We say hello and goodbye in less than two hours. The location is an eighteenth century pub in Northern England. It’s our first meeting in over a decade. The one before that dates back further than I can remember.
He’s drinking a honey-coloured lager, his back turned from the door. His wife sees me before he does, waves and says my name.
He looks older than I remember. No hair now. And there’s no looking up anymore; I’m as tall as he is with my boots on.
Our embrace is awkward. We pull away almost as soon as our bodies meet. In that brief touch, so many unspoken words slide between us. So much brokenness and missed opportunity. In his arms I feel nothing but uncomfortable.
Quickly I introduce him to his grandchildren—my nine-year-old daughter and six-year-old-son. I’m grateful for the chatter of small mouths and their immediate desire to run circles around this tavern with its wooden beams and open fireplace.
Perhaps there was a time—in the days when I wore braids and 70s flared dungarees—when I, at that same age, jumped into my father’s arms and allowed him to cradle me and stroke my hair. Perhaps then, I felt everything.
But I don’t remember such days.
I don’t know if they happened. Did I ever feel the comfort and security that little girls feel when sitting high on the shoulders of their father? Sometimes it’s easier to think I didn’t; it makes the loss of him less painful if I believe we were never close in the first place.
He is my father. And yet, he has long been the missing figure on birthdays and Christmas. His was the absent seat at my graduation. It was my mother who walked me down the aisle on my wedding day. He wasn’t around when his grandchildren came into the world with their tight little fists and crumpled pink cheeks. He missed it all.
When he stopped holding my mother all those years ago, he stopped holding me too.
And ever since, I have unwittingly tried to fill that gaping hole, to bring someone into my life that I can love, look up to, honour, and learn from. But no one has ever filled that space.
I hear forgiveness is a daily act. Not just a one-time-fix-everything kind of deal. Most of the time I feel like I have forgiven my father for disappearing from my life. There’s rarely anger anymore, only a vacant sadness.
But then I’ll see a dad with his daughter, watch how he fiercely protects her and holds her close. At those times something hard and unwelcome rises inside me. And I know I need to forgive all over again.
Aside from these occasional nostalgic dreams, I rarely think of him now. It’s easier that he’s so far away. I can turn my back on our story. It isn’t a story I want to be part of. Not because of anger, but because the space between is so wide, both physically and emotionally. I don’t know how to be part of this story anymore. I’m not sure I ever did.
After lunch and awkward conversation we say goodbye. He holds me again and says, “Call sometime.” I nod, my body stiff, anxious to create the familiar, comfortable, space between us again.
I soon return to a home 5,000 miles away, happy to know I have created a new life outside of the pain of abandonment, happy to live life without him.
But lately I’ve been asking myself this question: If tomorrow you hear of his death, how do you think you’ll feel?
So I picture his lifeless body: the hands that held me when I took my first breaths; his eyes when he told me as a teenager that he loved me more than any boy ever would. And I know I will feel something. If I let our story fade to ashes there will be tears on his deathbed. Not tears of love, but tears for a lost embrace, no matter how much hardness has formed around my heart.
This narrative has been 40 years in the making. It’s so far in the back of my mind now that most of the time I think it’s buried. But then there’s that question … the one that revives the story every time. How will you feel when he dies?
Something about the space between us has movement and importance. I can turn my back on our broken history or I can lean into it and follow the through line to the end.
Sometimes stories can take that long to unfold. We think they’re over, but as long as they walk behind us they remain alive. A story isn’t over until it is dust. Until it has been explored and faced head on, and we figure out the ending.
Stay in the story, I tell myself.
Just stay in the story.