I don’t remember the last time I saw my father. There was a day he was there and then a day when he wasn’t. A day when his freckled skin was flaked with paint. The remnants of the work he was doing on my mother’s house. They weren’t together—hadn’t been for a lifetime but were friendly enough that he painted the house for her. The house she just bought. The redemption that she earned. The debts she paid to make up for the felonies that took her from me for far longer than a boy should be without his mother. This was her sign. She had made it and he painted that sign for her without complaint. Just over a thousand square feet with the railroad a football field away.

I was sixteen and my relationship with my father was strained. Adolescence and absence had seen to that, but I was hopeful. I was always hopeful. I hoped we could repair the fractures that were becoming canyons between us. Hopeful we would make memories that could replace the smell of burning skin or the feel of thick leather. We were going to go to ball games. We were going to fix up a motorcycle together so we could see the country from the back of a bike together. All these things we were going to do to replace all the trauma of the things we had already done. All these things we were supposed to be. A mountain of potential. I did not know the last time I saw him was going to be the last time. We so rarely do. It’s one of those parts of life that sucks. You always think you have more time.

When I heard from my father next, he was in Louisiana. Or Tennessee. Or some place. Some place that wasn’t where I was. There had been no goodbye. No, “Hey son, I’ve got to go take care of this thing.” No, “Hey son, I’ve got an opportunity.” No “Hey son. There’s something chasing me and I’ve got to outrun it.” There was nothing. Just a phone call from an area code I didn’t recognize and a thousand miles between us.

I was sixteen. Suddenly twenty years had passed, and we hadn’t seen each other. We had barely spoke for most of that time. Years of silence and anger and regret had carved a canyon between us. I had become a man despite the lack of the man who was supposed to teach me how to be one. I was bitter and resentful. I spent years hating him for what he wasn’t or maybe for what he was or maybe for both. I’m not sure. I spent years focusing on the traumas. On the bad. On what my mother would call the war stories. When you’re battling addiction, they teach you not to share war stories—to not live in those because they feed the worst parts of ourselves. I’ve never walked the twelve steps so it became easier to live in the worst of it than work the shovel to get out of it. It became so easy to hate.  Did I hate the man or the choices? Did I hate him or his mistakes? Did I even know him well enough to hate him?

It was a Friday afternoon and I stood in front of my classroom staring at my seventh-grade students. There were four minutes left before the bell to go home. Four minutes left before they jumped on the bus or in a car or walked home and were someone else’s responsibility. Four minutes.

My phone vibrated in my pocket. My smart watch flashed a number I didn’t know but an area code I recognized. Any other day, I would have sent the call to voicemail. I was at work. I didn’t know the number. If it was important they could leave a voicemail and I’d call them back—but on this Friday afternoon with four minutes left until the bell I answered the phone.

A woman asked if I was David. I was. She asked if my father was my father and he was. She told me her name but it didn’t mean anything to me. I didn’t know her. I hadn’t spoken to my father in a long enough time that whatever she was to him she wasn’t when he and I last spoke—or if she was I hadn’t cared enough to ask. She told me that my father had died.

Your father is dead.  These were not words I was prepared to hear. I had thought about him dying. I had thought about how I might have found out. It was always finding an obituary online. It was always by some accident. A discovery of some words that officially closed a chapter that I had never turned the page on. It wasn’t this. It wasn’t standing in the doorway of my classroom looking at a bunch of teenagers packing their things. It wasn’t on the phone with some woman I didn’t know telling me that my father was gone—but that’s exactly how it happened.

We spoke for twenty minutes or so. I don’t really remember. I don’t think that’s important. I don’t remember what she said. I don’t remember what I said. I just remember getting a file number that I could give to the coroner’s office so I could get information. We hung up and I did some perfunctory things to prepare for the weekend. I told my bosses that my dad had died and I might need to take a day or two off—they told me to take the week. I walked back into my classroom and my wife was there. Seeing her there broke me. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was seeing this person who loves me despite all the ways I don’t love myself being there in this moment. Maybe it was the way her eyes have always been able to see me. Not look at me, but see me. Maybe it was knowing that I could, in fact, allow myself to feel in front of her without feeling like any less of a man. I don’t know. But I know I shattered in front of her. I know the tears came. A furious torrent of all the pain that I had thought I had healed from. All the anger I thought I had let go of. All of it pouring out of me and she held me.

I did not expect to be sad. I didn’t expect to feel all of the feelings I was having. I had expected that I would feel almost nothing—that the canyon that had been carved between us was large enough that the feelings would get caught in the chasm. I was wrong.

It is an odd thing to feel when you thought you would feel nothing—or at least something milder.

I teach middle school. Adolescents beginning that period of self-discovery and self-definition. Kids who look at me and who I tell to try. Give me your best, I tell them. Your best is good enough, I tell them. Try and win and try and fail but try. I tell them this over and over. I tell them that the result is important but the work they put in is more important. I want them to feel empowered. I want them to feel safe and supported and loved. I want them to know that they can fail and recover. They can make a mistake and learn from it. I want to teach them compassion and forgiveness. I want to model to them that there’s nothing to be ashamed of if you gave it your best.

I didn’t give my father that same credit. I would rationalize that he was an adult. He was supposed to know better, but did he? Had he been told that? Did I spend years angry at a man who was trying and failing? Angry at him for all the things I tell my students to not be angry with themselves about?

People tell me that it’s not my fault. They are quick to tell me that our broken relationship wasn’t my responsibility to fix and I know that it wasn’t. I was the child. It was not my responsibility to be the adult in the relationship. You were the parent. You were the grown one. Shouldn’t you have fixed this? If you had tried, would I have let you? Would I have forgiven you enough for it to have mattered? I don’t know.

I sat in the car in Friday evening Indianapolis rush hour traffic. The sun had not yet begun to set. The sky was clear and inviting. My left hand clutched the steering wheel. I called everyone I thought I was supposed to call. I called my mother to tell her that a man she had loved once, loved enough to make me had died. I told my brother because there was a time when he called my dad dad even though my dad was not his dad. I told my grandmother because, well, I thought I was supposed to. Empathy has never been my mother’s mother’s strength. She is strong as a Red Maple and just as stiff. Just as composed. Maybe it’s the Great Depression in her or the Irish Catholicism or maybe it’s something else. She was not sorry he died, and she told me so. Told me I owed him nothing because he had not been there for me. Do we owe a debt to our blood? Did her father not feel an obligation when his father passed? A father he hadn’t spoken to since he married her mother? Is estrangement generational? Is it hereditary?

I don’t argue with my grandmother. I don’t have the words to tell her that I see his face every time I look in the mirror. I don’t have the words to tell her that I remember painting houses with him while blues played on the portable stereo.  I remember sneaking KFC into the drive-in. I remember baseball games and Sunday church services. I don’t have the words to tell her that I told myself I forgave him, but it was a lie I was practiced in. I learned that from him too.  How to lie and mean it. How to pretend it’s all okay. How to stand straight backed and ignore the weight on my shoulders. How to let the scars be pretty stories and not trauma that left something different than how it found it.

How do you say goodbye when you can’t remember the last time you said hello?

I sat in the car for a long moment after pulling into the very suburban driveway in the very suburban neighborhood that my comfortable life has brought me. A life that I am, at least on some level, proud of. A life I worked for. Pulled out of the mud. Am I proud of it because I built it or am I proud of it because he didn’t? Would I have built it without the trauma? Or is it because of it that I did? Am I who I am in spite of or because of it?

My wife takes care of dinner. She takes care of the dogs. She lets me set in the bath for far too long so I can weep, and I weep. It is ugly. It hurts. It hurts enough I want to drink, and I never drink. I never medicate the pain and it crashes over me in waves. I feel like I’m drowning. Is this how he felt? Did his pain overwhelm him? Was it a hurricane? Was it Noah’s flood? Was the drink the only ark he could find?

In happier moments, I tell my wife my theory that inebriation magnifies the person we wish we could be if the rules didn’t apply. If we were unbound by all the pressures that make us toe the line. My wife is a fearless, speak her mind drunk. She is not a speak her mind sober. My best friend is an uninhibited dancer and laughter. Unburdened by the parts of himself that tell him he needs to have it together. My wife asks me what kind of drunk I think I’d be. I tell her I’m afraid of what that answer is. Afraid that my drunk would be his drunk and that isn’t a me I want anyone to meet.

In the bathtub, I don’t think about this. I think about breaking in a baseball glove. I think about the pride in his eyes when I made some sort of league all-star team that didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. It was little league, I wasn’t going pro but man was he happy. I think about him teaching me to ride a motorcycle and that I haven’t been on a bike since he left.

I sink under the water and close my eyes. Let it cover me. Feel the heat all around me. Let it envelope me. I was raised Catholic, but it has been years since I’ve considered myself anything, really, but under the water I think about what comes after this. Is there something after life? Or when the lights go out is it just emptiness? Do we become the void again? My faith isn’t strong enough to have an answer to that. At least not most of the time.

I pull myself above the water and let it drip down my face. I gave myself the space to think about all of the things I wish I had gotten a chance to say.

Things like, I don’t blame you. You did the best you could with what you had to work with. There was pain in you that nothing could heal. A demon you couldn’t beat and maybe the writer Craig Johnson got it right when he said, “A man makes a mistake he can’t live with and ends up running away from it for the rest of his life. In a way, it becomes his life.”  Maybe that mistake had you running so far and so long that you couldn’t find your way back.

I believe you wanted to. I don’t think you liked who you were, at least not most of the time. I believe if you had possessed the capacity to find your way back, you would have. I believe you loved me. I believe that you wanted to be a good father. I believe you tried.

After all, isn’t that all we can do? Isn’t that all I’m doing? I don’t know what forgiveness really means, but I’ll try. To forgive you. To forgive me. I’ll try.



About the Author

David P. Barker is a writer and teacher from Indianapolis, Indiana. He likes good stories, good barbecue and an ice cold root beer. He's been published previously by Cowboy Jamboree, Rejections Letters, Better than Starbucks, Dusty Saddles, among others. He can be found on X @TheDavidPBarker or on Threads/Instagram as david_p_barker65


Photo by Diana Polekhina on Unsplash