He used to look right at me and he didn't know me.
That's what I keep remembering. My own father used to look right at me and not know who I was. When I was in middle school, he was living on the street five blocks from the house where I grew up. And he was drunk or high or both almost all the time. Every afternoon, he was five blocks away, smoking a cigarette and talking to strangers, and not knowing who I was. I would walk past him with my friends, and we would joke about stopping and introducing ourselves. Then one afternoon we did it. We stopped and he talked to us and he told us he had a daughter close to our age. And he told us how pretty we were, and he told us to have a nice afternoon, and he slurred, and he looked right through me. And so the next week we did it again. Some weeks it was two or three afternoons in a row. Some days I'd ask if we could just walk on the other side of the street. Some days I would play along. But every time I held out hope that this time he would see me, and know I was his kid.
Sometimes I think I am okay, and sometimes I say I am good when people ask me, and sometimes that is true. It amazes me still how that's possible. Not because this is the worst thing that's ever happened to anyone, it isn't. Far from it. But because when I have to say the words, when I think back to those afternoons five blocks from my house, I still can't catch my breath.
I remember all our screaming matches vividly. All the times I kicked him out of the house. The days I confidently explained to him how his drinking was driving a wedge between him and I. The afternoon in the hospital after he'd had his third stroke, when I finally stood up for myself without crying even once.
But this. Being completely invisible to him even when I was standing right there, this I had pushed to the very back of my mind where it could just be lost for good.
And then yesterday it happened again.
I called him. I think now it was mostly desperation. The need to feel something better and different-- I was finally giving into the idea that, after wrestling with intermittent depression and anxiety for the last several years, he needed to be a part of my healing. Him, the guy I considered my best friend for the early years of my life. The person I spent decades convinced understood me better than anyone else, he needed to be part of what brought me back to myself because he's been such a big part of what's torn me down.
I tried to keep my tone even as I explained how down I've been. I tried to explain that I wasn't asking him for anything. Just that he hear me and understand that his words and his actions over the years have had consequences.
And then it happened. He asked bluntly, "If I'm such a problem, how come you've never said anything about it until now?"
I wasn't sure I'd heard him right, "We've talked a million times before about how our relationship is difficult, and the ways you've been hard on me," I said.
"When?" he wanted to know.
NOTE: Gas lighting is when someone manipulates someone else by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.
Dumbfounded, I relayed to him the course of our whole relationship for the last 26 years. The fights we had, the times we stopped speaking, the attempts to make amends. The happy memories from when I was a kid all the way through the worst years when I was in college, and then these most recent years when he's been sober but still incredibly vicious. I told him all the things he's told me: that I'm worthless, that I'm a waste of my mother's money, that I'm not pretty enough for anyone to notice me, that I'm too difficult for anyone to love me, that I'm an embarrassment, that I'm a horrible daughter. He said, "That's all very interesting, and I guess you're an honest person so I should believe you. But that doesn't sound like anything I would say."
"Dad," I said, "why would I make this up?"
"I can't tell you that." he answered. "But if I'm really this bad, I don't know why you've been lying to me this whole time."
Finally, I managed to say, "I suppose what it comes down to then, is that you don't really know me at all."
I expected this to land with him a little more, but he just scoffed and said, "No I don't. And I guess I never will." When I asked what he meant by that, he told me that he isn't getting any younger, and besides, it's not like I have made much of an effort to get to know him.
Somehow the conversation ended okay. With him asking me mundane first date questions, like what's your favorite color, and what's your favorite flavor of ice cream? It became so normal and banal that when we got off the phone I wasn't even sure what had happened. I wasn't really myself for a long time after we hung up the phone. Nothing seemed quite real. I couldn't feel my own weight in my body.
It felt like everything in me had died. Like I'd made up a sad story about a dad I never really had. Like I'd lied to everyone for years just so I could feel sorry for myself. I felt more stupid, more worthless, more pathetic than I've ever felt. Ashamed that I'd spent so many years entangled in a relationship that didn't exist. Obsessed over a parent who didn't remember me, who doesn't know me, and has no desire to. I was numb and I stared at the floor and decided I never wanted to do anything ever again.
And then, after a long time, in a brief flicker, I thought: oh.... but also, you know what though? Fuck that fucking guy.
It was just a glimmer, but the longer I sit with it, the brighter it gets. Fuck that fucking guy. I know what happened. I was there. I was a kid with absolutely no reason to imagine an alcoholic asshole where a dad was supposed to be. I was a teenager with no need to make believe my dad was living in a car outside my school. I was a college student with better shit to do than field phone calls from some jerk calling me names because I wouldn't lend him money. I know what my life with him has been like, whether he remembers it or not.
The thing I don't know-- the thing I've fought against knowing because I wanted to be compassionate and kind, because I wanted to have a dad who loved me, because I wanted to believe that the guy I thought was my best friend when I was 5 years old still existed-- the thing I don't know is what my life without him could be like.
I've thought for years about ending this relationship. But I never made up my mind to really do it until today. Because suddenly, more than ever before, it seems there is nothing left there to grieve. And the longer I think, maybe this is just the end of that, the more I feel like anything is possible. As much as it terrifies me, there's something in it that energizes me.
I don't know what one does to mark the end of a relationship like this. There are songs and poems and movies about handling romantic break ups. I've read articles and advice columns about what to do when friendships fail. But this seems different. My mom suggested I light something on fire. I've morbidly considered holding a funeral for the father I imagined I had. I'm open to suggestions.
For now, I'm mustering up the strength to say "fuck that fucking guy" a little bit louder. To stand up a little bit straighter. To let it all go a little bit more, a little bit at a time.
To make myself heard. To be seen.