My Real Dad
When I was 7 or 8 years old a friend told me that my dad wasn’t my “real” dad. I asked my mom and she insisted that my dad was my biological dad. Some time later, I came across court documents showing that the man I thought was my biological father had adopted me when I was a year old. My mother explained that because they were not married at the time of my birth, my father had to legally adopt me. I knew that they were not married when I was born, because I was in the wedding pictures. All of this made sense to me. Why would my mother lie to me?
My dad worked very hard. He often worked 2 or 3 jobs to support us. He worked at the hospital as the head of maintenance, and then became an x-ray technician. For years he was a mechanic at my grandparents’ car dealership, even after he had begun working at the hospital. He was a public servant. He belonged to the volunteer fire department and EMT squad. He taught generations of people how to save lives as an EMT instructor. Many nights he was at fire meetings and teaching EMT classes. Many family dinners were interrupted by fires or someone needing an x-ray. All of this to make sure we had food on the table and clothes to wear. All of this to make sure his community was safe.
My dad and I were not close when I was younger. He seemed old fashioned and tired. I was a bit of a rebel and we just didn’t understand each other. This changed when I was a teenager, because my mother got sick. She died of cancer when I was 17 years old, 5 months before my high school graduation. Now there was no choice but for us to learn to understand each other. He did his best to help us through the grief, as he was grieving himself.
His best was ignoring the pain and talking about it as little as possible. I learned to struggle alone in my head until my grief bursted out of me. Those were the times I could go to him, though. Those were the times he hugged me. He would listen and cry with me.
A few months after she died he woke me up from a nap and said, “Let’s go bury your mom.” She had been cremated and her ashes sitting in a box in our dining room. It was just him and me. He dug the hole, we poured the ashes in. He made a make-shift marker. We cried and hugged a little. Looking back, I realize that this was a weird way of doing things, but this is a moment that I have with him. No one else has this moment with him. Just me.
At my 19th birthday party, my boyfriend at the time casually mentioned my dad not being my biological father. He had no way of knowing about my friend telling me 11 years prior or about the adoption papers I had found. He wasn’t trying to hurt me, he thought I knew. Because everyone knew. My best friend knew, but she had been sworn to secrecy by her mother. We lived in a very small town and everyone knew because they had seen it play out in real time. I possibly knew, but chose to ignore it all those years. Because he was my real dad. He had adopted me. There was nothing unreal about that.
I found my biological father and we built a distant, but good relationship. My dad and I never spoke about this, apart from the time I introduced him to my half-sister. It didn’t change anything. He was still my real dad and I was his real daughter. He was the one who had been there my entire life. He was the one who taught me to ride a bike. He wiped my tears and mourned with me. He fed me and clothed me.
My dad and I have become even closer in my adult years. He supported me through my addiction recovery. Each time I went to rehab he visited on family day. He attended family counseling with me. My last treatment stay, he would take me out on furloughs. He made sure I had the things I needed. When I had done my 28 days, he took me back to his home. He encouraged me as I searched for employment and worked my program. It’s hard to imagine what direction my life would’ve gone if I’d been back to the streets, but this time I was able to get a job and move into my own place.
I went to college in my late 20s. He was the one who called me on every first day of the semester to ask me how it went. When graduation came, I wasn’t planning on attending the ceremony. My dad talked me into going and even attended with my grandma, siblings, and my two little boys. When my friends and family members offered me their best wishes, it was not lost on me that my dad deserved a hearty congratulations, as well. He had been the one to encourage me to stop settling for a “good enough” life and take the step of making my life more fulfilling. He didn’t often tell me to my face, remember we didn’t do a lot of feelings sharing, but he did tell others how proud he was of me. And one time, not too long ago, he even told me that I am “the smart one.”
Everything written up to this point in this essay was written long before the end. I wanted this to be a tribute to my dad on his birthday or Father’s day. I never believed it to be good enough for him. My siblings and I didn’t know the times my dad was sick. He might tell one or two of us what was going on, but there was never a sit down or a phone call to explain everything. It wasn’t until things were really bad, when recovery became unlikely, that we were all finally in the know.
We reached his final battle. My instinct was to not share my heartbreak with him. I wanted to believe he knew that I am thankful to him. I wanted to believe he knew that I love him. I wanted to believe he would prefer I not tell him face to face. But it was time to tell him things. Out loud. I wrote down what I wanted to say, because I knew I would be emotional and didn’t want to forget anything.
I told him that everyone always says my mom would be so proud of me for what I have become. I said, “She would be proud of you, too. Because you helped build this. You made me strong.” He said I was always strong, he just helped me become stronger I thanked him for adopting me. I told him I love him.
I can never repay him for all he has done for me, this man who didn’t have to. My dad worked so hard when I was growing up to make sure I was safe and taken care of. He watched me make one terrible choice after another and he never walked away. Every time my life was a mess, he doubled down.
Now I grieve. I grieve with my siblings, my grandmother, my kids…and my community.
It doesn’t get any more real than this.