Absent Doesn't Always Mean Gone

"To be in your children's memories tomorrow, you have to be in their lives today." - Barbara Johnson.

We’ve all heard the saying, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” But, what happens when someone is absent, but still physically there? Imagine this: there’s a girl about ten years old sitting on a row of bleachers. There’s a game of Little League baseball going on in the ball diamond in front of her. A lot of people are around her, playing and spectating, but she’s alone. She’s watching a little boy, around the same age as her, swing and miss the ball again.

“Strike two!”

The ball hits the chain link fence behind him and the catcher runs after it. The catcher grabs it and throws it back to the pitcher. There’s thunder off in the distance. The batter hunches over a little bit and tightens his grip on the bat. The pitcher kicks some dirt off the pitcher’s mound with the toe of his cleat. He looks the batter in the face and smiles. He pulls his arm back, lets it propel forward, and releases his grip on the baseball. It hits the batter in the arm. The batter is awarded first base.

The girl sits, watching the game intently. She doesn’t really like baseball, but it’s better than sitting at home. She doesn’t realize the sky has gotten darker since she got there. A drop of rain hits her forehead. She looks up and a couple more drops hit her in the face. She wipes them away, but is quickly hit with a few more. Before she has time to wipe those away, it starts pouring down rain.

People around her start grabbing their things and rushing to cars. The Little League players scramble to get underneath the cover of the closest dugout. The girl starts running, as well. The grabs her white BMX bike off the ground and hops on to it. It’s a little boyish for her, but her uncle bought it for her from his neighbor last summer. She’s only wearing shorts and a T-shirt and the rain is soaking her fast. She’s pedaling fast and not paying attention to the traffic as she crosses the streets to her house. Thankfully, nothing is coming. As soon as her bike hits the grass in her yard, she comes to a skidding halt and leaves the bike discarded where it landed.

She runs insides and heads straight to her bedroom without stopping. She knows her mom will probably be mad that she wore her wet shoes in, but she’s so cold that she doesn’t care. She kicks off her shoes, quickly strips out of her wet clothes, and replaces them with dry ones. She puts her shoes next to the front door. Her parent's door is shut. She knows they are in there fighting. That’s what is always happening if their door is shut. They were always arguing, but she never knew why.

Her four-year-old sister is alone in the living room. She’s preoccupied with her dolls and the blue dog on the television. She sits there with the youngster until her parent’s bedroom door opens. Her dad walks out, obviously mad. They make eye contact and he sighs while shaking his head. He walks out the front door without saying a word to either child. Her mom is crying. That’s normally how it ends. Her pregnant belly is rising and shaking from the sobbing. The girl watches the toddler show and tries to block out the crying until she’s sure her mom had stopped and fallen asleep. It’s three hours later when her mom walks out of her room. She asks both girls if they are hungry. Her mom acted as if nothing had happened. Of course, that meant that she would act that way too. Force a smile and pretend everything was okay.

The fighting stopped for a little while after the baby was born. Another girl. Her dad worked five days a week, came home, and helped her mom take care of the new baby. They actually seemed happy for a while. They baby would cry and both her parents would rush to pick her up and rock her and quietly shush her. It was habitual. Once she started sleeping through the night, the coddling stopped. So did the fake smiles and laughs.

Her dad stayed out later and later every night. Some mornings she would smell the beer on his breath after a night out that he hadn’t slept off. She hated the smell. She always knew when he had stayed out drinking. He’d have a blanket and pillow on the couch from where her mom made him sleep. Instead of him, her mom would have the baby and the middle sister sleeping in the bed with her. The girl was fine with that. She preferred the silence of sleeping in a bedroom alone.

One night after a bad argument, her dad left and didn’t come back for weeks. Her mom had gotten a babysitter from across town and started working again. When her dad came back, he only stayed for a few hours during the day, but never all night. She knew what was happening, but didn’t want her mom to worry about having to tell her, so she never mentioned it. The summer after she turned 11, her mom moved her and her sisters into a trailer with their uncle, her mom’s brother. It was a tight squeeze with the four people already living there, but it’s all they had at the time.

She still saw her dad occasionally. Normally, it was when he had been drinking and wanted to take the kids home with him. Eventually, her mom started dating someone new. A guy she had known from her childhood. They moved their relationship along quickly and within months of seeing each other, he moved her mom, the kids, and the girl into an apartment with him. He took over the role as their dad and for once, the girl felt like she had a dad.

Throughout that whole story, the girl had a dad in her life, but it wasn’t ever enough. He was there, but he wasn’t there. Not completely, at least. When she finally did have a reliable father figure in her life, it made her realize what she’d been missing. Just being there with someone isn’t always enough. You need to support them, care for them, love them. Isn’t that what being a parent is supposed to be about? I wouldn’t know from experience, but that’s what I’ve heard.

What about the mom? She’d been with that man since they were teenagers and he’d never really been the man he should have been for her. So, when she started seeing someone that treated her and her kids like she hoped he would, she fell in love with him so easily. He had all the right traits, emotions, goals, and morals that she always hoped her children would see in their father. You wouldn’t be able to know that from the story, but it’s true. How do I know? Because I lived it.

Yes, yes, yes. I assume you all guessed that this story was about memories from my childhood. If you didn’t, well now you know. My dad wasn’t bad all the time, but he wasn’t good either. I never joined summer rec programs because he didn’t want to pay the extra money, but I also never had to worry about if I would be able to eat that night because he worked to support us. I’d seen him flip a coffee table on top of my mom when she was pregnant and seen him kissing her that same night. I wish I could say that there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for his family, but that would be a lie. He wouldn’t stop drinking for us. He wouldn’t stop telling my mom she was worthless in front of us. He wouldn’t be the kind of person that his kids would want to grow up and become.

In the end, did it matter that he was there physically, but not emotionally? I can say that from deep within, his absence has not made my heart grow fonder. I don’t think it ever will, either. I’m not ashamed to say that and I won’t apologize for it. If you’ve ever experienced this kind of past, you shouldn’t feel forced to apologize and forgive, either. 

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