Essay by Debra Purdy Kong
I grew up knowing my father was a lousy husband. When my mother was nineteen years old she married Dad to get away from her mother, and soon discovered he had no intention of sacrificing his social life for family responsibilities. When my younger sister, Allison, and I were pre-schoolers, Mom lived on tranquilizers. My most vivid memories of my parents' relationship are of their long, silent cold wars. As a child, I didn't know the cause of those silences, but I thought if I didn't behave I would stretch the tension in our house so tight none of us would relax again. I became a child who tiptoed through life while Allison experienced all the fun and trouble of childhood.
I learned a lot about my father from telephones, beginning with his calls from the bar late at night asking Mom to pick him up. If I was awake, she sometimes invited me along for company. At ten years of age, her invitation made me feel grown-up and important; but I hated seeing my father drunk, and I hated the way Mom gripped the steering wheel with both hands and stared straight ahead without really seeing the road. Occasionally, he wouldn't come home until the next day. On nights when he had the car, their arguments often woke me up, and I envied my sister who seemed to sleep through it all.
I learned more about my father's life when a woman began phoning every evening, asking for him. We soon learned that he'd abruptly ended their brief affair. Sometimes a child asked for him. In retaliation, Mom had Allison or me pick up the receiver. It was the first time I'd been really angry with Dad. A new unlisted number stopped the intrusion. Later on, creditors began calling, and that's when I learned to worry about money.
One day, a bank manager wanted to know why my parents had missed a mortgage payment. It turned out that Dad had gambled the money away in a poker game. When collection agencies started knocking on our door Mom found a job. Several months later a general contractors' strike tossed my father, a drywaller, onto a picket line. Desperate for money, he left the city to find work up in the Yukon, eighteen hundred miles away. I was nearly fourteen years old when he moved and, though I missed him, the absence of cold wars was wonderful.
He assured us he'd send money every month, but the checks were too small and always late, and Mom wasn't earning enough to meet the mortgage payments on our house, let alone another ten thousand dollars in debts. I remember hostile phone calls between them, tears filling Mom's eyes as she slammed the receiver down then fell apart. I was frustrated with our financial worries and frightened of the future.
Over the next few months Dad visited three times. On his third trip, an alcohol saturated argument erupted on Christmas Eve and lasted through the holidays. I remember sobbing into my pillow on New Year's Eve, praying the fight would end. I'd spent most of my childhood saddened and confused by my two-parent family, and worn out by stress-related health problems.
Five months later, on Mother's Day, Dad phoned to say he wouldn't be coming home again. As soon as she hung up, Mom started to cry, out of relief and anger rather than sorrow, I believe.
Our financial troubles deteriorated into financial crises as my father not only stopped sending money, but vanished from the Yukon with another woman. Mom's depression and anxiety soared. At first, she wouldn't seek professional counseling, preferring to play out angry, half-whispered conversations while she washed the dishes. Because she always seemed on the verge of a breakdown, I still tiptoed around her. It was only after she sought therapy that I dared express opposing viewpoints on issues.
After their separation, most of my parents' friends stopped calling. I think they saw Mom as the shrew who'd forced Dad out of the marriage. People thought my father was a great guy: charming and funny, always willing to help a friend, or to buy a round of beer. No one realized his generosity was at our expense.
My mother's parents lived three thousand miles away, and offered some financial help, but otherwise found it difficult to accept their daughter's separation. Grandad believed people should stay married at all costs, and that any failure was largely the wife's fault.
To pay the most essential bills, Mom sold our furniture and any item worth a few dollars. As my sister and I grew, she accepted second-hand clothing from a work colleague. For months, our duty became macaroni and cheese, or mushroom soup mixed with tuna on toast. When she couldn't cope with the debts anymore, she sold our home, then rented half a duplex. Mom decided not to tell Dad's friends or family our new address and phone number, a decision which wasn't open to discussion. After parting with the four cats our landlord wouldn't let us keep, we moved.
Although raising two teenagers on minimum wage qualified her for welfare, she was too proud to seek assistance. I had hoped a new beginning would stop the depression, worry, and pessimism that had dominated us, but despair traveled well. I hated Dad for the upheaval in our lives. I wanted him punished for all the tears and sleepless nights imposed on us, and for the small rebellious acts my sister had begun to impose on herself and the world.
To earn money, I baby-sat, picked strawberries, and waited on tables. I exchanged academic studies for clerical skill training. During my last year of high school, a rent increase stretched our budget beyond its limit, and my mother asked me for the three hundred dollars it had taken me two years to save; money that was to help me set up my own place after graduation. Resentfully, I handed her the cash. When she asked me to share her bedroom so she could rent my room to boarders my resentment blossomed, as did my anger at Dad.
Several attempts had been made to track him down so Mom could file for a divorce. Each time he was found he quickly left the province, forcing the paperwork to begin again because Canada's provincial courts in the early 70's treated one another like foreign countries over civil matters. When I was nineteen, Dad reappeared so he could divorce Mom to marry the woman he'd left the Yukon with four years earlier; she was six months pregnant. Child support was obtained for Allison, but Mom later cancelled the arrangement because she couldn't afford to pay tax on the added income.
As the years went by and we slowly worked our way out of poverty, Mom never forgave Dad for the emotional and financial hell we had suffered. She inundated us with examples of his neglect from our pre-school days, when my paternal grandmother allegedly threatened to take us away from her if she left Dad. The stories went on long after we stopped listening and our own anger subsided. Tension rose between Mom and me when his name came up. He was still my father, and his neglect had never been intentionally malicious. Despite the school and ballet recitals he missed, and despite the meals without him, there'd also been many Sunday afternoon excursions to the beach, parks, or zoos with Dad, and happy Christmas celebrations.
I began to acknowledge a sense of loss over him. After the divorce, he sent Allison and me birthday gifts. Mom despised this gesture, but I wanted to know more about his life. As the years passed I realized I needed to see him, if for no other reaon than to make sure he was all right. The opportunity came after a disagreement with Mom turned into one of her cold wars. When I wouldn't apologize, she ordered me out of her life.
Ten days later, my paternal grandmother telephoned to wish me a happy birthday. After my parents' divorce we'd re-established contact, and had occasionally seen one another. I asked Gran how my father was doing, a subject which had somehow become taboo over the years. She told me how much he wanted to see us, and a meeting was arranged at her home.
As Allison and I drove closer to Gran's, trepidation took over our curiosity. How would he react to us? Allison had also let go of her anger; yet not long before, she confessed that she'd rarely slept through our parents' fights all those years ago; she just hadn't wanted anyone to know it.
My father was there when we arrived, without his wife and what were now two teenaged sons. When Allison saw him she began to cry. He hugged her and said, "I know; it's all right."
I struggled not to fall apart. It was a wonderful relief just to talk to him. The more we spoke the more I seemed to regain part of myself; however, the longer I watched him the more conscious I became of the passage of time. His face was heavily lined, his hair grey, and he was even thinner than I remembered. The smoker's cough he'd always had seemed harsher and more frequent.
Over the months, Dad kept in touch with Allison and me. We met his sons and his wife, Carol. It didn't take long to discover that his financial woes hadn't changed over the years. Health problems had forced him to give up drywalling, and he now earned a minimum wage delivering bundles of newspapers at night. Although Carol was employed, money was tight. This didn't stop him from buying cordless phones and video equipment, a computer for one sone, and an expensive skateboard for the other. Cars filled his driveway with deals he couldn't resist.
Two things about him had changed, though; he was no longer drinking and he was involved with his sons' lives. Had I been sixteen, I would have resented this interest in his other children, but at age thirty-one it seemed like a bittersweet happy ending.
When two years had passed and my mother began to talk to me again, she learned that Dad had re-entered my life. A week before my wedding she mailed back her R.S.V.P invitation indicating she wouldn't attend. It seemed she objected to my father's attendance. Nearly twenty years had lapsed since their separation; Mom had some money, a good job, her own condominium, and yet she was still bitter.
I wanted to explain the loss I had felt all these years, the grieving I had gone through, and the peace I found by forgiving the past; but listening has never been one of her strong points, and verbal communication has never been one of mine. Allison persuaded Mom to change her mind, but my parents didn't acknowledge one another at our wedding. As we exchanged vows in the backyard, Mom sstood on one side of the group in her new silk dress, while my father stood on the other side in his worn-looking polyester suit.
Months later, just before I was due to give birth, Mom vowed to walk out of my hospital room if Dad showed up while she was there. My father never did come to the hospital; in fact, my daughter was five weeks old before they met. He said he'd been busy.
He only saw his granddaughter once before he was hit by a drunk driver in the early morning hours of Christmas Eve. We were told there'd been some bleeding in his brain stem and that he had a concussion. Ligaments had been torn away from his right kneecap and there was a hairline fracture in his leg. He also had several broken ribs and a cracked cheekbone.
After the briefing, Allison and I were escorted through a large, subdued room filled with motionless people connected to machines. A nurse warned us that Dad was on a respirator and so heavily sedated that he couldn't open his eyes. If she hadn't stopped at the end of his bed, I'm not sure I would have recognized the swollen, battered face. My father's eyes were surrounded by reddish black bruises. A strip of tape had been placed over the more severely damaged eye. Tubes ran into his arms and down his throat; my sister took one look at him, then left the room.
After the nurse confirmed he was awake, I lamely reassured Dad that everything would be fine; yet the sight of him frightened me. Searching for something to say, I rambled on about my three-month-old daughter's discovery of her hands. As I prepared to leave, a single tear slipped out from behind the tape.
By his fourth day in the Intensive Care Unit, he was trying to pull the tubes out of his arms and mouth, and wound up with restraints on his wrists. Three weeks after he'd been moved out of the I.C.U. surgery was performed on his knee, and soon he was racing his wheelchair with the younger guys.
Two minor victories came out of the accident. One was that he quit a forty-year smoking habit. The second was that his employer offered to train him as a dispatcher. By Easter Sunday he was smoking again and blaming it on the stress the insurance company was causing him. Thinking he'd be compensated fairly soon, he had purchased a new top-of-the-line Jeep. At the mention of the Jeep, Carol groaned, then left the room. Three months later, she left him and their sons. My father said she'd "gone weird" after taking a few psychology courses.
I never knew Carol well. She always treated our meetings politely and cautiously, but we'd never said much to one another. I knew she hated her job, and hated being constantly broke. I also suspected that Dad had something to do with her mental state, but clearly, he blamed her for the separation.
Their relationship grew hostile when Carol demanded to move back into the house registered in her name. Eventually, Dad and his sons, plus two of his buddies moved into a rented house. Without Carol's salary, his financial affairs became more dismal. Part of me felt sorry for him, and part of me felt vindicated that he now understood what we had gone through.
A year after the accident, Dad still couldn't lift bundles of newspapers, and it was also obvious that his insurance claim wouldn't be settled quickly. Given the situation, I didn't understand why he hadn't accepted the offer to train for a better paying job. I wanted to ask him about it, but we'd stopped talking about personal things, especially when it meant explaining his decisions, past, present or future. He seemed incapable of candid conversation, or maybe he just resented the thought of justifying his actions. Perhaps this is why we'd never discussed what life had been like for either of us after his infamous Mother's Day phone call.
Compounding our communication problems was the realization that we had little in common. To him, I was an introvert, a trait he considered a major character flaw; certainly, he blamed his oldest son's introversion for his decision to drop out of school three months earlier. Compared to Dad, I was a conservative homebody with a dull life because I wrote every day, looked after my child, cleaned house, and didn't go out much. He didn't understand my contentment to stay at home any more than I understand his need to be out with people.
Eight months after he'd moved into the rented house, his sister telephoned to tell me that Gran had had a stroke, and that Dad had been given a forty-eight hour eviction notice for not paying the rent. Apparently, his buddies had not contributed to the living expenses. His sons, meanwhile, had moved in with Carol, and his new girlfriend, Betty, was trying to extend his eviction date. Although Betty's name had been mentioned before, I knew little about her. My aunt said she was an older woman and quite a character.
Six days after the phone call, Gran died. She left what little money she'd had to my aunt and father. My aunt gave her share to Dad with the understanding this was the last cash she'd give him. I should have known she'd helped him out before. Months earlier, he asked me for money, but I turned him down. My father never did call to tell me about Gran. My aunt said he'd been too busy looking for a new place to live.
As the months passed and his life grew more chaotic, my disappointment in Dad turned to anger. I didn't understand why he wouldn't make changes to improve his life and put the destructive patterns behind him. Nor did I understand why he blamed all his misfortune on ex-wives, banks and insurance companies.
I began to wonder if his attitude had something to do with the way he'd been raised. He once told me he'd had terrific parents. My mother, however, believed his sister had been the favored child. I'll probably never know the truth, but lately I've started to think that, deep down inside, my father's never felt he was worth much, and he showed the world that this is not only true, but that the world shouldn't expect much from him.
Several months ago, he and Betty moved into a three bedroom apartment. Since his knee injury kept him from delivering newspapers again, he began renovating basements and cottages to help pay the bills. By a mutual agreement, he stored his tools in a shed on our property.
One day, Betty telephoned looking for him. It turned out he'd been drinking all night, but she didn't know where he'd gone after the bar closed. She said it wasn't the first time he hadn't come home. It was hard to believe the old behavior was back, or worse, that it had probably never left. He'd even been drinking at the same bar Mom and I used to collect him from when I was a girl. Betty also claimed that he owed her fifteen thousand dollars, and made it clear she'd be throwing him out of the house. When my father finally appeared at our shed, he responded to the news by claiming that she'd suddenly gone weird on him.
Recently, a number of his personal possessions appeared in our shed: empty picture frames, a toaster oven, portable TV, and so on. The final doctor's report revealed that my father's knee will never function properly. Arthritis had invaded his shoulder because of the accident. Scarring has developed behind the cornea in his eyes and eventually he will be blind.
Regardless of the amount of his insurance settlement, I know the money will be quickly spent, even though he said he'll find a financial advisor and invest the cash. He likes to say what he thinks I want to hear.
People look at me strangely when I tell them I've hated telephones most of my life. More than this, I dread them in some ways, because one day I'll answer the phone and learn that my father is dead, and that he will have died with things left unsaid between us because he no more wants to hear them than I want to say them. How can I tell a sixty-year-old man to grow up? How can he really understand me without dredging up the past and re-opening old wounds in both of us?
Beyond the disappointment, anger and frustration of this relationship, I feel sad, not only for the time lost, and for events I couldn't and still cannot control, but for the belief that I've never been very important to him. It has taken a long time to realize that my father is not here to learn, but to teach. I like to think that I have learned his lessons well.
Originally from Toronto, Canada, Debra was raised in British Columbia and is a criminology graduate from Douglas College, B.C. She has previously appeared in Eating Apples: Knowing Women's Lives, Dandelion, Green's Magazine, Calliope, and other publications. She recently published her first novel Taxed to Death, a mystery currently available only in Canada.