On Seeing My Father’s Face for the First Time in Nine Years

wpid-wp-1428987139594.jpegI can’t say for sure exactly why, but two days ago, I sat down at my computer, opened Google, and typed in my parents’ names. I was overcome with longing to find out what had ever happened to them. We haven’t spoken in nine years.

I hadn’t felt the least bit curious before in all those nine years. I don’t know why the longing struck me now. Maybe it’s that I’m about to get married in a few months–an idea they both scoffed at for years. Who would want to marry you? Maybe it’s that as my fiancé and I gather our wedding party and build our guest lists, I realize my parents are nowhere among the names, and I don’t want them to be.

A lot of people find it hard to believe that I’m okay with that. Or they view it as a temporary condition: Surely, you guys will work it all out. I’m sure your parents love you.

I like those responses. They confirm that loving, supportive families do exist–and that those who grew up in them have trouble imagining it any other way. That’s how it should be. However dysfunctional, however rocky a family may feel at times, no one doubts that they all love each other. That, when push comes to shove, they have each other’s backs.

I didn’t grow up that way. When push came to shove, I was the first to get shoved off the cliff. When I was having a hard time in high school, my father taunted and humiliated me until I started crying. I got up to go to my room, so I could cry in private. He grabbed me by my shoulders and shoved me back down into the chair. “Cry,” he said. “If you’re going to cry, you’re going to do it in front of me.” He smirked, gloating as I sobbed.

That was my dad. I knew better than to show weakness around him, but I was still a kid. Sometimes my shiny, steel exterior cracked.

It was a horrible way to grow up, feeling that my parents were indifferent to me at best and intent on hurting me at worst. But at 34, my anger is largely gone. My fantasies of revenge faded. I grieved, and now I tend to use past tense when I speak of my parents. I think that’s fair. I don’t know them anymore. It’s a loss, but all these years later, the biggest loss isn’t their absence but the love I didn’t get to experience as a child.

And yet, I typed their names into the crystal ball.

Turns out my mother is nowhere on the internet, like a good Mormon woman in the tradition of Heavenly Mother. God’s life companion is so modest, I was told, that my prayers to her not only fell on deaf ears but were an abomination.

But my father is on LinkedIn. At 63, he looks so exactly like I remember him in his forties that I don’t recognize him at first. But there he is, in a gray wool suit jacket with a gray silk tie. With exactly the same smile. The Mormon patriarch smile he picked up at church and used against the world. No one but his family ever had the slightest inkling. My mom seemed weird and awkward. But my dad, like all respectable bullies, was perfectly nice to everyone else.

So what do I feel, eye to eye with a photo of his current self?

Mainly, I feel emptiness. If I feel anything, it is a distant wish–like headlights across the bay on Alki–that I could believe in the affability of my father’s smile.

Life has changed me. I don’t smile the way I did at 25. But my father, almost eerily, seems unaltered by family deaths, a daughter’s estrangement, numerous moves, and age. Is it his old arrogance that leaves him unscathed? Is it a façade? Or is it that he truly is happy, with his income higher than it has ever been and his life quieter, untroubled by his troubled history on the west coast?

All I do know is that once I realized that I felt no remorse, no grief, no rage, and no love, a surge of energy charged through me. My father had told me I would end up alone, that if I chose to be a writer, I would live in poverty and ultimately kill myself because I felt too much.

I left my family so that I could keep on feeling. So that I could be the writer I am, one page, one post, one day at a time.

Above all, though, I felt impatient with where I am. I haven’t sent out much of my writing. I haven’t given myself the chance to fully defy my father and prove to myself how wrong he was.

It’s time to get to work. No more excuses. No more fear can be allowed to influence my choices.

Because that’s what it was–that’s why I typed in his name and looked on that face one last time. All this time, I’ve been scared–scared he was right.

And when I looked at that smile, I realized I’m not anymore. I know he was wrong about me all those years. Now is when I prove it.

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