My dad, my other dad, and me

On daddy issues

Dave married my mom when I was 10 years old, but he was never my dad. He was more like a very strange roommate, the kind who stays up until the early morning hours plotting Powerball numbers on a graph because he’s convinced it will inevitably show a trend (and that’s when he’ll jump in and win big money). Before he met my mom, he’d been in a cult for a number of years. When he met my mom, he was involved in some kind of pyramid scheme selling diet products. He once sat me down to watch a VHS tape about how the United States government faked the moon landing. When we moved from our apartment into his house––the house he’d lived in since he was born––it was a situation right out of Hoarders. We cleaned it out in phases over the span of a decade, and we had to rent two large rental dumpsters to haul away all the excess junk.

It’s hard for me to adequately describe our relationship. I treated him with open contempt; I was never convinced he was good enough for my mother. But he came to all my softball games anyway. As the years went on, I started to soften. He was not the family I would have chosen, but he was the family I had. I bought him a Hanukkah present, then a birthday present, then even a Father’s Day card. For my 26th birthday, he and my mom drove two hours from my hometown to Columbus to take me out for dinner.

My 26th birthday dinner at Casa Hacienda Grill in Columbus, Ohio. Dave took this photo.

A week later, my mom left him. That was the last time I ever saw Dave.

One of my most vivid early memories is of being in preschool and making Father’s Day cards. I don’t remember if I said I didn’t have a dad or just quietly went along with it (that was a long time ago and I have smoked a lot of weed), but I made a card for my Uncle Jon and then threw it in the trash.

One of my other most vivid early memories from around the same time period is of comforting my mom as she’s doubled over the couch, weeping. She’s weeping because she needs to file for divorce and legally gain full custody so she can tell the school that my father cannot come pick me up and sign me out when I start Kindergarten, but she’s worried that filing divorce papers will cause him to come back into our lives.

She’d technically kidnapped me a few years back. She felt like she had no choice. The law in Virginia at the time, where we previously lived, was that domestic abusers could be granted unsupervised visitation as long as they’d never hit the kids before. In her telling, that’s not even the thing she was the most worried about––he was an alcoholic, and she was a nervous wreck that he’d drive drunk with me in the car.

In third grade, I had a sleepover Halloween party. One of my friends was allowed to come for the party but not stay the night because I lived in an apartment and didn’t have a dad.

My mom’s divorce with Dave was contentious––needlessly so, considering neither of them really had any money. But he owns a tenth of a percent of his family’s farm or something, and I guess someone got in his ear that my mom might try to take it from him, and in return she got worried he’d try to take the money she inherited when my grandma died (not a lot, but enough to pay the monthly rent on a one bedroom apartment in rural Maryland + living expenses now that she’s retired).

Dave, me, and my mom at my college graduation in 2011

Conditions had been deteriorating for years. My mom was bored in small-town Ohio. She was bored with Dave. And the internet, to which she had introduced him, started to radicalize him. Some of the guys he thought just had interesting opinions were, upon further review of his internet history, posting on websites like Stormfront. My whole family is Jewish. He did not seem to understand why this was a problem.

So my mom’s 16-year marriage had finally come to an end. She was a mess and also she had moved into the living room of my one-bedroom apartment. But there was also another aspect I had not foreseen: I wanted closure. I never thought of Dave as my dad, but then suddenly he was gone. It was kind of like he died. Sure he was a conspiracy theorist and maybe inching closer to white supremacy with every passing day, but he was literally the only father figure I’d ever had.

What the fuck do you do with that?

As an adult, I had a male boss who mentored me for many years. To this day, I speak very highly of him. A male colleague, drunk and jealous, told me our relationship was built on my daddy issues.

I’ve known since before I can remember that it was probably better that my biological father was not in my life. I don’t know how old I was when my mom told me that he drank, that he hit her when she was pregnant with me, that he tried going to AA but the addiction was stronger. It feels like I’ve always known. And I’ve still always been curious about him. He’s half of me.

My mom and dad, circa 1988.

My mom told me things here and there, even though I know she doesn’t think about that time a lot because it makes her sad––she loved him a lot and that love could not save him, but it gave her the baby she always wanted. She said he was a beautiful writer. She said he loved the outdoors. She said she thinks he drank to drown out the mental illness that he refused to face or get treated.

I see a lot of myself in him. Or of him in me, I guess. Whichever way that works.

I never made much of an effort to find him, beyond the occasional Google of his name and some guesses at a location. I wasn’t even sure what I could do beyond that. But in late 2018, something different happened. Someone started a Facebook page that’s basically just a feed of mugshots from every arrest in the state of West Virginia. This time, there he was.

Arrested for speeding, failure to stop, DUI, and driving without insurance.

I did some digging, and I found a whole universe of aunts and uncles and cousins on Facebook. I made contact. I heard from Aunt Linda. I heard from Aunt Donna. I heard from Aunt Diann. They sent me pictures. I asked after my father and they told me he wasn’t doing too well, but they’d try to get him set up with email.

Months passed. Linda emailed to tell me my grandmother Mary had passed. And then two weeks later, another message: my father was dead. He’d passed out on the floor in his kitchen and his landlord found him. He was 66. There would be no funeral service.

First I felt grief. My dad is dead. Then I felt anger. Why didn’t he ever write me back? Then I felt shame. I have no right to feel this way. I don’t even know him.

It felt a lot like how I processed things after my mom left Dave. I felt grief. I didn’t even get to say goodbye. Then I was angry. He could call me if he wanted. Why doesn’t he care that we’ll never see each other again? And then I was ashamed. I have no right to feel this way. He was never really my dad.

If you’re wondering how this story ends, I regret to inform you that I don’t know yet.

I wrote Dave a letter at the suggestion of my therapy group a year or two ago, to let him know I still think of him and I’m not mad. He wrote me back. He still keeps my college graduation picture on the mantel in the living room. He said he’s proud of me.

My father died knowing I’m alive and doing okay.

Maybe that’s enough.