The past week has been a bit of a doozy; school is in full swing, as are the kids’ after school activities. Then on Tuesday, a mere eleven days after dropping off the petition at the courthouse, our name change documents arrived. We are officially a family with one last name! I’ve spent the last few days juggling a full teaching schedule, including two sets of papers to grade from each of my students, prepping the kids for school every day, coordinating our afternoon carpool schedule to their various gigs, and beginning the slow process of changing the records of our life over to a new last name.
After spending three hours waiting for a five-minute appointment in the Social Security office, as well as countless hours on hold with credit card companies, utilities, and banks, I’ve had a lot of time to contemplate the effects of my new name. While I’ve lived for 36 years with my original name, my spiritual ties to it are pretty tenuous. A good friend–a blogger herself at The Larsens Live Here–gave me a great line from another friend of hers who had gone through a similar decision process. This friend of a friend’s life also starred a deadbeat dad whose last name she had grown up with. After deciding to take her husband’s last name, she determined, “If I have to have a man’s last name, it might as well be one who loves me.” My slightly modified version is If I have to have another man’s last name, it might as well be one who loves me.
As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, my biological parents’ marriage was tarnished by my father’s alcoholism. The marriage ended long before I have any memory of my parents together, and soon after, my mother was remarried to and took the name of the man who has been my father ever since. At some point before my parents’ divorce was finalized, my bio dad kidnapped me and blazed a trail for Mexico. The police told my mother they couldn’t do anything about it since she was still legally married to my dad, so it was only a troubled conscience that made him turn around a few weeks later and return me to my mom. I was far too young to remember any of this of course, but between the kidnapping, the drinking, and the physical abuse, my mom wasn’t too keen on my dad being a part of our lives when the divorce came through. The judge ordered my dad to pay $50 a month of child support, and my mom never pursued legal action when he neglected to pay her even a dime.
After that, my interaction with my bio dad was limited to a couple of Christmas cards in my formative years, and I remember he once sent me a toy U-Haul truck that I used to sit on and roll down the driveway. He was a nonentity in my life, and the only real indication I have in hindsight that I was troubled by his absence was my imaginary play where I regularly pretended that MacGyver was my biological father. (Incidentally, I also pretended that the actor Marc Singer was my older brother; he was the star of the fabulous 80s sci-fi mini-series V, but I think my desire to know him was probably more due to his starring role in The Beastmaster, a cheesy movie where he played a character who could talk to animals while roaming the countryside in a loin cloth.)
Then in the early 90s when I was in my sophomore year of high school, my bio dad wrote me a letter. It came in an envelope that had clearly been opened and then resealed, and the stationery was army issued propaganda for a war being fought in the desert. My dad was part of the Army Reserves in Colorado, and he been sent to the Middle East to fight in Desert Storm. Contemplating his own mortality, he had decided to finally reach out, about a dozen years after he’d last seen me.
I started writing my dad, keeping the content of our missives secret from my parents, although they knew we were in communication. The letters were void of any real substance; he filled me in on his time in Kuwait (although not very accurately as I would come to find), peppering in some empty sentiments about his decade-long sobriety, and I told him about my classes in school. We even spoke on the phone once about nothing in particular. Then in one letter, he opened up and told me that he had recently seen me in person. He has an older son from a marriage before my mom, a brother I’ve never met, and he had followed a similar pattern of absence in this young man’s life. My half-brother lived in the same hometown as me, and my dad had written to him before me. My brother wrote back, telling our dad that he wanted to see him, so during his next leave, my dad flew to California. When my brother met him at the airport, he told our dad that he wanted to tell him to his face that he was a deadbeat and he never wanted to see him again. Then he left him at the airport. My dad called up an old friend of his, who just so happened to live around the corner from me, and this woman let him stay with her for a few days. I don’t know who this person was, but she apparently knew me well enough to point me out to my dad.
Now this all sounded pretty creepy to me, and my mom got a little freaked out too. My parents decided it was time to intervene, and they sent a letter to my dad stating that if he wanted to be a part of my life then he was going to have to pay the back child support he owed. They cited my expensive college aspirations as their rationale for asking, and they mentioned that they had spoken to a lawyer. A few weeks later we received a phone call from a woman who said she was my dad’s new wife. This woman claimed my father had received the letter, fallen off the wagon, and beaten her up. While he was punching her in the face, he kept screaming about how he was going to kill her, kill my mother, kill me, and go live with his Filipino wife. She called the police, he spent the night in the drunk tank, and then he disappeared. As one can imagine, this ended my short-lived epistolary relationship with my father. We never heard about how my dad and his new wife patched things up, but I think they’re still together today. We wrote off the Filipino wife talk as the crazy ravings of a mean drunk, and I headed off to college in Boston after graduation.
In the spring of 2004, my mom’s own alcoholism was starting to flare up, my husband and I were planning our wedding, and my bio dad’s mom died. I had grown up knowing my dad’s parents; although we never spoke about my father, they drove to California in their Winnebago a few times during my childhood, and they always sent me a small Christmas gift. When my grandmother died, I made arrangements to fly to Colorado where I would meet up with my mom at the airport so we could attend the funeral together.
Walking into that funeral home and seeing my father for the first time was an insane experience. As I’ve blogged before, I look nothing like my dad. Seeing this blond haired, blue eyed stranger who provided some useful DNA to my existence filled me with such confusion. I was 27 years old, and I found myself trying to make polite small talk with my father on the occasion of his mother’s death. After the funeral, we headed back to my grandpa’s house for an informal family gathering. I barely remember this time at all, but I think most of it was spent worrying about how my mother was feeling and watching how much she was drinking. Somehow, I left Colorado without interacting with my dad very much.
That summer, my husband and I had an amazing wedding and moved into our first house; the following fall, my dad’s father died, so I found myself making the trip out to Colorado to meet up with my mom again, a mere six months after we had already played out the same scene. Things had changed with my mom though. Her separation from my stepfather after more than twenty years of marriage had become a more permanent reality, and it was almost entirely due to her worsening alcohol addiction. She had spent some time in rehab the previous winter and she had lied to me about going to an out patient program when she fell off the wagon shortly thereafter. That summer was rough, and my husband and I worried about whether or not we should allow her to come to the wedding. (She did, and she thankfully stayed sober.)
When she missed her flight to Colorado and I spent an extra hour waiting for her in the airport, I was pretty sure booze was involved. She arrived and was passably sober. We headed directly to the funeral, where we arrived late, and she remained by my side for the next few hours until we headed to the reception. At this point, I knew she hadn’t been drinking while she was in Colorado, and when she nearly fainted a few hours later, my bio dad’s family attending to her needs as she squawked something about low blood sugar, my temper flared because I knew this was her body detoxing. Because of this I could barely keep my mind on my dad when he tried to engage me in conversation:
“Losing both my parents has made me realize what I’ve missed with you. I really want to get to know you, and I’m willing to whatever it takes. If you want me to come to Boston, I’ll fly out there and we can get to know each other, or I’ll fly you to Colorado.”
“Let’s start now though. Do you have a girlfriend?”
Let me be clear that I was wearing a wedding band on my left hand, and he wanted to know if I had a girlfriend.
“Well, what do you like to do for fun? Do you hunt? Do you fish?”
“I sing musical theater in the car.”
That shut him up long enough for me to say our goodbyes and escort my mom back to the hotel where she slept off her tremors until she got on the plane early the next morning.
When I got back to Massachusetts, I decided to write my father a letter. I sent him a long note stating that I was open to getting to know him, but he needed to know two things before moving forward. First, I told him about my mother’s addiction. Second, I told him I was gay and I had married my husband earlier that summer. I even tucked in a wedding announcement and a wallet-sized photo of the two of us in suits.
That was last time I had any communication with my father.
My mom called a few weeks later to say that my dad had phoned her, screaming about how she let me be gay. She told him she was proud that she had let me be gay, and I think the conversation ended pretty shortly thereafter.
That’s where I thought the tale would end, but then the following summer, I received a phone call from a woman speaking a heavily Asian-accented English:
“I am looking for…” she paused and said my father’s name, which until last week was my name too.
“This is he.”
“Oh good! I found you! I have your sister here!”
She handed the phone to a tweenage girl, who shouted, “Hello brother! I love you!”
“Could you put your mother back on the phone?”
Enter the Filipino wife with whom my dad was planning on reuniting after murdering his current wife, my mom, and me. This woman claimed to be calling from Oregon where she lived with her new American husband, a man she said began abusing her after bringing her and her daughter over from the Philippines. Interestingly enough though, she wasn’t calling to tell me about her problematic marriage; her daughter had recently started asking questions about her biological father, a man her mother had met in the Middle East while she had been working there temporarily during Desert Storm. This man, my father, had apparently had a wild affair with her, gotten her pregnant, and then headed back to the States. While I was sort of titillated by the fact that I seemed to have been cast in a real-life version of Miss Saigon, I was also wary that this woman could be scamming me. She said she had called my dad at the phone number I knew to be his, and a woman had told her that she had dialed the wrong number.
“I’m not sure what to tell you,” I said. “That’s my dad’s phone number, and I just don’t think he’s a very good person.”
The woman had found me because my dad and I shared the same name, and now she wanted to forge a relationship between her daughter and me. I told her the young girl was welcome to write to me, but that was all. I received one short letter from this girl, as well as copies of her Passport, report cards, and other identifying information that her mother felt necessary to send to me. I wrote back one letter, and then the new American husband called to tell me that his stepdaughter had boarded a plane to visit her Filipino grandparents and never returned. He was wondering if I had heard from her. I told him no, and so far that has been the end of that part of the story.
Now, I can take a certain solace in saying goodbye to this name that carries with it so many ties to a man who does all he can to live up to the title Deadbeat Dad. My father is a horrible human being, and I am so grateful he wasn’t physically around to create more of an impact on my life. He certainly has had an influence on my identity though; his absence has shaped me in ways that have made me more thoughtful about parenting, and his sordid role in my life has provided me a way to speak with my children about their own difficult bio parent relationships. For that, I can thank my father. I hope that in leaving his name behind, I can more fully embrace my family life with my husband, a man who truly loves me.