My dad’s name was Rick Jones. He married my mom when she was 18. I think he was 29. Or 27. Older than her at least, in a way that makes me wonder about the much older men that I dated when I was too young to do so, and why they didn’t put the brakes on our relationships either.
My mom will freely admit that she was searching for unconditional love after an immensely rough and sometimes abusive childhood. She didn’t think she could get it from Rick, but she did think she could get it from a baby – someone who needed her unconditionally would love her unconditionally, right? My brother Floyd was born when she was 19.
Rick held a few different jobs. He drank quite a lot. He had other women in his life besides my mom. I was born when my mom was 27, which would make Rick 38? 36? Uninterested, either way. By the time I was 3, the marriage had fallen apart. It was never together. But he was officially out.
I know that my father’s family says that it’s because my mom was too demanding, too money hungry, never satisfied. I know that I have always been defensive of my mom so I say that she deserved to have a better life for herself and her children. I know that when custody was being figured out, and child-support was being determined, Rick walked out of the court room saying he was going to get his check book and never came back.
Beyond anything else, that’s what sticks with you when a parent leaves. The walking out. The never coming back. I’ve never understood how a parent could have no interest in their child. I think that’s what hurts the most.
There’s a picture of me on my birthday, beaming in footie pajamas, staring up at balloons my daddy sent me. I think that was the last time he ever reached out. He did not care.
Maybe that wasn’t the story, maybe there were other reasons. As an adult I can have compassion that maybe he was broken, maybe he thought it better that he wasn’t around, maybe he was worried about his influence. But basic childhood psychology dictates that when something happens within a family, the child will always try to figure out what they did wrong to cause it. It is a heavy burden for someone so small. Too heavy.
Childhood psychology also dictates that, until around age three, a kid doesn’t know the difference between themselves and the world around them. The toddler who is constantly reaching for everything around them, saying “mine” – it’s because, to them, everything around them IS them. They don’t get that their human body is separate from their surroundings. It’s all them, the whole world.
So when a parent leaves that young, it’s not just that the parent leaves. It’s that a part of who that kid thought they were leaves too.
When I was 14, we got a call from his sister. “Rick has cancer. We don’t really know how long he has left, but you might want to come visit and say goodbye.” I didn’t know I had an aunt. It wasn’t hidden from me; I had never asked. I had never been interested to know about that side of my family, because they weren’t interested in me.
Floyd and I were planning our trip – his to say goodbye to a father who hadn’t been in his life since his pre-teens but whom he always loved and respected, me to say goodbye to a man I did not know – when we got a letter in the mail from the social security administration. “Dear Mrs. Jackson, We were recently informed about the death of Richard M. Jones. Your daughter, Pamela Jones, may be eligible for surviving child’s benefits on her father’s record.”
That’s how I found out my dad had died. In my memory, the letter had at least given its condolences. Now that I’ve gone back to check, the most human thing on it is “Sincerely,”.
That was 15 years ago this month.
He wasn’t my dad. But he was blood. And so his death felt like emptiness.
Until a few weeks ago, I didn’t know that was the emotion I so often felt – emptiness. I actually didn’t know I had any emotions attached to him. But it’s been clear through my actions that it was always there.
It’s an emptiness that I have forcefully tried to fill. A neediness. Chasing attention. Grasping with everything I have onto the people in my life who show me what could be interpreted as love. Shutting down completely when I realize they may not stick around.
“Don’t walk out.”
Fathers who are not good to your daughters – this is what you create.
It feels like weakness that will never be possible to recover from. Because we don’t know what unconditional love from a man feels like, we seek it from people who couldn’t possibly provide it. And then when it’s not given – because it cannot be – we crumble.
Don’t we deserve it?
Aren’t we good enough?
So I say all that to say this – that kid in your life? Don’t you dare ever let them feel that emptiness. They deserve better.
I deserved better.