasions and more are always accompanied by an asterisk of thought or a sad voice saying, “He should be here for this.”
Every trip to visit family in New Jersey includes the inevitable conversation that always begins with, “Dan, am I a terrible daughter if I don’t go see him while I’m out there?”
There are times – not as often as there used to be, but still often enough – when I’ll stop what I’m doing to find my wife watching me. I’ll turn to her with an amused and slightly-confused look on my face, only to have her tell me that something I was doing reminded her of her dad.
When I used to cook with a lot of butter before getting healthy, she would tell me quite often that I would have loved her dad’s cooking and would have enjoyed his company. It’s both flattering and maddening that I remind her of too few happy memories of her old man.
Here’s what I know about my wife’s biological father: Even after walking out on her; breaking countless promises; destroying her childhood keepsakes when they were left behind in New Jersey, with the intention of being shipped out West; and despite the countless attempts from my wife to deliver tough love while also needing to salvage any semblance of a relationship with the man for her own peace of mind, his influence permeates our walls like a specter, haunting us day after day.
I’ve wanted to talk to him on many occasions over the years and I’ve started writing more letters than I can recall, but never followed through due to a mixture of my own anger over how much hurt he has inflicted upon the most forgiving and loving person I’ve ever met, but also because I don’t know what to say to the man.
What do you say to someone who chose alcohol and his VFW buddies over his little girls?
What do you say to the man who signed papers saying he didn’t want to be a father anymore?
What do you say to a man who never cared to know his grandchildren?
Perhaps I should have just called and screamed at him.
Here’s what I know about my wife’s biological father : He’s an asshole. I try to choke those feelings down because I love my wife and for better or for worse, he is her father. The woman I love is half made of that man. The heart he’s broken and ground nearly into oblivion is the same heart that he helped bring into existence.
A few years ago, we received word that he was working on a retaining wall, fell off, and suffered some paralysis and brain damage. I don’t believe he’s able to write and he can’t speak very easily. He also can’t drink anymore. The crushing irony is that when he finally put down the bottle, there was very little of the man my wife remembers from her childhood left in him.
Last week, we received word that he was in the hospital after an uncharacteristic seizure and “possibly a stroke.” Something about his kidneys, too, but the details are unclear.
Here’s what I know about my wife’s biological father: I find myself thinking healing thoughts for a man who I despise because even after all of the hurt and tears and anger, my wife still loves her dad.
And I don’t know what to do other than continue to do what this man has caused me to have to do for the better part of two decades: To hold her tight when she cries over him, which is something no child should have to do about their parent. I wish he would have realized years ago that no matter how old your children get, they’ll always want you to be an enthusiastic part of their life.
Whatever your demons may be, fight back against them with everything you’ve got because your children are watching and waiting for you to be the parent they need you to be.
Photo Credit: Julian Böck