Exactly 10 years ago, my family left my father. It was Father’s Day.
I was 17. We’d entered a crescendo in my father’s history of emotional abuse, substance abuse, violence, and unprovoked fits of white-hot rage, which we’d endured for years (my mother, for decades). After one particularly scary incident involving a hatchet a few months earlier, things had reached a fever pitch in our household and only continued to deteriorate — rapidly. He drank constantly, his pale blue eyes glazed over in a seemingly permanent fugue state. His emotional range seemed to only swing from cold detachment to vicious belligerence, quickly and without warning. He wrestled me onto the floor one day, my head slamming into the hardwood. His anger had become physical.
So my mother, a Copperfield-esque master of illusion when it comes to protecting her kids from dark shit, laid her cards on the table.
"I'm moving out, and I think you should come with me,” she told me in the car as we drove an hour north to the nearest city. I’d thought the trip was a spontaneous mother-daughter getaway, but it was her mission to break the news to my older brother, in person.
The Hallmark-from-hell timing of our departure wasn’t some intentional, epic fuck-you to my dad; it was born of necessity and haste. My father threatened my mom, catalyzing the plan she’d been ruminating on for months. As soon as we got home that day, we quickly and clumsily packed our suitcases while he was out of the house. I stuffed summer clothes and a few books into a bag, assuming I’d get the rest of my belongings once things settled down. We hightailed it out of our family home and moved into a small two-bedroom apartment the next day, my mother gamely helming the ship of our newly fractured family.
I figured eventually we’d come to some sort of familial compromise: He’d get the help he needed; trust would be slowly but surely restored; I’d join the rest of my 21st-century peers in splitting up weekends and holidays among our divorced parents.
That was not how it unfolded. I never went back for my things.
For the next month or so, my two older siblings and I attempted to maintain a relationship with our father with phone calls and visits. But he was alone, unchecked, and left to his own devices, descending into a mania that caused him to lash out in scary ways. He took to watching us and, more importantly, making sure we knew he was watching: slowly driving back and forth past our front door dozens of times, mailing creepy and unsettling missives in his instantly recognizable chicken-scratch, hiding in the shrubs outside my mom’s apartment in the pitch-black dark one evening with what looked like a handgun. (He told police it was “just a pair of binoculars.”)
So we decided to end the cycle of manipulation and violence. It was unanimous, barely discussed, entirely necessary. A swift, clean cut.
The last time I saw my father was in a courthouse in 2006. The only thing I remember about my testimony is turning toward the jury and sputtering out, through chokes and sobs, “We just want him to leave us alone.”
Those first few months were the easy part. We were high on adrenaline and protective instincts, like those storied mothers singlehandedly flipping cars to save their children pinned underneath. In the beginning, the danger was clear and present, looming around each corner. After the night my mother saw him peering through the glass of her window, she wouldn’t let me go anywhere alone. My high school teachers were given photos and told to keep a watchful eye on me, and the campus. We were uncertain of the lengths to which he would go to punish our family. It was easier to do what was necessary to escape the danger, even if it meant gnawing off a limb.
But as years separate me from that courtroom, my memories of my father’s decline have become like a shattered mirror. A fragment of an anecdote here, a sharp, jagged edge of a feeling there, all splayed out before me with little rhyme or reason or narrative arc.
One Father’s Day a couple of years back, I scrolled through Kodak scan after Kodak scan on social media: friends’ dads holding them as infants, shepherding the family through a summer vacation and other dad-ly deeds. Then I stopped and indulged myself in a rare, good old-fashioned wallow. The entire world, it seemed, was parading in front of me the warmth and nostalgia I no longer had access to.
Memories of my dad driving me to the bookstore or teaching me how to fish are the briefest flickers, flashing through my head like an old television set struggling to pick up a satellite signal. A flare of light, the hiss of static. Intellectually, I know that those moments happened. I struggle to recall exactly how they felt.
Instead, I remember the musty mildew smell of the county courthouse where we each testified against our father on criminal charges. I remember the sandpaper scratch of the cheap comforter in the hotel to which we decamped in the middle of the night after watching our dad drive back and forth, back and forth in front of our new home. I remember the jarring rap of the police knocking on the front door. I remember rage, confusion, stomach-gnawing anxiety, bewilderment, visceral panic. Most warm, fuzzy, familial recollections of my father have been largely overwritten by these memories. On that Father’s Day, amid my self-pity, I had to remind myself: It wasn’t me who did the rewriting.
Is it any easier now? Yes and no. Talking about it is complicated. The conspicuous absence of a father in my life isn’t something that people press me on. He isn’t around is so simple, and yet it still tangles up the most basic small talk.
Where’s your family live? What do your parents do?
When I try to describe my relationship to my father, it feels like wet sand is coming out of my mouth. It makes people uncomfortable and apologetic. I sometimes joke that I was immaculately conceived. Sometimes I try to boil it down into the simplest of terms: My dad went crazy; we don’t really talk anymore.
Sometimes I think about lying and saying that he’s dead. It would be so much easier to explain.
On the rare occasions I rehash our estrangement for someone, I field the same questions.
You haven’t talked to your dad in how long? Was it hard? Don’t you ever miss him? Do you think you’ll ever try to reconnect?
My answers haven’t changed: about a decade, kind of, not the person he became, probably not.
I can’t help but think that people find my distance repugnant, inhuman. He’s flesh and blood. Only when I have the conversation with others who’ve also estranged themselves from an abusive or otherwise toxic family member do I feel understood. It’s not as simple as turning your back on someone, or teaching yourself how to stop loving a person. It’s a bitter necessity, sucking venom from a wound.
Do I think about the things I left behind? Ever wonder if he’s gotten rid of my clothing, or thumbed through the the angst-riddled teenage diary I left in my nightstand drawer? Have I ever contemplated dialing up our old landline, a number permanently carved onto my prefrontal cortex? Have I ever thought about driving the 84.4 miles from my doorstep to his, knocking on the front door, and seeing what happens when it opens? Maybe once in a blue moon, but only fleetingly. Only until I remember the cycle of abuse that would be reignited. It’d be like voluntarily inviting a cancer to come out of remission.
I used to marinate in self-doubt, wondering if my father’s descent into addiction and violence was just a test of my own humanity and capacity for forgiveness. Maybe we could have stuck it out, gotten him help, insisted on rehab, done something. Mental illness and addiction require support, I would sometimes think, not abandonment.
But this wasn’t abandonment. It was fleeing.
My family doesn’t talk about our dad very much among ourselves, and we rarely talk about what happened 10 years ago. I think my mother will always be grieving the rupture of her family, worrying about how indelibly it may have scarred her kids. But she knows, and the rest of us know, that we are happy and loved and safe, not in spite of our decision but because of it. The residual gut-twinge I feel when I think about my father is, in my eyes, incontrovertible evidence that his presence in our lives represented harm and danger. Leaving him was a matter of survival, not a test.
We could’ve stuck it out, sure. We could’ve resigned ourselves to a lifelong cycle of manipulation and abuse in the name of filial loyalty. But that isn’t altruism; it’s self-immolation. And that isn’t family.
The last news I heard about my father was via a phone call from my mom in 2011. She had just learned of my dad’s involvement in a pill mill bust. The clinic was one of the largest oxycodone purchasers in the nation, and the news made regional headlines a few days later. I don’t know if he’ll go to jail, or if I’ll ever hear from him again. It has crossed my mind that in the future, we will read about him again, except this time it will be in the obituaries. He may very well die with none of us at his side, without having spoken to us in decades, me permanently frozen in his memory as a teenager.
I’m getting married this October. My brother will walk me down the aisle, my sister will stand next to me at the altar, and my mom will dance with me to the Rolling Stones. I’ll be surrounded by a fiercely loyal and protective pack forged in adversity.
My dad is awaiting trial, again. This time, none of us will be there.
Gray Chapman is a writer living in Atlanta.
Contact Gray Chapman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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