After decades of letdowns and disappointments, this writer – who wants to remain anonymous – resolved never to see her father again. Then the pandemic struck…
Like most of the nation, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, I began to clean. One afternoon, sitting on the floor underneath my home desk, I picked up an old notebook. As I flicked through the pages, a card fell out. Opening it, I knew in an instant that the handwriting belonged to my father.
Occasionally traces of him appear in my life, like finding tiny specks of spilt tea on a white wall months after you thought you’d cleaned it all off. And when they do, I freeze. I feel as though I’ve been caught doing something I shouldn’t. Sadness and guilt crawl up my skin. My limbs tense up, my cheeks flush. His words aren’t always helpful but still he sends them. Which is more than I do. My silence remains like an iron gate, impenetrable and unmoving. We haven’t spoken for nearly ten years.
Yet this time something else happened: I began to wonder how he is; if he has coronavirus; whether he would survive if he did; if he had enough food; if he was lonely. Paul McCartney’s ‘We All Stand Together’ floated into my head after I’d read that morning that Lauren Laverne had played it on the radio. I thought of neighbours doing more for my dad than his own daughter. I imagined how happy he would be to hear from me. I imagined sending an email until I realised I didn’t have his details. I wondered whether now, in the midst of all this chaos, is the time to change things. I closed the card and tucked it inside another notebook – one I don’t intend to throw away.
I didn’t know that would be the last time I saw him. I hadn’t made a conscious decision not to see him again but I think I had realised, even if on some undetectable level, that there are only so many times you can be let down by a parent, there are only so many times a parent can reject you. I was in my mid-20s, feeling more independent than ever. Society had always told me I’d needed a father but perhaps, after all, I didn’t.
The disappointment was there from the very beginning. He had told my mother he was leaving when I was three weeks old. He’d been having an affair with a woman he met through his work. Years later, when he was living with that woman and her child, my dad took me to the cinema. I remember he’d brought someone else with him, a pretty, younger woman who was simply called his ‘friend’. When I met an actual friend of his, by pure coincidence, about five years ago, the first thing she said on realising I was his daughter was, ‘I promise I never slept with your father’.
He had let me down by letting my mother and sister down. He never paid any child maintenance to my mother, who had to pawn old jewellery on her way to work to keep her little family afloat. His girlfriend came to our family home and told my mum – newly divorced, alone with two kids – she should be living there instead. One time, my mum allowed my elder sister, who was six or seven years old at the time, to stay with him for the night – my sister later reported he’d gone out for the evening.
He had let me down by being hours late to pick me up for visits. I’d sit by the window, waiting. The sting of rejection stuck to me like his endless cigarette smoke clung to my hair. He’d let me down by drifting in and out of my life, like a cloud on a sunny day. I was always hoping the sun would come back out, that he would be the father I wanted him to be. After all, I was enthralled by him: he lived in a big city, he had an exciting job that took him around the world, he was my dad. But I never felt that I was exciting to him. He took me and my sister on holiday once. The trip was so fraught, caused by his inability to put the demands of children before his own, that we didn’t speak for months afterwards. He did drive for an hour to watch me in a school play. I was so shocked to see him that I don’t remember talking to him afterwards. This wasn’t the story of my life I was familiar with – one where he would be an active part of after-school activities. The sun had come back out, but only for a moment.
Later, when I did very well in my GCSEs, he told me they were ‘just a bunch of letters’. He berated my mother for moving us out of London to be near a good state school, inferring we’d be raised in a small-minded way. He didn’t realise he’d given up his right to make these judgments. The one time I questioned him about the lack of financial support to my mother, he started crying about his childhood. He once ‘assumed’ I’d spend the night at his place because he was lonely, and then was hurt when I refused. He couldn’t see the hypocrisy; his selfishness was all-encompassing.
I don’t believe in a sixth sense but I do remember as I turned the corner on to his road nearly ten years ago, a calm feeling washed over me, and I thought, out of nowhere, ‘This will be the last time I see him.’ It wasn’t, but it was the last time I saw him as a man. I then found out he was transitioning to become a woman. His lifelong rejection of convention made this news not particularly surprising and, looking back, the clues had been there.
The next time I saw her – the first time I’d met my dad as a woman – we went out to celebrate. My father, who never had any money, would normally cook us lunch to save some cash. But that day was different. We took the bus and went to a restaurant where the staff knew her new name. Even though I’m fully supportive of that decision, it was a lot to take in. I drank a lot of wine. I listened carefully. I didn’t say much.
On the way back to the house, I had one question. What shall I call you? ‘I think it would be best,’ she said, ‘if you didn’t call me dad in public.’
I was broken. I’d spent a lifetime feeling like my father wasn’t quite comfortable with that label, and now she’d confirmed it. But more than this, my dad had disappeared, like he’d disappeared before – but this was his grand finale. As if in a puff of smoke, the man responsible for such destruction over the years had vanished. That person, who had never taken responsibility, would now never need to because he no longer existed. She’d already erased her old name from all her identification documents. On the train home I thought, if I can’t call you dad, how can you call me your daughter?
I don’t remember quite how it ended. I stopped returning calls and texts, I presume, yet I’d receive letters. Once she asked if I missed having a father. How would I know, I thought. But the card I stumbled across was different. In it, she wrote that she was sorry if she’d handled the transition badly; she was sorry that I was upset and hurt. It was the first time she’d apologised. And that felt like alcohol poured on an open wound. She had apologised and still I was silent.
The limbo of being in lockdown is a strange time to make a big decision. The usual business of life means I ignore it; I can tell myself it would be too disruptive to contact her, that there are more pressing things to worry about. The boundaries aren’t the same, either – how much time do I have to make this decision? And how can I trust how I feel? I get emotional and weepy over a video of doctors clapping cleaning staff in a hospital; how can I tackle this emotional Everest?
What are strange times like these for, if not to help us see the world differently? She lives alone, she is over 70, she is a trans woman, which makes her vulnerable to abuse. Part of her distraction from being a good father was surely her own internal grappling with her gender identity. Is now the time for me, despite the catalogue of disappointments and the rejections, to be a better daughter? Perhaps I should be thinking life’s too short, and forgive a selfish person who perhaps will never see their own shortcomings, or maybe should never have been a parent to begin with. I’m sure many would tell me I might feel better for it, too – that I could heal and move on.
But part of me wonders if this no man’s land of unofficial house arrest is really the best moment to face a broken heart and stitch it back together. What if it’s just too hard in these already tough times? What if there’s not enough room in my little one-bed house for the spillage of hurt and anger I’ve been holding in for all these years? Or what if, when it’s over, and life resumes, I don’t feel the same way – the emotional pressure is lifted, I am fine and I carry on as I have been?
I normally believe that actions have consequences, beds are made by those who have to lie in them. And I have believed this of my father – that despite the feelings of guilt I carry, my dad’s actions can’t be undone with age or pity or the harsh reality of loneliness. I have believed that she doesn’t deserve my forgiveness. Yet could this virus that has brought the world to a standstill seep through the emotional fortress that I’ve built around myself?
I can’t finish this article neatly. I can’t say I’ve made a decision. I sometimes wonder whether I could carry the regret if I never saw her again. Because how could you not be regretful about a relationship with a parent that was so drenched in sadness? I am not entirely sure what a truce would offer either. Would all be forgiven? Can all be forgiven?
What I do know is this: the virus has infected our lives in immeasurable ways and has put them under scrutiny. relationships are examined and inspected in ways they are not when life is skating along, unthinkingly, at its usual pace. But how can we be sure of what we see in this fog of uncertainty? I’ve wanted to peep over that iron gate, check on my father’s health and wellbeing, but I’m not sure I’m ready to walk through it. Because who, in this moment, can be sure about anything?