The weight of a stranger

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I was in the LEGO store with my son and husband when my mom called to tell me the father I never knew passed away days earlier.

She wasn’t going to tell me when she heard I wasn’t home, but I insisted. I turned to my husband and said, “My father died” and my eyes immediately welled up at the words. It bothered me that my body reacted that way, so I blinked rapidly and asked my mom if she was okay. She said she was. I told her I would call her when I got home and we hung up.

I looked at my almost 3-year-old, who was unaffected of course, happily selecting LEGO sets and showing them to us. My husband asked if I wanted to leave and I said, “No. This can’t ruin our fun here” and I smiled at my son as we went on about our business.

Now, for the truth.

On the outside, I did what I always did when it came to the father topic: Brave face, smile and deal with it. Inside, I was emotionally thrown against a wall. It felt so…final. Over the years, especially after having my son, I would have quick passing thoughts of maybe reaching out to my father, but not really knowing what I would say or what I wanted from him, because when it came down to it, I didn’t really want anything from him. And then I would think about the fact that if he wanted anything, he always knew how to reach me, so whatever, and I would move on with my life. But now, that possibility would, and could, never happen. No matter what.

A short backstory: My father left my mother while she was pregnant with me. They had been together for more than 8 years. They lived together and she was a stepmother of sorts to his three children from a previous marriage. Then, he had an affair with a woman he would also get pregnant (with twins) and go on to marry. My mother took him to court for child support, but decided against it when she saw him walk in. Let’s just say she didn’t want me, her newborn baby, to have to go with a man who didn’t want me. So, she never took a dime.

And, he didn’t take any of my time for 38 years.

Except for now, as I’m standing in a LEGO store, fighting back teary eyes and a flipping stomach. It’s the weirdest feeling, knowing a parent you never knew or even met - not even once - is deceased. I can usually pinpoint my emotions, but I was all over the place that day. Sad, mad, confused, and oddly…relieved.

Growing up without a father is not easy. It wasn’t nearly as difficult for me as I imagine it is for some, but there were times I had to put on a brave face and act like it didn’t bother me. Father/daughter dances I skipped, not being able to fill in the ‘Father’ section of any and all paperwork, watching other kids and friends with their dads at playgrounds, school and even in TV shows - offering their daughters advice with boys or protecting them from being disrespected. My mother was/is the strongest woman I know, as well as the most loving and warm and sensitive. When I say she had to do it all, I mean it. She was, and remains, everything to me. She never once badmouthed him or said he was a bad person, or hid details from me. So, I never thought poorly of him. But, that doesn’t change that he was a weight on my shoulders for most of my life.

So, relief was the strongest emotion coming through that day. I sat on my back porch and processed how I was feeling so I could make it make sense. I was relieved that I wouldn’t ever have to talk to him. I wouldn’t ever have to ask questions I already knew the answers to. I wouldn’t have to feel like I owed him something if he asked for it. I wouldn’t have to wonder, as I kind of morbidly and dramatically did for so many years, if I would have to make a decision to attend his wake and funeral…because it had already happened. It was…over. The weight was gone.

I said a prayer, as I watched the birds in my backyard. A female cardinal landed right in front of me, perching on a bush. She stared at me and I gasped a little. My great grandmother was an avid bird watcher, and loved cardinals. I knew she was sending me even more love and strength. I smiled, teared up, waved and the bird took off, along with the tears I had finally let myself cry.