I used to be a daddy’s girl when I was a child. I was the typical little girl who loved her dad and hated her mom. I was eight when my parents divorced. At that time, I didn’t understand. They were always arguing about something unknown to me. One particular night, my brothers and I overheard them in the kitchen yelling, and when we went to investigate, we arrived just in time to see Dad smash his guitar against the wall, barely missing Mom’s head. Terrified, we started screaming and they quickly changed face and became parents again. Mom took us out for ice cream so that we could cool our heads, but honestly, she needed that ice cream more than we did.
There were times when Dad would be gone for days. Mom would pace back and forth in the kitchen, scratching and digging into her forearm nonstop until she drew blood and left a bright, red rash extending from elbow to wrist. One night, after my brother reminded her that we had yet to eat dinner, she frantically tried to cook something quick, and instead of slicing chicken, she sliced off the tip of her pointer finger and dinner became Cheetos and Sprite purchased from the vending machines in the waiting area of the Emergency Room.
Sometimes, when I tried to comfort her, she snapped at me and told me to wash the dishes. I hated washing the dishes. The burnt food caked on the bottom of pots and pans, and soggy bread crumps swimming in the soapy water always made me squirm when they brushed against my submerged fingers. After a while, I resolved to leave her in her misery, fearing that I might be forced to do hard labor if I were to come to her aid. I would sit on the living room floor, facing the front door and wait for Dad to come home so I could tattle on her. Many nights, I slept there.
The bickering and late nights lasted for a few months until one early Saturday morning, Dad snuck into my room to wish me a final goodbye. I didn’t know it then. Still wiping the crust from my eyes, I sat up in my bed and asked him where he was going.
“I’m going out of town for a few weeks,” he said.
“Why?” I whined.
“Work. I was offered a few painting jobs.” He gave me a weak smirk and an even weaker laugh that sounded more like the last cough you make before you keel over. I cut my eyes at him. He tried his best to avoid eye contact. I sensed something was off, but I was too tired to interrogate him. I fell back onto my pillow and turned my back to him, annoyed that he would be leaving me to deal with Mom for so long.
“Just hurry back,” I said. He replied with a dry kiss to my forehead and crept out of my room so quietly that I didn’t hear the door close.
Later that morning, I conferred with my brothers who repeated a similar story. The three of us worried that Mom would have a fit, but surprisingly, she seemed indifferent to the situation.
Weeks quickly turned into months and Dad still hadn’t returned home. I became anxious and worried that something terrible might have happened. Since Dad had been gone, Mom stopped dismembering herself and took up the hobby of sitting on the front porch Sunday mornings, drinking tea and looking through the mail that had accumulated over the week. So on a cool Sunday in October, I decided to join her and talk to her about Dad’s whereabouts.
“Good morning,” I said as I sat in the lawn chair next to her. She answered with a weak and familiar smile as she stared straight ahead, through the trees and sheets of falling leaves, looking at nothing.
“Have you heard from Daddy?” I asked, trying to snap her out of her gaze. She didn’t respond. She robotically took a sip of tea, returned the glass to the coffee table in front of her, and folded her hands over the unopened envelopes in her lap, still staring into nothing.
“Well,” I continued, “he said that he’d only be gone for a few weeks, but he’s been gone for months! Do you think something bad might have happened?” My question was again, met with a silent sip of tea.
“Hello? Did you hear me?” She pointed her glass to the front yard covered with brown and yellow leaves.
“The leaves need to be raked,” she whispered.
“Mom, I just—”
Fed up with her ignoring me, I leapt from my seat and slapped the glass from her hand just as it was leaving her mouth. It flew into the banister and shattered. Glass and tea splashed in all directions, striking both me and Mom. Realizing what I had done, I cowered back into my chair, every inch of my body tense, prepared for a return blow. However, Mom didn’t flinch. She stood from her chair, wiped the glass from her lap, patted the damp spots on her skirt where the tea had spilled, and turned to me.
“You’re father’s not coming back,” she said, and disappeared into the house.
A few years later, in middle school, I finally understood what her words meant. Kids in my class would talk about their parents’ divorces and how they would hardly see their father anymore. I could relate. Dad, who by this time had moved to South Carolina and remarried, would only come to see us three or four times out of the year. Of course, he would blame Mom for the sparse visits, and she would continue to sit on the front porch Sunday mornings, sipping her tea and gazing into the void life ahead of her. Now, I do the same.