"Where's your dad?" Cal's friend once asked her while on a playdate. There was nothing mean-spirited about the question. It was just one 7-year-old asking another in a curious "My dad's at work; where's your dad?" kind of way.
Very matter-of-factly, my daughter, Cal, replied, "I don't have a dad. If my mommy gets married, then I'll have one."
Cal didn't bring it up for the rest of the afternoon, but at bedtime, she told me God wanted to know when I would be getting married.
"God... or you?" I asked.
"I guess me. Maybe I can pray about it."
I didn't know what to tell her, so I said it would be okay to talk to God about wanting a dad.
I didn't have a father growing up, either. My parents weren't divorced, and they lived under the same roof, but Dad wasn't present most of the time. Even when he was there physically, he wasn't interested in participating.
He wasn't interested in being interested.
On the rare occasion when he spent time with us, I tried to draw out the excursions. We took a few road trips as a family, and I studied maps and guidebooks for weeks beforehand in hopes of finding additional detours. One more afternoon. One more memory.
A few months after Cal asked when I would be getting married, I reconnected with a high school flame. After a whirlwind romance, we got married.
My husband is an excellent father. He adopted Cal two years ago, and the transition from being a duo to a trio has been smoother than I ever dared to hope.
Sometimes, I do comparisons in my head. I think about Cal, who knows with confidence that if she needs her father to be somewhere or do something, he will be there. He will do it. It's an easy assumption she makes, and he's happy to oblige. There is a comfortable casualness between the two. Once, he forgot to load her backpack into the car trunk before driving her to school in the morning -- a fact the two discovered in the school parking lot 20 minutes later. Even now, she jokes with her dad about "not forgetting my stuff... again." She says it with a look of disapproval. He solemnly nods. Then they both laugh.
I think about my own father, whom I saw for the last time in 2000, when I was 19. My parents were finally getting divorced after being together for 20 years, miserable for 10. I came home to help my mom pack and move to another state. The morning my parents signed the divorce papers, I helped my brother load up the last of the boxes into the moving van, hugged my dad, and told him that I would call him soon.
In the following months, I left him several messages, but he never called back. I rationalized. I reasoned. Maybe talking to me would remind him of his failed marriage. Maybe seeing me would make him sad.
Four years later, I decided to reach out again. I looked up his new phone number on the Internet. He picked up on the third ring, and I was relieved when he sounded happy to hear from me. I didn't ask why he hadn't returned any of my phone calls. I just wanted to put the past behind us and move forward. During the half-hour conversation, we didn't get into a deep discussion, but he asked if I was doing okay. I told him that I was fine and that I missed him.
I offered my phone number. He accepted. He said he would call soon because too much time had passed, and he didn't want us to be strangers.
"I would like that, Dad."
Until recently, I had two cell phones. I had the first one for 10 years, and it's the number I gave my father. The other, I got after marrying my husband five years ago, and it's the one I use every day. Friends stopped calling the first phone years ago so I considered disconnecting it, but I'm unable to give it up.
Sometimes, a week or two passes before I check my first phone, which is permanently plugged into a corner of my bedroom. I flip it open, hoping to see a message or even a missed call notification.
I've waited eight years for my dad's phone call. I'm still waiting.
Having a parent who doesn't share the same interest in having a relationship is confusing. It's embarrassing. And it hurts. My father's absence is so complete that I sometimes wonder if I imagined his existence.
When I am asked how this makes me feel, I shrug it off. The experts say that the opposite of love isn't hate, it's indifference. And that's what I outwardly try to portray: an air of indifference. A façade of growing past the rejection into a well-adjusted adult who won't fight for someone who doesn't want to be around.
I'm happy and relieved for my daughter, who will have a different experience than I. But a part of me is sad that I didn't have a wonderful father like she does, and my fear is that the chances of it happening are, as the days go on, getting slimmer.
Recently, I was in bed because of severe allergies. My husband told me to take it easy and said that he would get Cal -- who is 12 now -- ready for school. I watched him brush her hair into the saddest ponytail I had ever seen. It was crooked and not all the hair made it in. When he was done, Cal turned to me. "See, Mommy, I told you it would work if I prayed."
For five years, she had held our conversation inside, believing her prayers brought her a father. Not just any father, but a dad who will love her always, in all ways.
For more by Elizabeth Jayne Liu, click here.
For more on becoming fearless, click here.
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