I’m a nature nerd, something I get from my dad. Hector Sr. loved watching nature shows. Whenever he wasn’t out on patrol or high off his ass somewhere, he and his eldest son (that’s me) would eat dinner on TV trays in the living room and watch Marty Stouffer’s Wild America on PBS. I’m sure my little brother was there too, sitting on the couch next to us — this is back when we lived on Pierce, so he must’ve been there — but I don’t remember him being there. In my mind, it was just me and Dad on the couch.
It’s probably silly and obvious of me to say, but I looked up to my dad. I wanted to be just like him. He was strong and handsome and funny — the life of the party. He loved music, especially Michael Jackson (another piece of inheritance). Everybody loved him, even Mom, as hard as she tried not to. Dad was a smart dude; he once took apart the VCR and fixed whatever was wrong with it. At least that’s how I remember it, how I remember him, hunched over a disassembled appliance like some ghetto inventor.
Anyway, Dad and I made some good memories on that couch watching Wild America, that is until the day he unplugged the TV and carried it out of the apartment. I guess he was feining for a hit, but I never watched Wild America after that. Its theme song became the theme song of a stolen childhood — pawned, actually.
As with most kids who grew up without fathers, I usually mention mine in the past tense. I say My dad was this or My dad used to do that, as if he’d croaked a while back. But Dad is very much alive; he’s only dead in my mind. I had to kill him.
I hated my father, twice as much as I hated my mother. As a boy struggling to become a man, or at least what I thought a man should be, I’d pretend I was angry with him, not for what he did to me, but for what he did to my mom, my brother, and my sister. I was mad at him because he abandoned them, unwilling to admit that he abandoned me too. He didn’t abandon me, I told myself, because you can’t abandon someone who doesn’t need you in the first place. Only now that I’m older and seemed to have survived my first years can I finally admit how much I needed my dad. I really did.
Dad reached out to us a couple times. One day back in my sophomore year of high school he showed up in a brand new PT Cruiser and took us for a ride downtown. I still remember the music he played in the car — a cassette of Wyclef’s The Eleftic. My brother and I acted like Dad was the motherfucken man that weekend. (Sorry, Mom.) We hoped life would return to what it never was but should’ve been. But when it didn’t, and Dad vanished again, we didn’t even wonder why. We just took it, like we took everything.
The next time Dad reached out, college was kicking my ass (not the classes of course, just the rest of it). By then my resentment toward him dominated my feelings toward him. He became nothing more than a distraction and someone undeserving of any kindness, especially from me. That my brother and sister still seemed willing to engage him annoyed the crap out of me. They’re young, I told myself. They don’t remember what he is.
That feeling, that hatred toward my own father — which is the most corrosive kind of hatred, to despise your own origins, your own past — that lasted till last month. See, in the run-up to my big move to Vegas in July, I’ve been making a list of all the loose ends in Chicago that need sorting before I dip. My partner and I are looking for a new beginning out in that God-forsaken desert, and I can’t have any of this baggage weighing me down out West. A big move like that, for someone who’s never done it before, sort of feels like dying; this me is coming to an end, and hopefully there’s a new me waiting to be born that side of the Rockies. So I’m saying my goodbyes, and asking forgiveness.
But then there’s Confucius and his stupid-beautiful advice about not doing to other people what you wouldn’t want done to yourself. So if I’m looking to receive forgiveness for all the terrible shit I’ve done, I have to be willing to hand out a bit of forgiveness to those seeking it from me. Still, I’m not about to do something just because some ancient Chinese guy says so. Confucius never met me, or my father, because if he had he might’ve never uttered that stupid-beautiful rule.
Let me think this through then. Excuse me.
Does Dad deserve forgiveness? Probably. Jesus was obsessed with it. Does he deserve my forgiveness? Fuck no! Why not? Because he beat the shit out of Mom and us and pawned all our stuff. And? And he abandoned us. He chose that shit over us. But he’s an addict. So! He chose to be an addict instead of being a good father, even though he had good kids. You know no one chooses to be an addict. You should know, you almost became an alchie yourself. Yea, yea. But I didn’t, right? I found purpose, set my sights on a few goals, and pulled myself up. Not everyone can do that. Not everyone’s so lucky. It wasn’t luck. It was will — I refuse to be him. Your dad needs you. He needs your love. Does he deserve to die alone for what he did or didn’t do? Did I deserve to grow up without a father? Does any boy? No. But if you’re over it like you say you are, if you really aren’t mad at him anymore, then what does it cost you to forgive him, to be his son again? Just shut up already. What happened happened; it’s in the past. You can’t control the past. But you can decide what the future will be. ….
Where was I? Right here, I guess.
I forgive you, Dad. I forgive you more than I can bear. I even love you, a lot. I love the parts of me that are you, just as I love the parts of Chris that are you. Why did you leave us? Why did you leave Mom to carry that weight by herself? That was so fucked up. Especially for Brittany. She was so little. Still, I forgive you, for me and for you. Are you proud of me? You never taught me how to be a man, but I think I’ve done a pretty good job figuring it out myself, just like you figured out that VCR. That’s what I did — I took myself apart and put myself back together again. Or you took me apart rather, left me broken. Now look at me! I have dreams, I’m in love, real love, the way you should’ve loved Mom but didn’t know how. I’m not rubbing anything in your face, but it’s gotta make a man happy to see his own son surpass him in something. Aren’t you proud of me? Are you proud of Chris and Brittany too? You should be. Brittany’s disgustingly sweet, and a good wife and sister. And Chris is the best father in the world. Are you proud of him?
It’s strange the way life mirrors itself sometimes: Dad was a little older than I am now when things fell apart, and here I am trying to put my family back together again. I don’t think I’m a better man than my father, not anymore. We’re just two men wandering the world with this joyful-painful history between us. He lost his handle on life for a moment, and in that moment we lost everything we should’ve had. I’m not mad, just sad.
I’d still be lying if I didn’t admit that I hurt. I still feel alone, robbed. I don’t understand why some boys deserve a father while others don’t. If there is a God, that’s something I’ll ask him. (The other question: Where wast Thou?) But these broken bits of me won’t keep me from being the man I want to be, which is a man that does the right thing, even when it’s the hard thing — especially when it’s the hard thing.
So last Sunday, Father’s Day, I did something I’ve never done before. I texted Dad:
Happy Father’s Day, old man.
Featured image: Jon Nelson/Flickr