Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Finding Dad

This is a non-fiction story I wrote for a class. It was rather hard for me to write at first, but I think some healing has taken place.


"Do you know what you are going to say to him?" Gina pulled into the parking lot and looked for a spot. The cars in the lot huddled together like sardines as if to keep warm, but she found a space on the far side of the building.

"No." I said. "I think I'll just let it come to me."

It had been my step-dad's idea that I meet Ben, my father. I feared hurting him because I thought he might see it as rejection, but he said I needed to do this. I agreed. That Christmas I flew to Oklahoma to visit Gina and my other sister, Susie, as well as to meet Ben.

We sat in the truck for a few minutes. This was it. For the first time in eighteen years I would meet the man whom I should have called "Dad." I rubbed my gloved hands on my legs as I peered out the window at the restaurant. My mouth was dry, and my heart was pounding. I reached for the door. Before I could open it, Gina stopped me.

"Lacey," she said. "You really don't have to do this."

"Yes, I do." I licked my lips. I needed to know my father, and I wanted him to know me. I didn't think Gina would understand this. Because of our separation as children, she saw him far more often than I did.

"Well, he might not even be there."

"Then there's no harm in going in to see, is there?" I opened the door. "Besides, I'm thirsty."

Gina sighed. "Okay. We'll go in. Just don't be disappointed if he's not there."

I loved my sister. We were close even though we had reunited only a few years ago. She and Susie had a different mother. When my mother and I moved out of state, my sisters and I lost touch. I smiled as I helped my niece, Millie, hop out of the truck. Millie was an extension of Gina, and at three years old, she already had the makings of a prom queen.

We swung Millie between us as we walked to the door. When we reached it, she let go of her mother's hand and giggled at the puff of air that floated from her mouth while she pretended to smoke. Gina rolled her eyes at me as she checked to see if she had put the truck keys in her purse.

Like the parking spots outside the restaurant, the tables inside of Denny's held people in abundance. I looked around the room but I saw only a few empty tables. I didn't see Ben, but then I really didn't know what to look for.

The noise resounded like a cacophonous orchestra. Diners provided the melody while they spoke and waitresses kept the harmony with the cooks. Every once in a while I heard a banging noise from the kitchen which emphasized a certain beat in the whole symphony. The sound of silverware against dishes acted as counterpoint to it all.

I stood with Millie in the entry way while Gina spoke to the hostess. A booth stood close to us and I could smell the bacon that had been served with the pancakes the man ate. It made my stomach rumble and Millie clapped her hands over her mouth when she heard it. I scrunched my nose at her and her blue eyes shone with laughter.

Gina came back. "Okay, the hostess said he's here and showed me where he's sitting. We can go on over." She captured her brown hair into a ponytail and pushed it off her shoulders.

I nodded, and my stomach turned into a huge knot. I wanted to do this but I had half-hoped that he wouldn't be there. Gina picked Millie up and started to weave through the tables while I followed.

"There's Grampa!" Millie yelled.

I looked over towards the corner where he was sitting. I couldn't believe it. He had the same face I did, albeit with masculine planes. The knot in my stomach tightened.

"We're here!" announced Gina as she deposited Millie onto the seat. He had chosen a corner booth with high seats, as if he wanted protection from the noise. If he was anything like me, he also didn't want anything to catch him unawares.

I delayed sitting down by taking off my coat. All of the sudden, I didn't want to do this. I wanted to be home with my family, celebrating Christmas. It was a tradition that my step-dad started that we open one present on Christmas Eve. We'd gather around and listen to him tell the story of the Christ Child. Then we'd play a game. I missed that.

However, I wasn't home. I was here and he was here, but I was afraid that something would happen that I didn't want to happen. Gina sat down on his left close to the end of the bench seat with Millie between them. I finally sat on his right, also close to the end. He watched me the whole time. Finally, he spoke. "Hi."

"Hi." I nearly closed my eyes. Yeah, great start, Lacey! What's next, "How are you?"

"How are you?" he asked me.

"Fine, fine. And you?" Geez! We're acting like we saw each other just last week!

"I'm fine." He pointed to a stamp on my hand. "I see you had some fun last night."

I tried to rub it off. "Yeah. I went to the dance hall with Gina and everybody." I didn't want to mention my other sister, Susie. She had written our father off along time ago, but even she knew more about him than I did.

"And how is everybody?" he asked.

"They're fine." I was beginning to think that all we were going to do was small-talk.

Gina saved me. "Hey, Dad, guess what Millie did the other day?" She launched into a tale of her daughter's latest escapade.

Pretty soon, I relaxed enough to sit back in my seat. Ben countered with a story about his step-daughter's little girl, seemingly more proud of her than Millie.

The waitress came, and we ordered. I chose French toast, Gina a club sandwich and mozzarella sticks for Millie, and Ben a steak with a baked potato. We talked about the weather and other meaningless topics and Ben asked me about life in Idaho. As I told him about my life and my family there, I watched him. He didn't smile often, but when he did, it didn't reach his eyes. Every time I mentioned my mother or stepfather, he almost winced, and would steer the conversation back to me. He asked more questions. It felt like he was gauging how happy I was by my responses.

When our food came, we dug in. I ate everything, as did Gina. Ben ate about a quarter of his steak and an equally small portion of his baked potato. At my curious look, he explained, "I had to have my stomach stapled to lose weight, and now I can't eat much in one sitting."

"Oh." I knew he had been large when I was born, but I didn't realize he had done such an extreme thing to lose weight. It made me wonder about other health issues from his side and solidified my determination to know him.

"So, Ben. What do you do now?" It was the first time I had actually called him by name. I don't think he liked it.

"I sell cars." He grimaced as he said it. "It's a job and it pays the bills…barely. It's not what I wanted to do, of course." Gina rolled her eyes. He wanted to play music, he said. His wife didn't want him to. His boss at the dealership didn't like him. He couldn't make ends meet.

I listened politely. Ben acted as if the world owed him many things, but it refused to pay up. He never said that he could have done better. I couldn't help comparing him to my step-dad, who worked hard and loved what he did. If things didn't work out, he tried to fix them.

"And that's what's been going on in my life." He ended by taking a long drink of his soda without looking at either of us to see our reaction.

I looked over at Gina and shook my head in disbelief. She shrugged. Apparently she had heard it all before.

"So, Lacey, what do you want to do with your life?" Ben appeared to be interested, but somehow it looked like it a mask to me.

I told him about the few plans I had. I attended college at the time but I really had no idea what to do afterwards. I would do whatever opportunity came to me. He nodded a few times but I got the impression that his mind was somewhere else. When I finished, he asked me the question that I had been expecting, almost dreading, all evening.

"How's your mother?"

"She's fine. Great, actually. She keeps busy with my two little sisters and homeschools my brother." I played with my napkin. I knew that wasn't what he wanted to hear.

Ben took another drink. "You know she called me a few years ago." He watched me, his eyes hooded.

I nodded. "She told me."

"Did she tell you she asked me to forgive her for what she had done?"

I wanted to ask him what he thought she had done, but instead I just nodded again.

"I told her that I forgave her, but you know? She really hurt me. I'm not sure that what she did can actually be forgiven." His bitterness hit me like a bucket of icy water.

I stared at him. I knew that my mother hadn't treated him well when she filed for divorce. She basically moved with him to be closer to her brother, and then kicked Ben out. When she first told me about it, she carefully admitted her fault, but she also said that Ben hadn't been without fault, either. When he said that she couldn't be forgiven, he denied everything, laying the blame completely on her.

I wanted to say something – anything – to defend my mother, but I was in such shock that I couldn't speak. He sat there, drinking his tea, as if nothing had happened. I had hoped that we could start building a relationship, but after what Ben said, I knew I could never do it. Mom moved on, building a new life and family with my step-dad. Ben obviously hadn't, and I couldn't love him as my father knowing that he would never give my mother the respect she deserved.

I stopped listening. I didn't understand him and I certainly did not feel sorry for him. I was swimming in a sea of doubt and anger. I was so angry I couldn't sit there any longer.

I stood to leave. My dreams of knowing my father were shattered. I couldn't believe it. I left Ben at the table and walked out of the restaurant. I had to go. Gina followed with Millie after she had paid our check.

"Are you ok?" she asked.

"No, I'm not." Tears streamed down my cheeks, and I couldn't see where I was going. Gina put her arm around me to guide me to the truck.

"I should have told you how he was," she said quietly.

"Why didn't you?"

"I wanted you to find out for yourself." She dug in her purse for her keys. "You wouldn't have believed me."

I sighed. "I know." I climbed into the truck. "I had such hopes, though."

Gina started the truck. "Why? Lacey, you have a dad already. Why do you need another one?"

I stared out the window. She was right. I did have a dad already. My step-dad had been there for me for most of my life. He raised me. He taught me how to ride a bike. He helped me with my homework. He taught me how to cook. He punished me when I'd done wrong. He had been there for me when Mom and I were at odds. I knew he would be the one to walk me down the aisle when I marry. I had a dad.

"You're right, Gina," I told her. She just smiled her answer.

We headed back to her house. I stayed for another couple days, and they passed quickly. I enjoyed the time I spent but I looked forward to getting home.

Finally, the day arrived. Both my sisters took me to the airport and we said our goodbyes at the gate. My flight was uneventful, and when the plane taxied to our small airport I could see Mom holding my baby sister in the window and my other little sister bounced up and down. My brother stood by them, but not too close. He was just reaching the age when it was uncool to be seen with parents. I looked for my dad, but I couldn't find him. He's probably at work.

I stepped off the plane and walked across the tarmac. When I entered the airport, my family bowled me over. I still didn't see my dad, but I figured I'd greet him at home. My brother and my little sister were telling me about their Christmas when Dad walked in the door.


He pulled me into a bear hug. "Welcome home!"

I held onto him. "Thank you for being my dad."

I wasn't sure he had heard me until I felt him squeeze me a bit. That was all I needed, but I still basked in his next words.

"I love you."