Why Would My Father Not Want to Know Me?

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It’s that time of year again when I have to avoid the greeting card aisle at the grocery store. If I forget and wander in, the cards assault me with their happy declarations: “You’re an awesome Dad!” and “You’ve always been my hero!”

I have to turn around and walk out.

I wasn’t always this phobic about Father’s Day. One year, when I was 10, I even published a Father’s Day poem in my local newspaper; I recently found it in a box of old photos and papers. The poem was accompanied by a drawing of a smiling man, with rosy cheeks, wearing a tie and carrying a briefcase.

Dad is always very nice

He gives the best advice.

Dad is tall, handsome and fair

And always around to care.

Out of all the rest

I think my dad’s the best.

I laughed out loud when I read it. The tribute was charming, but it was utter nonsense. At that point, I had never even met my father. How must it have felt, at 10, to manufacture appreciation for a parent I didn’t know?

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Father’s Day is tricky when you have grown up without a dad. While others are busy celebrating their fathers, I feel unmoored. It’s a painful reckoning of paternal loss, a forced acknowledgment of a deep wound that I keep wanting to believe has healed.

This whole thing began — I began — in London in the swinging ’60s, where my parents were casually dating and not imagining a future together. My mother had been told it was unlikely she could have children, so news of her pregnancy came as a shock.

My father had left the country by then and didn’t even know. By the time he returned a few months after I was born, his friends apparently warned him he had a child and joked that he would have to dodge my mother. They connected anyway, briefly — long enough for a photo to be taken of him holding me awkwardly on his knee.

There was no expectation that my father would stick around, and he didn’t. A socialite, occasional model and one-time salon owner — older than my mother by 14 years — he was footloose and liked it that way. Although my parents had enjoyed a sizzling romance, they were happy to move on. I didn’t get the option to move on to another father.

After I was born, my mother and I spent years leapfrogging the globe. We left London for my mother’s family home in Sydney and then left Sydney for Hong Kong, so my father would have had to work very hard to find us. Pre-internet, it wasn’t easy to track down a child — or a missing parent — as I would learn when we finally searched for him.

He remained a mystery for all of my childhood, but for me the biggest question of all was: Why would he not want to know me? As a friend said, “It takes a certain type of person to know they have a kid in the world and not want a relationship with that kid.”

I never understood why he wasn’t in my life. No matter how much we had moved, you could surely find someone if you worked at it. He hadn’t worked at it. Because I was unlovable? I didn’t even know what his voice sounded like.

I spent a lot of my childhood looking at men I thought might be him — faces in the audience at dance recitals, someone getting into a taxi.

And then, when I was 15, my mother attended a real estate seminar in Hong Kong, where she picked up a brochure, opened it and saw him in a photo spread promoting residential home purchases in Canada. She gasped, recognizing him immediately. He was older, yes, but still familiar, still attractive. She called the ad agency that had booked the models and learned that he lived in British Columbia.

By then, I had built him up into this fantasy father I wanted desperately to know, and shortly after my mother and he reconnected, they arranged for me to fly from Hong Kong to visit him for three weeks in Vancouver. I was so looking forward to it, but the visit was a disaster. Too much time had passed. We were strangers with no shared history, other than genetics. He had a reserved British manner and I was still a child who didn’t know how to navigate the years we had lost.

During the day, I went to movies, wandered around, or took aerobics classes to work off my emotional overeating. Anything I could do to fill the time. Meals were painful, silent affairs, unless we were joined by his girlfriend, in whom I confided.

After that, we made periodic, awkward attempts to get to know each other. He visited me in Los Angeles a couple of times, but we remained estranged, apart from rare phone calls.

Decades later, when Father’s Day rolls around, I still struggle to find an authentic way to approach it. I wrestle with the obligation of calling my father — or Michael, as I prefer to call him.

“You don’t owe him anything,” says my husband, Rob.

But I still feel I do. I am his only child and my daughter is his only grandchild. We are the sum of his remaining family. How do I celebrate him without selling myself out? I’m supposed to thank him for what exactly? My existence? Yes, that’s probably what I should do, but the gratitude I try to feel has to overcome years of resentment.

He never once called to wish me a happy birthday or sent a present at Christmas. Nor did he have to sit through any painfully dull school recitals. He escaped the burdens of raising a child, emotionally and financially, so why should he get the pleasure?

When I began dating Rob, who was then a divorced father of four, ages 8 to 16, I wasn’t prepared for the challenges. Observing him with his brood, how fiercely he loved them and was available to them for whatever they needed — homework help, counseling — was a constant reminder of what I had missed. He had four little beaks open, needing constant attention, and he didn’t skip a beat. How did they get so lucky?

As a child who struggled to have my needs met, I couldn’t fathom how Rob could keep up with the demands placed on him. He was all-in with his time, love and resources. His dedication made me seethe with jealousy that would quickly dissolve into shame. How could I feel jealous of children whose only transgression was to not know the extent of their good fortune? The pain nearly broke me.

What helped was having a therapist get me to face that loss head on. “It’s sad that you didn’t get the experience of a loving dad,” she said. “But you didn’t get one, and you don’t get a do-over, so it’s time to move past that now.”

Tough love, but I’m learning to properly mourn my childhood so that I may make the most of my adulthood.

During my infrequent calls with Michael, I also began asking him questions about his past, and he answered. That’s how I learned how his mother abandoned him as a boy, never to be seen again. The agony of losing his mother, living through the war in England, plus the death of a sibling deeply traumatized him. No wonder the idea of a family had been so terrifying. I felt a swell of compassion for the lost and hurting child he must have been.

A few years ago, on a whim, I started sending him a wine and cheese basket at Christmas. Each time, he calls and thanks me profusely, as if I have mailed him a Rolls-Royce. Who knew that a little wine and cheese could make an old man so happy? It’s our first ritual, and it delights us both.

When he and I spoke early in the new year, before the pandemic and, now, the protests, we ended our call the way we usually do, with talk of meeting again when he is healthy enough to travel to Los Angeles. Despite my offers to come to Vancouver (and bring my mother, whom he still adores and speaks with regularly), he likes to maintain the fantasy of a final trip to Los Angeles that we both know is unlikely given the obstacles.

As we hung up, he said, “Goodbye, Tara, and lots of love to you.”

“Goodbye, Michael,” I said. “Lots of love to you, too.”

For the first time, I let myself believe that, in our own way, we meant it. And last week, in another first, I actually purchased, wrote and sent him a Father’s Day card. I was feeling so charitable, I even spared him my poetry.

Tara Ellison, who lives in Los Angeles, is the author of the novel “Synchronized Breathing.”

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