For the sake of self-protection, I have to remember how, in the past, my father’s unreliability and my wishing he were different brought me pain.
The word “estrangement” is defined as "the physical and or emotional distancing between at least two family members." Typically, it’s when an adult child ceases contact with a parent. Most definitions I find describe it as a broken relationship involving one rejected party or an arrangement is considered unsatisfactory by at least one of the people involved.
The simplest definition I can find describes estrangement as “the fact of no longer being on friendly terms or part of a social group.” I like this definition best. In the case of my father and me, I don’t think of the relationship we are in as “broken.” I think it’s for the best that we don’t speak to one another. Maybe for some people, estrangement is simply a fact.
The last time I heard from my dad was about a year ago. He sent me an email with his phone number. "Hey, it's your paps,” the message read. “Will you give me a call? It'll only take a second."
I was in Scotland with my boyfriend, meeting his parents and extended family for the first time. I remember standing alone in the guest room of my boyfriend’s aunt’s house in Edinburgh, the din of family just beyond the door.
I’ve learned that if I don’t talk about things, they express themselves in fucked-up ways (typically, irrational blowups at said boyfriend). So I told Arran about the email.
“Could something be wrong?” he asked.
No, we decided. If there was some kind of emergency, it wouldn’t be my father who’d call.
“Couldn’t you just write him back and ask him what he wants?” Arran asked.
I mean, yeah. I was physically capable of doing that. But I didn’t want to write him back, and so I didn’t. He didn’t try again.
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There’s no easy explanation for why my dad and I haven’t talked in nearly 15 years. It’s not easy to articulate how that feels or what it means, but let’s start with the practical considerations: When I went away to college, I had to explain to more than one institution why I couldn’t provide them with my father’s tax returns.
To whom it may concern,
I regrettably cannot provide the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation with my father's financial information.
It is only my vague understanding that he is remarried and living somewhere out of state and therefore it should be considered that he "cannot be found."
My parents were separated in Spring of 1998 and divorced the following year. Neither my mother nor I have been in contact with him since before the divorce proceedings, and I have not been his financial dependent since 1998.
Thank you for your special consideration.
Most of the time, I kept the details to myself. Like when I was awarded one scholarship from the local men’s club, and they invited me and all the winners to come with our fathers to celebratory barbecue, I just didn’t show up.
My relationship with my father was never father-daughter picnics. Maybe when I was very little — or maybe this is less a memory and more of a wish — I have an image of myself as a very little girl sitting on my father’s lap, and we are both laughing. Perhaps my father enjoyed fatherhood when his children were very little, but that joy seemed to curdle into constant frustration as my brother and I grew up.
I remember my father as a man frequently frustrated, quick to anger, sometimes violently so. More often, this was taken out on my brother. A joke my father didn’t like could result in a slap meant to shock and humiliate.
Because I was rarely the target of my father’s abuse, for a long time, I told myself I was unaffected. Today, though, I know I was affected.
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The last time my father hit me, I was 17. My boyfriend at the time was in the other room. I remember joining him, pretending just as if nothing had happened, tears burning in my eyes. My father had hit me because I’d drunk some of his orange juice.
And I was affected in other ways. When I read an essay by Tiffani Drayton on Donald Trump and fathers who sexualize their daughters, I could relate. When I started going to 12-step meetings and hearing people talk about covert sexual abuse, I could relate then, too.
I don’t remember the last time I saw my father. Instead, I think of the moment I came home from school, the day my mother told me my father was gone. That day, in my mind, I became the Abandoned Daughter, a dark and shameful identity. I became the Stripper With Daddy Issues, a cliché.
I felt this way for a long time, all the while pretending my relationship with my father didn’t affect me. Still, denial didn’t make it go away.
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The last time I heard my father's voice, I was 18 years old. I was a senior in high school. It was only a week or so after he’d moved out. Over the phone, he sounded small. The man I always feared sounded far away. He sounded not like my father at all.
After a brief conversation, he told me he loved me.
You don't love me, I thought. Too little, too late!
He asked me if I needed anything.
I said money. I had worked as a cashier to save up money for a prom dress. I still needed shoes.
Even in the perfect dress and the perfect shoes, something was wrong. I spent most of prom in tears, fighting with my date over who knows what.
My father hadn't sent the money. I had paid for the shoes myself.
The fact that he couldn’t do the one thing I had asked of him confirmed my worst fears.
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Since that moment, I’ve done a lot of work on myself, and my life is a lot better. I’ve learned to have relationships with healthy boundaries and how to express my feelings.
Most importantly, I know my father’s leaving is no reflection on my worth. I’m no longer in pain and, honestly, I’ve let go of the anger and resentment I harbored.
Still, I hold on to the knowledge that my father is not a reliable character. For the sake of self-protection, I have to remember how, in the past, my father’s unreliability and my wishing he were different brought me pain.
Whenever I consider reconciliation, I remember the last time I tried. Before the email I received from him while I was in Scotland, it had been eight years since we’d last communicated. I was in grad school then, living in the West Village. I was a sex worker and an alcoholic whose life was quickly narrowing down to two choices: Get sober or die.
I myself was suffering when I got the news that my grandma had passed, and so I reached out to my father for the first time in years, to console him. We exchanged a couple emails about where we were at in our lives until he finally asked for my phone number, and I gave it to him. We set up a date and time, and I made myself available. He never called.
What do you do when your estranged father comes up in your Facebook feed's "People You May Know"? The other day I was on Facebook, and there he was. His face, but older. I clicked for a closer view. The picture is a selfie of his face and bare shoulders, awkwardly cropped because the rest of it was clearly NSFW. I closed the window.
There is no easy explanation as to why I haven't talked to my dad in nearly 15 years. It’s not easy to articulate how that feels or what it means. Still, at least for now I know that no relationship is the right relationship — and that no, my father and I should not be "friends."