As a child, the airport was my playground of escalators and celebrity magazines, transporting me to another reality. My dad was a pilot, and my brother and sister and I used to fly across the country by ourselves to visit him. We had the status of captain’s kids and the flight attendants treated us well. The airline expected standby passengers to dress up. My big brother had a thin black tie with his suit. My big sister wore a long strand of fake pearls. I curled my hair and wore white tights with my polka-dot dress.
I’m once again in an airport on the way to visit my dad. The wheels of my suitcase buzz behind me, as I keep my quick pace among the business passengers. This time I’m in jeans and I don’t wear any jewelry besides my wedding ring as I don’t want the fuss at security. My husband dropped me off at the airport before our kids woke up.
The last time I saw my dad was sixteen—almost seventeen—years ago. It was a hot day in July when I married my husband. My dad did not walk me down the aisle, but I invited him anyway. He left the reception early. I found out years later that he was asked to leave by a great uncle. I had asked him to keep an eye on my dad to ensure he didn’t make a scene. I never told him to leave us alone in our married life. He just did.
He looks different now. My brother sent me pictures of him in the hospital to prepare me. His skin is yellowish and he no longer has his Tom Selleck mustache. His bare face makes his nose look pointier. A memory flashes up of him shaving his mustache once just because I asked him to. He snuck up on my step-mom, she screamed in shock, and he kissed her. And they laughed.
The World of Dad
Dad didn’t live in my regular life. Times with dad were like living in a play, and I would enter a new world. They were times when he tried his best to stay sober for us. He did all the things he thought a good dad should do, even with no example of his own to follow. He took us to church, one where people raised their hands and sang songs to a guitar instead of the church we went to with our mom where our hands held hymnals with red textured covers.
He made the best popcorn. He loved to dance. He took us to the beach and to a flea market. Then we would put on our travel costumes again, and he would drop us off at the airport with the nice flight attendants who would give us airline swag like a deck of cards and wings we could pin on our dresses. We would be transported back to reality.
A Bridge Between Two Worlds
As an adult, I tried to bring him into my world, and he tried to play the part. I would call him on holidays for a while. I would send him pictures of my kids and invite him to see them. He would say the things he thought I would want to hear—a script of his own design. None of it was true, but it was his way of trying to be the kind of dad he thought I deserved. He didn’t dare meet my kids. The possibility of breaking them as he broke me would be too much for him to bear, I think.
When I was a child, I could pretend for both of our sakes. As an adult, my imagination had limits. I couldn’t pretend anymore. The lies were a weight I could not hold and I dropped them.
Later, I saw the seeds of doubt and pain planted as a child mature into fear. Counselors helped me understand how I tried people-pleasing parent-figures in my life because I didn’t want them to abandon me as my dad did. They helped me see that I’m always waiting for the next abandonment. They helped me reach compassion for his brokenness.
I’ve forgiven my dad and I have made peace with the pool of grief where our relationship sits.
There is one more airport, one more layover of people watching, where I’ll be transported into his reality one more time. My compassion for him stays intact, but I fear the weight of the lies he might offer me again as his humble peace offering. One last attempt to cover his weakness, and offer himself as the father he thinks I deserve.
He lays in a hospital bed, his body wasting from the excess of alcohol over the years, and there is no pretense left for him to cling. I want to tell him there is nothing he could ever do that would put him out of reach from God’s forgiveness. I want to tell him I see his brokenness, and love him anyway. I want to tell him I know his love isn’t an act. It’s hard to live in reality, when reality holds so much pain.
I wonder what healing between us will look like, or if it will even happen. If it does, it will look like grace. No lies left to offer, as he will not have the strength to pretend he is fine. With the reality of brokenness exposed in every way possible, I can tell him honesty that he is loved.
Cover photo by Scott Parry.
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