The drive out to Western New York from Saratoga Springs isn't too bad. Michael, my loving partner who offered to accompany me for what we both knew would be an emotional visit with my father, did all the driving. My energy was low due to a long winded bout with kidney stones and I just wanted to crawl into the nearest dark cave with my sweetheart and rest. But it was time for me, the escape artist, to face the music. We had rented an Airbnb located about 15 minutes from my father's place and when we were settled in and there were no more excuses, I called my step-mother to let her know we had arrived.
“Your father is waiting for you” She said.
On the short drive, Michael kept the conversation light. Relieved to have some distance from his own family issues, he was perfectly present and supportive. Also, Michael and my dad share similar qualities and ways of being that make them easy friends and he was looking forward to the visit.
Coming up the driveway now. My father steps out on to the porch and waves. I'm struck by how thin he is. He's walking toward the car, smiling big. His posture has a pronounced forward bend but he's still tall. I get out and we embrace. His spine and ribs are bumpy under his shirt. I look up into his face and he has a translucent, almost ethereal glow. He smiles bigger and says, “I've always loved your beautiful blue eyes.” My heart and throat swell in a simultaneous rush. “ I love you, daddy”
We spend an hour or two visiting with the family. My stepmother takes me aside and tells me the gory details of my father's failing memory. He can't remember names. He's not eating. He's waking up in the night, asking to go 'home'. This last one, I can relate to.
Before heading back to our rented space, we make a plan to come back the next day to take my father for some quality time.
The next morning, we find him ready and excited to go. We take him to breakfast. He finishes his meal with a healthy appetite. While he expresses confusion around certain topics, our conversation is as easy and lucid as always. He remembers the golden time with no problem. He remembers my name. We decide to head back to the Airbnb for some guitar playing. I sit in the back seat behind him and put my hand on his shoulder. He reaches up and puts his hand on mine. We used to marvel at how my hands were the feminine version of his; long, graceful fingers perfect for playing music. The Rolling Stones were on the car stereo singing about Sympathy for the Devil; one of the first bass lines he ever taught me. I rest my forehead on the back of my dad's headrest and silently sob.
He seems to sense my sadness and starts to talk. “How's your mother?”
I tell him that she's holding steady out there in Oklahoma.
"I always loved her. I never stopped loving her.” I'm struck by the strong emotion in his voice. It feels like a flood gate has opened and for the next few hours he continues to talk about my mother. He tells me how much in love they were. He says that he can't bear the shame he feels for leaving her the way he did (he left on her birthday). He confesses he withheld his love and affection from her because of his own insecurities. He says that he was terrified of raising children. I try to ease him a little by saying that they were both young and... “No!” he says with powerful passion, “ I'm a man and I know right from wrong. I was WRONG! She needs to know. I have to tell her!”
I offer to get her on the phone. He bows his head “I'm too ashamed to talk to her. I would like to write her a letter and maybe give her a gift.” Okay Daddy, okay.
The next day, before we head back east, I take him for a walk and ask him if he would like me to tell my Mom about our talk. “Yes, please” He says.
“What would you like me to tell her, Daddy?”
And for the second time in my 51 years, I see tears in my father's eyes. “Tell her it was a mistake. I made a mistake. I should not have left her.”
I call my mother the next day. There's laughter and tears on both our parts. I'm grateful for the opportunity to offer her whatever peace of mind this news can bring her. I hope her pain is less. I know mine is.
Many who know me can attest to my conviction for women's issues caused by an ailing and arcane patriarchal culture. I could easily turn this story into a platform that wags a told-you-so finger at men who discard women and children with minimum punishment or repercussion. But all I can think about is how differently things would have been if he had stayed with her. Oddly enough, I'm left with a childlike wonder and hope for the future.