I knew very little about what Diana revealed in her post.
I could tell that things weren’t right that first time I flew out to Albuquerque to meet my dad and my sisters. I found Brigette home alone when I got to the house and she was only about nine years old, and the house was a mess. The screen door was broken, the toilet and sink were both backed up and unusable, the kitchen was a mess in that kind of scary way that long-term lack of cleaning creates. But I couldn’t tell by looking at it that it was a mess because a young girl was trying to do it all on her own.
I remember that last day when we bought a disposable camera and took the photo you see above; my instincts were screaming at me to take the girls home with me, particularly Diana, who clung to me desperately that last day, her skinny arms holding me tightly.
But I was just 18 years old, and a hot mess myself. I was drinking daily and barely holding on to my job because I was supplementing my meager salary with the petty cash at work, and quit moments before I got fired. I was also torn up and mixed up about meeting this man who had reached mythical levels in my mind turning out to be a broken man, looking much older than his years, clearly unable to manage a house with two children.
After I got home, my father told me he’d sent Diana to live with her mom. Honestly, I was relieved to hear it, because I had no idea the situation she moved to was even worse. Then I heard that she ran away and was living in El Paso; I was so freaked out and upset by this I actually booked a flight to go look for her (I worked in a travel agency so I was able to book flights myself without having to pay first). But when I told my father this, I let him talk me out of it. He told me that it wasn’t worth it, he wasn’t sure where she was, and my mom pointed out how incredibly ill-equipped I was to handle raising a 13-year-old girl on my own, or if I was even legally allowed to do so.
Of course now, in retrospect, it feels like I could have done it. And I feel like an utter failure for not being able to protect her and Brigette.
I have always referred to myself as the luckiest of my father’s children. I know Diana didn’t know that; it would have been cruel for me to say it to my siblings. But as hard as growing up poor with my mom was, well, I’ve always had a major advantage because my mother was highly educated (and became even more so while I was growing up, finishing her bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD while I was a kid). But more than that, I was loved.
I never doubted my mom’s love for me. She never gave me drugs (I think she may have let me sip a beer once), I never missed a meal as a kid (even if that meal was just beans, I got to eat), and while I spent a fair amount of time at home alone and cooked for myself and did other things that now seem crazy, such as ride the city bus alone across town every day when I was only seven (something I’d never let Tori do now). But I was loved!
I rode that city bus alone every day because my mother fought to get me transferred to a better elementary school. I ate at home alone because my mother was getting an education so that she could better provide for us. We were poor because my mother refused to take help from her family because it came with big strings attached, and my mother worked hard to get us off welfare (we were only on it for about two years).
I know that I’m the lucky one. I’ve always known. My childhood may have been poor, but I operate now from a position of privilege and personal security that my sisters do not enjoy. No one hurt me as a kid.
I was safe.
Yet, even so… this does not change the grief I feel about not having a father. The father that I’m biologically related to is clearly not the father I wish I’d had. No, I wish I had a father like Charlie is to Tori. A father that loves unconditionally, that would take his daughter to Chuckie Cheese on a Saturday afternoon just because it reopened with brand new everything. A father that would stay in my room and sing me songs from the 1940s until I fell asleep. A father that got up with me every morning and made me breakfast, that cuddled me without ill intent, that helped me with homework and that explained how things work… the list of ways that Charlie fathers Tori is endless, and THAT is what I wish I’d had.
In other words, an idealized version of “father” that was never an option for me.
In that, then, all five (or six) of us siblings – me, Sharmell, Johnny, Diana, and Brigette – share that grief.
Diana’s post has broken me free of that mild envy I felt toward my other siblings, and Sharmell made it possible by asking the important questions. Maybe, finally, because of my father’s callus treatment of Sharmell’s mother, we can finally really be a family.
It’s up to us, now.
Random woman in the back there is my roommate at the time, Sara, who was kind enough to come with me on this trip to meet my dad so I wouldn’t be alone.