Who is a father, exactly? What little parts put together make one whole? Muscle, bone, tissue; is it a body? A thing of genetics? Or is it of heart? Love? Responsibility?
And among this, who is my father?
As I've grown older and gradually left the young child behind, this issue of father has become less and less important. I don't think about it, I don't ache for it, and I don't search as I did when I was young and vulnerable.
And so the other day when I was filing with a coworker, and in the give and take of our personal discussion, I let drop that my father was a drug addict, it almost seemed to me like I was discovering this fact anew.
As if I had long ago catagorized, compartamentalized, and filed it away like library reference books. It was me, but it no longer had any effect over me and it startled me as it hung in the air between us.
Oh yea, thats right. My father is a drug addict.
My coworker seemed as startled as I was, though with more reason as it truly had been hitherto unknown to her.
"You dont seem like someone who would have dealt with something like that," she observed, "I would never have known that about you."
Maybe I come across too urbane for something so bourgeois?
"Yea," I replied, "I guess its not something I think much about anymore."
Whether my father continues to be a drug addict, a highly-functional one if he is still using, or if he has somehow cleaned himself up I can never really know. I don't think a child should be privy to that sort of knowledge or insight into the fallibility of their parents. I made a choice a few years ago to no longer put myself in that situation.
But there were years and years before that where I was the one who dealt with his short-comings directly.
He left my mother and I when I was nine. He had been using hard drugs for a year or two prior to this but as a young child I never knew. Even having been brought to drug houses with him meant nothing to a sheltered girl from a small city, I had no idea what the grown-ups were doing locked away in that room filled with odd smoke. What made an impression on my young memory was the toddler left to run around in what had to have been a diaper one day or two old.
At nine I didn't know what drugs were, or what they did to you, all I knew is that one day my daddy never came home. And I was left with a void I had no choice to to search for alternatives to fill:
My thousand fathers.
My first substitute was a kind man from Colombia who went to the same church as my mother, a born again Christian after the divorce, and I. He showed me kindness like I imagined a father would, hugs when I needed them but really nothing more. I was eleven and I wasn't sure what exactly I was supposed to be looking for, prior to this my father had been supplied without effort on my part.
I soon moved on to another virtuous man who belonged to the church and later became our landlord. He treated me like a daughter without me having to work for it and I became good friends with his own biological daughter attempting crudely to fashion a family from what little I had to work with.
Eventually when I was fourteen we moved away, returning to Minnesota and to our family. Returning me to a wounded father I had briefly gotten to know during my summers spent back home. A father who fought deep depression and often locked himself in his room, emerging at two or three in the afternoon without thought to whether I had been able to feed myself or do something productive with my day.
One Easter Sunday when I had been sent back to Minnesota for the holiday he roused himself enough at 11am to give me some money and send me walking a mile to the store to buy food since there was none in the apartment. I think I was twelve, maybe thirteen at the most.
Returning to Minnesota brought me back to my biological father but left me devoid of what father really meant. In the most crucial years of my life I turned to my writing and my studies in an attempt to find meaning. Both of us wounded, my father and I sought to paste together a relationship from the fragments we had left.
There were many happy, golden moments where we were content in the present. Afternoons of speeding with the windows down and him teaching me how to drive his beat-up stick-shift pickup in the Walmart parking lot while at the same time clutching a Mountain Dew bottle between my thighs as all good drivers can.
But there were as many days when I would be waiting until midnight for him to come pick me up for our weekend only to finally admit that he wasn't coming, that he was somewhere in his drugs again, and that in two or three days he would call from some payphone penniless and hopeless for someone to come pick him up. It would be two days after that that he would get over his shame enough to call me to apologize. And it would always be the same promise to never do it again.
Eventually it happened so much that I no longer believed him, a final breach of trust that would eventually emerge many years later in other relationships.
And eventually it got to a point where I was the only one left in the family who was trying. At fifteen I became adept at calling rehab clinics to get him checked in even though most times he refused. And each time the receptionist would be provoked enough to ask, "Just how old are you exactly?"
"Fifteen," I would reply sheepishly as if it were my own faults that put me there.
I was older than I should have been.
While continuing the feeble attempts at making some semblence of family out of the ruins of our relationship I still sought that support of a father figure from other men around me. I had a father I was supporting but I needed a father who supported me.
When I was nineteen I was brought to a Mexican-Catholic Church and introduced to my Godparents. I was accepted and embraced without a single word and called la hija adoptiva (adopted daughter.) I found a father and a family unit to cling to with all the ferocity of a shipwrecked sailor miles from shore. I took the relationships, the ethnicity, the culture, and the identity from my first real example of a stable household and made them my own.
Those years with them will always be some of my most precious but some three years later I would again be introduced to an even stronger father figure who would have as much of an affect on me as my Padrino (Godfather) but in a completely different manner and at the exact moment when my relationship with my biological father became the weakest.
I was introduced to my walee (Islamic guardian) when I was 21 and from the instant I met him and his family I felt a peace that I had never once encountered among the other fathers I clung to. I felt a sense of unconditional love and acceptance, a guidance, a teaching presence, and the foundation of support I had been searching for those twelve years gone.
A month after I met them my biological father disappeared and was gone for a year.
The juxtaposition of losing my father and finding Islam played out strongly in my identity of who I was and who I wanted to be. I spent hours driving around the roughest neighborhoods in Minneapolis hoping to find him alive, terrified that at any moment, during the coldest part of the winter, I would hear on the news of some John Doe found dumped in the river or frozen to death on the street. And by the time that he returned, again penniless and hopeless at a payphone for my grandmother to go pick him up, I had said goodbye to him in a multitude of ways in my mind.
When I got the call from my grandmother's house and heard his voice I broke down in tears and dropped everything to drive out to see him, I was twenty-two years old.
I hugged him and I kissed him and I cried to know that he was alive but I had come to a decision during the year that his choices in life would no longer have anything to do with me and my life. I had said goodbye to him in that time he was gone, in the second abandonment he had put me through, and that goodbye was more powerful than anything else. I had decided it was enough.
I told him that if he ever left again that I would not search for him or attempt to contact him in any way. If he continued to make these type of choices he would lose whatever connection we had left.
Maybe I scared him straight, who knows, but since then he has not committed the same error. What he does in his alone time no longer concerns me, and maybe its that break that means I don't have any idea when he disappears or reappears because he is no longer letting me down. And he is no longer letting me down because I refuse to allow him to let me down.
He is my father and he always will be, but I no longer pay for his sins. We still have wonderful afternoons and meet for lunch or dinner, but our relationship is not the typical one of a father and a daughter. And when I look for paternal support I find it on the shoulders of the thousand fathers I found without him.
I find it in the home of my walee.
So what makes a father? Is it a blood bond that never breaks? Or is it the support and love that one may give to another freely and without the ancestral ties?
Is fatherhood genetic or emotional?
My idea of fatherhood comes not only from my biological father but from the father-relationships I sought comfort in while growing up.
I found a home in my thousand fathers.
**This post relates directly to the idea of fatherhood, but I would not be who I am today without my mother. She is an amazing woman who sought to provide me with house, home, mother, and father all at the same time. I found a father in my mother as well.