The One Who Got Away - How we process the parent who left
There is something almost seductive about the parent who isn’t there. The one who left is subject to the wild imaginings of the child. “She’s not really gone because she doesn’t want to be with me. She’s probably somewhere fighting crime” or “He didn’t really leave me because he doesn’t love me. He just left because he’s very busy and important while working as a spy”. The one who stays has all the jobs – chore assigner, homework helper, taxi driver, personal shopper, chef, part time yeller/disciplinarian… And most of the time, none of those jobs seem sexy to a kid the way secret spy or world traveling superhero does.
As a child, I spent much of my time imagining such things about my own absentee father. I mean, I couldn’t imagine why he wouldn’t want to be around me, so he must’ve been busy at work or feeding the homeless or some other worthy cause that kept me standing at the front door with my little green suitcase waiting for a parent who never bothered to show. Once I realized he didn’t fight crime, he didn’t serve his community, and he wasn’t out committing random altruistic deeds, the letdown was gargantuan but the appreciation for the parent who stayed was just as big.
When I was about nine, I was riding with him. Music was blasting from his 8-track adaptor, the windows were down, and I was feeling good about being out with him. He slowed down the car and turned down the volume like he had something important to say. “Listen, I’ll quit my job before I’ll pay your mother any money for you.” And just like that, he turned the music up, leaned bac in his seat, took a sop of the gin that was always in the cup holder, and drove me home.
Being little, I couldn’t even conceptualize what he’d said. All I knew is it was mean. All I knew was it hurt my feelings. All I knew was what he said wasn’t right but I couldn’t fully understand why. What I did know was it wasn’t the talk of superheroes. It didn’t seem like the kind of thing a hood missionary would let fall from his lips. It wasn’t what someone who loved me would say. In that moment, all the stories I’d made up in my head about what he must’ve really been doing all the time he was a no show in my life fell apart. He couldn’t have possibly embodied those identities. No bad man could.
Years of wondering why I wasn’t wanted, decades of a relationship built on quiet indifference, and one heartfelt letter later, I came to terms with the truthiness of it all – I didn’t cause his absence, I was enough, and the one who stayed was absolutely the one whose presence mattered most. Arriving at these conclusions wasn’t any kind of easy. Maybe the next time I’m in my car, I’ll turn down my music, look in my rearview mirror, and tell myself I’ll give everything I can to make sure I’m ok.
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