On Redeeming Other People
There’s a story I used to tell myself about redemption. It was more daydream than story, spun of fantasy and desperate hope rather than tethered firmly to reality. This story, this dream, always started with a phone call. My cellphone vibrated on my desk, but the number flashing on the screen wasn’t familiar. I answered anyway. Who the caller was doesn’t matter as much as what she had to say. In a hushed and solemn voice, she explained that my biological father is dying. A pause for dramatic effect. She continued that one of his last wishes is for me to visit him for a final time. Maybe the caller noted my almost eight years of absence from his life. Maybe silence dominated the line. The pause became long and longer. Her harsh judgment of my chosen separation and distance emerged as palpable and overwhelming. I wouldn’t break the silence, but she eventually did.
“Will you come?,” she asked.
I offered a whisper of a “yes.”
This is where the daydream diverged, depending on where I lived when I imagined it, again and again and again.
When I was in graduate school in Florida, I was an hour’s drive away from my father. I only had to start up my aging Toyota Camry and head toward Interstate 10. Mile markers counted down from 192 to 152, my exit. On Highway 90 between Marianna and Grand Ridge, there’s a place that was a home, until it wasn’t. When I lived in New Mexico, this journey required flying, two connections and a four-hour layover in Atlanta. When I lived in Tennessee, the drive was almost nine hours.
At 35 years old, I still rehearse this story on occasions when my thoughts stray to my father. This happens with less and less frequency. Now, it would only take me a little over an hour–and a lifetime of hurt–to make the drive on I-10. Take exit 152 and meander along Highway 69, with its cows, Confederate flags, worn houses, and the out-of-business restaurants and gas stations that stubbornly remain. At the junction of 69 and 90, I wouldn’t drive straight across 90, the path that leads me to my sister’s house, but instead, turn left onto 90.
Right now, imagining the drive on that particular stretch of 90 makes me flinch. My stomach bottoms out. I start to sweat and clench my teeth. For almost eight years, I’ve attempted to avoid driving anywhere near my father’s home. When I can’t evade the familiar highway on trips back toward home, I have to focus on my breathing. In and out. Out and in. In and out. I remind myself that I don’t have to look down the reddish dirt road wedged close to a tractor supply store, with mobile homes and small houses nestled on its sides. You don’t have to look, I think, but I can’t quite stop myself from glancing either.
In the summer, blackberry brambles trailed along its edges. When we were children, my cousin, brother, and I would pick the berries. Small hands darted into brambles to pick the juicy, sun-ripened fruit. My hands ended up scratched and bleeding from our efforts, but I continued to pick more. Wounds that led to a reward seemed somehow sweeter. The agony was worth it. But, I gave up on romanticizing suffering years ago. Sometimes, blood shed is just blood; there’s no reward waiting at the end of a struggle. My cousin was my best friend once. I haven’t spoken to her in over eight years. I wonder if she remembers the blackberries and the hot sun. I wonder if she still thinks of me, as I of her. Our shared lives no longer exist, forever separated by my decision to distance myself from my father. All that remains are hazy memories that I can’t bear to recall.
To walk away from my father, I had to leave behind his whole family: my grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousin. This decision was neither easy nor sudden. It took me years to commit to what I knew had to happen. I severed the bonds with them slowly and carefully to protect the life I was building for myself.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, I broke off all contact, ignoring phone calls, emails, and the messages passed on by mutual friends. I didn’t want my baby girl to learn to love the people who tried to break me. I didn’t want her to realize how love can be conditional, stingy, and hurtful. I knew viscerally that I didn’t want her to experience what I had. It took me years to protect myself. It took me seconds to decide to protect her. My father’s family, I decided, would simply cease to exist. My brother and stepmother were the only people I remained in contact with from this former life. Absent from my life, but never quite gone.
A few weeks ago, my daughter, now seven and eager to be eight, asked, “Why does Uncle Cary have a different mom than you?”
I was startled by her question, but answered anyway: “Your Gaga was married to someone else before she married Pops. They had me. That someone later married Grandma, and they had Uncle Cary.”
She accepted my explanation at face value. I cried later when I knew she couldn’t hear me. The truths I’m trying and failing to live with are always ready to pounce me when my thoughts veer toward my father. I tell myself this particular story, so I, and you, can start to understand the redemption I seek and will never quite find.
The daydream-drive continues with a right turn onto that dirt road from 90, a right turn onto another dirt road, a left turn, and then the road curves gently to the right. My father’s home is the second mobile home on the right. He and my mother purchased it after they were married. This white single-wide trailer was my home on Tuesday, Thursday, and every other weekend until I turned 18. My parents divorced when I was two years old, the age my son is now. I try not to dwell on that fact for long.
Their divorce was acrimonious. When I was 19, I decided to go look through the divorce proceedings, in the archives of the court house. What I found was two adults fighting for their lives, and my life too. Their pain was too stark to manage. Looking over the documents felt like voyeurism, so I stopped reading them not long after I started. For my father, the divorce was a betrayal that could never be overlooked, the moment of rupture that gave his own story meaning and so much anger.
Redemption wasn’t a part of his story either. Maybe redemption isn’t a story that belongs to either of us.
The trailer was a few blocks from my grandparents’ house. There’s a chain-link fence and large grassy yard. This trailer was where I learned to hide from my father’s moods, only to find them inescapable. Hiding in my bedroom with a book as a distraction was merely a temporary solution. He sought me out, so I could bear witness to his hurt. He loved me deeply in one moment, but in the next, was convinced that I didn’t love him. He was sure that I loved my mother more, so he cataloged her supposed failings. He threatened to sue for full custody of me, his child, which was a terrifying possibility. I had nightmares that he would take me from my mother and I would never see her again. He claimed that he would take his life if I ever left him. He was angry at my mother for divorcing him, my uncle for dying in a car accident, and at the larger world. Everyone, I learned, was against him. Life never seemed to go his way. So, he raged. All of this was somehow my fault. I have good memories of him, but they are harder to grasp with each passing year. I look for joy and happiness; I find instead lingering wounds that I hope are healed, but never quite are. I’m fucking tired of being broken.
My body reacts to the ghost of his anger. Raised voices makes me tremble and shake. I attempt to collapse on top of myself, to become a smaller target. Blinking back tears, I yearn for numbness. I steel myself for whatever happens next. My body remembers clearly what I actively tried to forget. I used to wish that he would hit, slap, punch, or pummel me, so at least there would be evidence of what I experienced. He never hit me. He never had to.
I’m falling off track again. This is a story about redeeming other people whether they want you to or not. The ending was bound to be unhappy. I know this, and yet, I still wish for better.
In this daydream of possible redemption, I coax myself out of the car, manage to open the gate to the fence, walk across the lawn, and climb up the rickety metal steps. I keep my head held high. I’m not cowed by this place. It no longer has a hold on me (as if it doesn’t appear in my dreams, day or night, to taunt me). With a deep breath, I knock on the door and my father stands on the threshold. His breathing is labored, but he looks the same as when I saw him last: graying hair cropped close to his balding head, wire-framed glasses, slouched shoulders, and a round belly that strains his shirt.
Four years ago, I was having lunch with my husband and daughter at The Gazebo, a restaurant in my hometown. As we looked for a table, I saw him across the room having lunch alone. I knew almost instinctively: That’s my dad. A daughter never forgets the look of her father even if she’s tried to. He was older, but so was I. While I glanced discreetly at him, he gawked at me.
The problem with removing yourself from someone else’s life is that this person still exists, even if you pretend they don’t. Your spheres of orbit change. You both keep on living with more and more distance piled between the two of you. You don’t go away. He doesn’t either. But you forget this life-altering truth until you see him across the room. His presence is like a punch to the gut because you’ve soothed yourself with his absence. He finished his lunch and left. I pushed a chicken sandwich and chips around your plate, trying not to cry. He’s received too many of my tears already.
When I tell myself the story of my father’s redemption, I attempt to forget these fleeting encounters and focus on his face. Does he smile when he sees me? Does he frown or grimace? Does he assess me and find me wanting? Will he still be my father even though I tried to pry him out of that role? In this story, because I’m the one telling it, he didn’t try to hug me. There’s a ghost of a smile that I can’t quite read. I’m afraid I saw smugness at the tug of his lips.
When I glanced at his face, I noted the traces of myself in his hazel-brown eyes and nose with a pronounced bump near the top. I inherited his eyes and nose. There’s a vague resemblance. (Two years ago, I tried on a pair of wire-framed glasses. When I looked at myself in the mirror, I saw my father looking back. I resisted the urge to demolish the frames. Instead, I put them down gently and walked away.) Years of separation haven’t changed my face. God, I wish they had. My children inherited my hazel eyes. I tell them they look like me, and they do. They don’t need this legacy that I carry with me.
I sat down in his living room, that used to be my living room too. The brown couch was too familiar. So were the chairs, tables, and blaring television. Nothing changed, because this is all my memory can recall. He no longer lives in this trailer; it is now another family’s home. I hope they find peace there; I never did.
I shifted in my chair and waited for him to speak.
I needed him to say he’s sorry. That he had been a bad father. That he ruined my childhood. That he now realized that he was wrong. That he wanted me to forgive him. That he’s dying and recognized that he needed to make amends. He was the one who wanted to make amends. Then, he would hug me and tell me he always loved me. And I would hug him back and tell him that I love him too. This was his only chance at redemption, and he knew it. He would take it, because this is my story, not his.
But, this isn’t the redemption I imagine in its entirety. This is the softer version, the one in which I can imagine that the man who is my biological father would want to be redeemed, or that he would even agree that he needed to be redeemed. The darker parts of me want not redemption but rather a some sort of cosmic reckoning. I want him to pay.
The funny thing about redemption is that there are conflicting versions of it. If my father were telling this story, I would be the one begging for redemption After all, I left him behind. I walked away. I caused him more hurt. I showed him that I was always my mother’s daughter and never quite his.
Nine years ago at my uncle’s funeral, my aunt took me aside to talk about my father. My uncle died suddenly of a heart attack, so I flew in from Albuquerque to attend the funeral. I didn’t want to go, but my grandfather called and asked me to come. And I did. When I arrived at my grandparent’s home, my father refused to speak to me. He wouldn’t even look at me. The pastor presiding over the funeral kept glaring at me. I was the one who moved 23 hours away and attempted to not look back. The awkward pastor tried to cajole me into talking to my father. I had been through this song and dance before, so my flat stare convinced him that his efforts were wasted.
After the funeral, my aunt asked me if I knew what was happening with my father.
“No, I don’t,” I replied harshly.
“Well, you should, it is bad.”
I sullenly looked at her and offered no response.
“Real bad. You should try to make amends.”
The burden was once again on me. I decided to not make amends. Fuck amends. I was through. Later, my mother found out from a co-worker that my father had cancer. She told me about the diagnosis in soothing tones reserved for small children and wounded animals. He had cancer. I had two thoughts simultaneously: I wanted him to die, and I hoped he wouldn’t.
Tears pricked the corners of my eyes. I was an awful person who wanted my father to die, because I couldn’t manage being his daughter anymore. The burden of that legacy was too heavy. I told my mother to let me know if she heard anything else. She never spoke of it again. I never asked.
My father survived. I never made amends. I still don’t intend to.
Last week, I dreamed my father kidnapped me. He forced me to live in the basement of some suburban house with royal blue carpets, wood-paneled walls, and overly full closets. I tried to escape by bashing into doors, slamming against windows, and clawing at crevices in the closets. Each attempt to escape became more frenzied than the last as I bloodied and bruised myself to get free. I woke up panicked and shaky. The familiar darkness of my bedroom comforted me as I gulped air and exhaled. I listened to my husband breathe rhythmically and snuggled the cat close to my chest. I was safe, I told myself, I was home.
Writing about my father dredged up feelings I’m still not quite ready for. His redemption is not what I want now. It was a dream I used to have, a lovely story that I couldn’t bear to come true. It used to soothe me by promising something I thought I needed. Redemption was a story about temporary separation. There’s nothing soothing about this story anymore; permanent separation is what I need.
This version of redemption chafes, which is why I don’t imagine it as much as I used to. I can’t force redemption on him, and he can’t force it upon me. We’re at a stalemate. We will always be, and I’m glad.
The story will end without that brighter conclusion I always dreamed of, but the life I’ve struggled to build lends itself to a happier ending.
Kelly J. Baker writes about the apocalypse, zombies, mental illness, trauma, and higher education. She's the author of The Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930, Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces, Sexism Ed: Essays on Gender and Labor in Higher Education, and Final Girl: And Other Essays on Grief, Trauma, and Mental Illness, forthcoming Fall 2020. She's also the editor of Women in Higher Education, The National Teaching and Learning Forum, and Disability Acts. You can find her hanging around on Twitter @kelly_j_baker, tweeting about coffee, parenting, writing, and other shenanigans.