Multiple Acts of Abandonment
by Nancy Hightower
I was twenty-five years old when I decided to break up with my father. I suppose I could have started with the standard it’s not you, it’s me, but that seemed too trite given that our relationship began the day I was born. What was really going through my mind was more along the lines of it’s not you, it’s me, no it really is you, all you and if you could just acknowledge that in some way, this could be saved and I wouldn’t be sitting here right now wondering how to start this conversation. My parents had met at Philadelphia College of Bible, so saving people and relationships was a big theme in my family. I was raised on verses such as Exodus 20:12 that promised long life for those who honored their fathers and mothers, and I had to acknowledge the violence I was about to commit in telling my father that the markers of “father” and “daughter” no longer applied to us. I was about to break linguistic and spiritual codes in the next few minutes. But this abandonment was years in the making.
When I was five, I was daddy’s little girl. I can still see that girl twirling about in a stiff pink dress with white polka dots, complete with the perfect pair of white gloves, my father smiling as I made myself dizzy. I remember accompanying him to the train station on my birthday wearing that dress. He was seeing his friend off, helping him carry his luggage into the train car, when suddenly the train started to take off with my father still inside. I thought my father was leaving forever, on my birthday, no less, and screamed the bloodcurdling scream only a child in utter terror can make. It was the kind of scream that stops everyone in their tracks and makes parents clutch their children close to their bodies. It signals the world is on fire. A friend who had come with us grabbed my hand to keep me from running after the train. She was pulling one way, and I the other way. I kept screaming with every ounce of energy I possessed, determined to shatter mountaintops with my voice and turn the rails to ash. More cars passed by, taking him further and further away from me. My screams became punctuated by sobs until at last the woman holding my hand shouted, “It’s stopping, Nancy, look.” The train slowed, and the conductor’s head popped out, his face angry and confused. A minute later, my father stepped out of the railcar, and followed the sound of my crying until he found me and scooped me up into his arms. That night we celebrated with cake topped in sparklers so bright that I felt like we were lighting up the whole city. My father told me how he had known the moment he heard the screams that they were mine, how he had told everyone in the car he had to get back to me. He had fought to stop that train, just like Superman.
What little girl doesn’t believe her daddy can’t rescue her from the monsters? But his powers to save me stopped at the peach walls of my grandparents’ guest room, where an eye watched me incessantly—where the monster was disguised as my grandfather. The eye was both real and imaginary, symbolic of the shifting boundaries emerging between my father and me as I had to tell him what his father had done in the peach room. My father asked clarifying questions, calmly, logically, as if this were a science experiment in my second grade class, and then said we would rethink our plans to visit my grandparents for Easter. I wish I could have seen him get angry even once about it all; maybe I could have warned him that a part of me had died back in that room, or perhaps was still imprisoned there and needed to be set free. Either way, my father channeled whatever unspoken rage he felt into saving injured or abandoned animals he found in the woods. I grew silent as our house became a hospital for baby bunnies, birds with broken wings, and a mutt from the pound, which my father named Princess. Most of them died except for the dog. My father traveled more often for work, leaving me to spend time with my mother, who told me stories about demonic warfare. My father relinquished any strong theories he had about monsters.
My life finally broke apart when my mother, citing irreconcilable differences and God’s special calling for her life, left my father. I was only twelve and had hoped he might help me make sense of my mother’s religious madness; instead, he gave me The Chronicles of Narnia to read, took me to a therapist, and then quickly remarried another woman in need of rescue. “I don’t want to replace your mother,” she had told me, just before the wedding. But we both knew she was lying and needed all the love and adoration she could get. My stepmother was a butterfly trapped in the chrysalis stage. Angry, awkward, her wings clipped by fundamentalist Christianity. “Don’t drink, smoke, swear, or listen to rock music,” she said, while my father stood by, nodding. “And wipe that stuff off your eyes or boys will think you’re a slut.” Whatever time I spent with my father was seen as secretive, and my stepmother referred to as “the other woman,” because I did not know my place within the family dynamic. She never understood how those peach walls still framed my life, didn’t understand that my father’s rescue came too late even though he had had suspicions that my grandfather had been “inappropriate” with his own friends growing up. Yet I had been left alone with him.
As a result, when other girls were learning how to make doe eyes with eyeliner and mascara, I tried to make my gaze as fierce and impenetrable as the eye which had watched me at my grandparents’ house. My stepmother misread my resilience as power, as an attempt to usurp her. I wanted to warn her that my father had yet to save any wounded creature, no matter how hard he tried. Within their first year of marriage, they started asking me to leave, sometimes for a night, sometimes for a week at a time. I attempted to render myself invisible by earning A’s and B’s and stayed away from dating, smoking, and drinking as commanded. “Try harder,” Dad would say, and then sent me away to boarding school for two years, until he could no longer afford it. Time became partitioned not by the days or weeks claimed by school and homework, but by holidays that brought anger and unmet expectations to the boiling point.
It was ten o’clock on New Year’s Eve of my junior year when Dad knocked on my bedroom door. I asked him to come in, but he just stood there, as if he couldn’t risk being seen too close to me. “Can you find a place to spend the night?” he asked. “We’re having a bad fight.”
The request shouldn’t have surprised me. I had just heard my stepmother yelling about how I had him “wrapped around my little finger.” I wanted to yell back that I didn’t want my father wrapped around any part of me and to fuck off, but that wouldn’t have helped the situation. I should have seen this was coming, unlike the train that took off with no warning. But every time, it was a punch in the gut. Every time, I wondered when I would have to come back.
“Fine,” I said, keeping my voice flat.
“Thank you.” He paused. “It’s not easy being in the middle of this.”
I called a friend to ask if I could come over. I had learned how to make friends fast and talk in code about what was going on at home. My friend said she’d get a bed ready. I packed a few things, all the while wondering how my father was in the middle like he claimed when I was the one always asked to leave, the so-called problem, the one who needed to get closer to Jesus. “You’ll never be able to find love, Nancy, until you get things right with us,” they would say as I sat on the couch, facing them for one of our special talks. “God has made you to be part of a family.” I was neither my stepmother’s rival nor my father’s daughter at this point. I had no idea who or what I was, but trying to spiritually blackmail me to be a part of the family felt like a curse, like I was a monster always in need of redemption. By spring of my senior year, I had a suitcase already packed, ready to escape when the next bout of tension flared up. At seventeen, I left home for good, only a few days after my high school graduation. My father didn’t try to stop me. He would sporadically write to me throughout college, telling me how much he missed his little girl. He sent birthday cards and tried to sneak in visits without my stepmother’s knowledge.
An official break up was the only way to end it.
I sat next to him in the car, Bible in my lap, and tried to quiet all the cliched cultural voices that said to forgive and forget, that family was forever. Some family systems are so toxic that you are willing to brave curses and an untimely death for the chance to be whole and sane. As he drove, I articulated each betrayal as if delivering a confession. I knew my words would irreparably wound him, even if he didn’t truly feel the pain of it all until after a few years had passed.
When I finished, I asked if he had anything to say.
“Not really, but you’ll always be my little girl,” he answered, with no sadness in his voice, no anger or remorse.
I wanted to tell him that little girl—the one in the pink dress who twirled in delight and believed her father could protect her from everything—was gone. I wanted to tell him that when she died, a part of me did too.
“You’re not here right now,” I said, at last seeing the mechanism behind his evasiveness, the magician’s tell.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re not feeling any of this; otherwise, you’d fight for me. You wouldn’t keep meeting me a secret. Are you even going to tell her you talked with me?”
He waited a moment. “Probably not.”
I realized that my father had been letting me go for a long time, over and over, his abandonment not coming in the form of an abrupt departure as I’d feared as a child, but in countless, passive acts—or non-acts—failing to be there when I most needed his protection. Even his attempts at safekeeping demanded a secret alliance that continually propelled me into a “mistress” role, one that he perpetuated, not my stepmother. This time I would be the one to leave, the one to abandon him. I could feel the wheels starting to slowly turn over on the tracks, taking me away, at last, my father invisible on the platform—no tears, or screams of terror crying after me.
That was the last time I saw him.
It didn’t count as a death.
After all, he was still alive, and this kind of abandonment required discipline. It was an act of resistance.
Over the next few years he tried to find my address whenever I moved. Once he left a birthday card on my car windshield. Stalker, I thought. Please respect my boundaries, I wrote to him in a letter. The correspondence faded, and by my early thirties, I was free. I was an orphan. I was lost in a train station looking for home.
When I turned forty-six, my father started to follow me on Facebook. He told me how proud he was of “his little girl” in a comment on one of my posts, his mini profile picture beaming. I deleted it. He went through my pictures, clicking more likes. I messaged him to please be less intrusive. What I didn’t say: Why have you never let me grow up in your mind? Why do your words remind me so much of your father and that peach painted room? He bought two copies of my latest book, and I simultaneously felt grateful and wary. I kept deleting his comments until at last I blocked him, with no warning or last word. With no goodbye. Did the phone call I had received in the interim matter, the phone call that knit together all the disparate misgivings I had tried to ignore but which painted a more horrific picture of who he really was? I wish I could say no tears were shed, but I wept for three days straight after that phone call, at last allowing myself to mourn the loss of a father who never really existed.
Nancy Hightower has been published in Entropy, Sundog Lit, Word Riot, storySouth Gargoyle, and Cleaver, and has written about politics and religion in HuffPost. From 2014-2016, she reviewed science fiction and fantasy for The Washington Post. She is the author of The Acolyte, (poetry, Port Yonder Press, 2015), and is currently working on a book about digital storytelling with Paul D. Miller for Duke University Press, as well as a memoir about growing up in the evangelical South.