In the Absence of Your Father

I – Scratch & Whip

Your father taught you how to overcome boredom by taking you to the racetrack. On those long Sunday afternoons you and your younger brother yelled at each other in the backseat of your father’s brown Hyundai. The car parked in the shadiest spot on the lot with the windows cracked enough the smell of horses and popcorn wafted in on the breeze.

He often promised to return after ten minutes but usually disappeared for half an hour or more. You lost your shit the time ten minutes turned into seventy—when two-fifty rolled into three-thirty and, lazily, became four. By then you no longer looked at the clock because you knew you would scream if you had to sit there, compliant, for one minute longer. On that Sunday you pledged to be more prepared the next time your father told you and your brother you were “going for a drive.” It was the moment you started traveling everywhere like a seasoned bag lady, never without your trusted blue backpack.

Along with texts on algebra and history, you packed a small bottle of water and a few snacks to share. Your bag was large enough to house a rainbow of pencils and pair of ruled notebooks, along with the most coveted items of interest: an ever-changing assortment of comics and paperbacks. Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley High, V.C. Andrews, and Christopher Pike were hidden in the bottom of the bag next to bootlegged issues of Archie, Spiderman and Wonder Woman.

Those other worlds, for hours, were the only entertainment you needed. You marvelled at the countless possibilities that existed elsewhere.

Because of those Sundays, you learned to be self-sufficient. When left to his own devices your brother found he liked to draw. You filled those ruled notebooks with spliced-together poetry and shitty prose. You adopted a zero-tolerance policy for tardiness and poor timing.

Those Sundays are why, to this day, you never go anywhere unless there is a clearly marked escape route.

 

II – Pinched Back

As a teenager, the space between you and Dad stretched out to 4,131 kilometres. The distance meant you learned to live off your inheritance—traits that cannot be willed away—alone. Structural peculiarities impossible to hide: the lithe, Amazon frame that made strangers go slack-jawed and ask out loud whether you were a boy or a girl. Or the nest of curls on your head: nine inches you eventually cut off because you tired of people pulling them on the sly.

Or the permanently bronzed state of your skin (the colour of roasted pecans in the summer and turbinado sugar the rest of the year) that inspired strangers and friends to pat you down, comment on your luck, or use their fingers to take a swipe.

You’re so tall. You’re so thin. Why are you so dark? Why are you so light? Where is your dad? Did that woman adopt you?

Break it down for me: what exactly are you?

 

III – Make a Run

In tandem with the physical matter, you confronted a series of character flaws in his absence. A minefield of patrimonial demons you still grapple with. Unsavoury mannerisms you know—like a bad gene—he passed down and lie dormant within your cells, like the bitterness borne from multiple injustices and the callousness caused by compounded rejection and shame.

But while you will spend years hating him for this birthright, you will give thanks in the end. You will tether yourself to your mother’s grit and reflect on your father’s short fuse to manage the lid on your own simmering pot of inherited rage. You will also explore all the ways in which you can forge your own designation.

Somehow, you will use the dulled edge of each weakness to carve out solitary categories only you can inhabit.

 

IV – Nerved (Love)

In your twenties—separated by oceans and mountain ranges—is when your father will impart the importance of softness, and why being pliable is a gift. Like all other lessons, this doozy is one where you had to be patient with since the truth was hidden behind all the things he never said.

The calls came every Sunday because, towards the end, he spent more time wheezing in bed than watching the horses barrel down the track. Without fail, your mobile buzzed, or your landline rang, or the gloopy, underwater tone of Skype alerted you to an incoming call.

And when you picked up his melodic accent was clear as crystal, despite traveling thousands of kilometres via underwater cables to wherever you were momentarily grounded.

Aalborg. Bangkok. Hanoi. Yangon. Kigali. Berlin. Prague. Copenhagen.

Your time zone didn’t matter on any given Sunday. The exact coordinates never mattered much to him. For two years you scheduled nothing on those afternoons because your father went on and on and on. He seemed to enjoy the sound of his own voice. He had stories he liked to retell. But one Sunday after multiple dropped calls (the connection always the worst in Hanoi) you figured out he talks himself hoarse because he wants to glean as much information from you as he can. He experiences the world anew by hearing how you move through it. Keeping you on the line is his way of seeking forgiveness.

It is how he channels everything unspoken.

It is the only way he knows how to say he loves you.

 

V – Dead Track (Excused)

It becomes apparent when you soar over London—en route to meet your brothers to make necessary arrangements for a man you barely knew—that some men are not meant to be fathers. Being a parent is neither a right nor intrinsic fact. Or at least it wasn’t when it came to your father and his father and, possibly, all the fathers who came before that.

Because there is a lot to take care of when you land in Toronto, you clamp the lid tightly on your bubbling pot and go numb in the face of every last thought and feel. You liaise with the funeral director, picking out an urn no one wants to carry and pay for the whole ordeal. You clean out his house and throw away his possessions, save for a mask and sketch of a split-level house in the United States.

Like the others, you don’t consider possible regrets until one surfaces, much later, to blindside you. The wish of having seen his body before it turned to cinder.

You should have glimpsed his face before it went up in smoke.

And although you suspect it would have been one of the hardest things to do, it may have put you on the path to deliverance sooner. Bearing witness adds a layer of permanence.

It would have, at least, made it harder for your mind to play tricks on you.

 

VI – Stretch Turn

As the years pass you ask questions about your father and the answers make you think you know more about him than you actually do. In reality, you have a better understanding of your colleagues, local barista, language teacher, and doorman. The island man with mahogany skin and Mona Lisa smile will always be an enigma to you.

This explains why you lean towards nostalgia—a melancholy that ebbs and flows for the father you wish you had. The father he should have been. But if there’s one thing you learned that never lost its value, it is that everything becomes softer with time. Bending is an art. We are all malleable. Getting on with this life involves the giving up of things and shedding of skin.

And so you do your best to stop looking for answers that will never plug the puncture wounds of your heart. You stop searching for him in the streets of Brooklyn. Your father has gone, baby. He is gone. Instead, you file away the knowledge he gave you. You find salvation in the smallest of lessons like,

  • The things we need to carry—and eventually part with—travel in perfect circles.
  • Grieving isn’t linear when it involves someone who was an apparition throughout most of your life.
  • Trauma covers distance because it is generational.
  • You have his knack for storytelling and eye for detail.

You know what else you will hold onto? Knowing that he loved a tailored jacket and good fedora, as much as you. It is no wonder ‘jaunt’ is your natural preference—more than ‘sexy’ ever could be. So whenever you believe you belong solely to your mother, child, think twice.

You have always been your father’s daughter, through and through.

 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

JoAnna Pollonais is a meditator, a feminist, an adventurer. She has worked as an editor and communication specialist for the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross. On the move since 2002—from Berlin to Bangkok, Beirut to Brussels, Hanoi to Copenhagen, and Kigali to Cairo—she now lives in Brooklyn, where she’s writing a novel. Follow her adventures in boxing at her blog.

 
[ The photograph of the racetrack is in the public domain. ]

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