Becoming a Parent Without Your Own
Below is a personal essay that is typically only available to subscribers of The Column. I wanted to share this one with you as it’s very special to me. I hope you enjoy.
June 10th, 2021
Every year my husband Jared asks if I want to do something special to celebrate my dead father’s birthday. I never know what to say, how to commemorate this day exactly. One year we got a box of ice cream sandwiches, the nostalgic brown rectangles with the vanilla filling, ate too many of them at once, just like he used to do.
If I had a sailboat, I’d go sailing, another of his great loves, with a bottle of vodka in hand. He spent most of his life running from his own demons, addicted to the bottle and then the pills, and only now am I able to forgive him for that. Today I’d happily cheers my vodka with his, because it’s one of the ways he at least felt he was happy, was able to create some kind of relief for himself while we still shared the same air and oceans.
Yet as I sit here nine months pregnant, staring down at this belly swelling larger and larger by the day, I find my own relief that there will be no vodka. I’ve hated it for years, since my own benders during my college days.
Today, just a month shy of his first and only grandchild’s due date, my dad would have been 72. And I decide to do the same thing I’ve done on each birthday in these last four since he’s passed, which is to look at old photographs.
I wake before my husband, head downstairs and make a cup of coffee. It’s just after 6:30. I grab a blanket, and open the French doors to curl up onto a chair on our patio. I am grateful to be up early with a new moon and solar eclipse, to feel the breeze on my skin, surrounded by trees and sky filled by the sweet morning song of what sounds like hundreds of birds.
I sit and meditate for a while, enjoying my coffee, before picking up my phone. I open the Photos app and scroll by year, to 2018, then to the month of January, to find the photos we last took together before he died.
A video that catches my eye, one of the many I took on one of those last days together, sitting on his green leather couch in that dark living room, clock just above the television. Videos I took on my phone of another video that played on the TV screen. Videos of three generations: my grandparents, young and elegant, my dad and his siblings growing up on their idyllic farm, and then myself, as a child.
And the one that catches my eye is one that I will always cherish, for it’s one of the only clips I have with my mother and father together.
We were on Venice beach, in Florida, a private section behind my grandparents’ house where I spent much of my childhood. Venice beach, “the world capital of shark’s teeth,” where I used to drag a basket attached to a stick to catch the tiny black triangles along the edge of the ocean.
My mom sits on a blanket, tiny bikini-clad body covered with a white button-down that she held tight in the wind, dark brown hair loosely gathered at the crown of her head.
I remember being startled when I first saw this video that day, startled by how aloof she was. Her body was there; she was not.
And there I am, a baby crawling in the sand, straight toward the water, straight toward her daddy standing just a few yards away. When I reach him, it looks like I call my mother to join us, and so she does. They each hold one of my hands and lift me to stand, as we walk along the edge of the water.
A scene from a movie: Two beautiful new parents walking their daughter down the beach, their whole life ahead of them. So much promise and hope. I am tempted to let my mind wander off, to create a story of what our life might have been like. But the reality is, I have no memory of this, no memories of the three of us together. I only have this video, and a couple of photos. It couldn’t have been long after this that my parents would divorce, my dad forcing my mom to leave when she couldn’t stop drinking. Back then when I needed them so much, needed him so much – someone to feed me, to dress me, to tuck me with a kiss each night – he was able to see clearly, to do the right thing. It was only as the years progressed, as I needed less from him to survive, that his drinking and addictions escalated to a point of no return.
Back to my camera roll. As I scroll past my recording from the beach, I find a few more images from that day back at my dad’s house. One is of him and I together on his back patio; I’m a grown woman dressed in yoga pants and a sweater; he is so close to dying, sunken face and body poking through his robe, without that beautiful head of hair that I watched countless women marvel at throughout his life. Still, we smiled; happy to be together in that moment. Daddy and his little girl.
It’s the proximity of that image and the video clip at the beach that rocks me. The beginning of our life together, and the end. Just like that. A few files on an iPhone.
Or maybe it was seeing myself as a baby girl on the beach, so innocent and full of joy; the knowledge that soon I will bear into the world a little girl like this, a daughter of my own, already with her own name: Violet.
The life I want to give my child, how different I know it will be for her.
And how fragile it all is. Life’s beginnings and its endings. To think that one day she’ll be all grown up watching a video of herself like this, her father and I holding her tiny hands on the beach. And I wonder what she’ll feel.
I cry alone for a short while before going upstairs to my husband, phone in hand.
He opens his eyes sleepily, and I see his heart sink. “What’s wrong? What is it?” He holds his arms out to me.
I crawl into bed and cry into his chest, reminding him what today is. He holds me tighter.
Eventually I lift my phone and begin to play the video again. As we watch together, he can’t hide the joy he feels; this is the way he’s always been, watching videos or looking at pictures of me as a child. But now his joy is intensified, paired with the knowledge that our own little girl will be here soon.
“If she looks anything like you, I don’t know how I’ll possibly handle it,” he tells me, eyes tearing.
And for a second I can wipe away the tears, the heaving lets up. Because I too am overwhelmed by this idea, that the two of us will be carrying this little girl down by the ocean, of the happiness her life will be.
Only now do I realize how painful it is to be bringing a child into this world with no parents of my own.
I’ve had other piercing thoughts, of course. I’ve imagined what it might feel like as a mother, when I am overcome with love and joy and the absolute need to take care of this little being, how this might destroy me somewhere deep inside to know that my own mother wasn’t able to give this to me. How I might wonder, when my daughter is only a year old, how my own mother could have left me at this same age.
Because knowing she was sick, with the logical understanding that alcoholism is an illness, this can never take away the pain.
I look at my husband and I try to imagine how he could ever bring a child into this world without his parents by his side. Of course, he would be capable, he would figure it out. Yet it’s impossible to imagine this, to imagine what any of his life would be like without the relentless and omnipresent love that his parents offer him.
Watching that video of my parents and I on the beach, I am struck by the presence of my grandmother, my father’s mother, who I loved so dearly and was more like a mother to me than anyone else. The woman who played school with me for hours on end, who spoiled me rotten with so much more than just shopping sprees. What would it have been like for my dad without her there, without both of his parents to take care of us as they did?
I think of every person I know. And I realize that I don’t know anyone who has had a child without either parent alive.
And for a second I remind myself, that just because I don’t know any personally, surely there are many people in this world who do this, who become parents without their own. But when I say it aloud, my husband stops me.
“Please, don’t compare yourself to anyone. It doesn’t change how hard this is.”
And I know he’s right – we’ve been through this before. It’s been in my nature for years, a story I’ve told myself to help get myself through: Other people have also survived this, so you can too. It’s been helpful in the past, a way to feel less alone, but not as a tool to avoid my own pain.
The truth is I will never understand what I’ve missed without having that same kind of love my husband received from his parents, or so many others I’ve learned about through watching and listening, those of close friends, what I’ve seen on TV, even. But I did know some kind of love, a kind that was real if not perfect, a love that fed me just enough to make it here today.
As my husband and I watched the video together, there was no denying the ecstatic joy in my dad’s face as he threw me up into the sky, watched me giggle with delight as I landed back in his arms.
“I remember the first time I met your dad,” he recalled. “I was nervous and I didnt know what to expect, but as soon as I saw the way he looked at you, I knew there was nothing to be afraid of.”
He was nervous because of the stories, the alcoholism, the drugs. I imagine he might have pictured some terrible character from a movie, no life behind the eyes, who grunted instead of spoke.
Instead he saw the kindness in my dad’s bright blue eyes, eyes that earned him the nickname “Buddy” when he was growing up, short for “Buddy Blue-Eyes.” He saw a man who joked, silly and self-deprecating, a musician who loved the Beatles and vodka and sailing and motorcycles, his ridiculous neon green Viper; a man who loved his daughter very much.
The truth is, during my dad’s last years on earth, he was incapable of adding much to my life. He had become so dependent on painkillers that I had a hard time understanding him when we’d talk on the phone. I’d call him out of guilt, I’d call because I loved him, but I dreaded it so; it was so painful to hear him in this state. Sometimes I’d put the phone down and just let him go, let him ramble on about whatever he needed to, occasionally jumping back in with an “uh-huh,” to let him know I was still there.
So I’m not sure exactly what he could add as a parent to me now, as a grandparent to my sweet Violet, but I know I’d rather him be here than not. Even if it were just so he could give her a “squishee” – this silly thing he’d do to me when I was young, to my cousins or the small child of a friend, he’d take his enormous hand and wrap it around your face, squeezing your cheeks – singing, “squishee!”
My mom, too. Even though it was my father who raised me, even though I hadn’t seen or spoken to my mother in over 15 years before she died last summer. I still have so many questions, none of which include how she was able to leave me, to walk away from her own daughter, over and over again.
Instead I want to know what my birth was like… did I arrive early? Did she have an epidural? How long was she in labor? For how long did I breastfeed? How hard was it, really?
It pains Jared when I ask these questions, I can see it in his eyes. How badly he wants me to have these answers; how badly he wants me to have had so much more.
“Well, we can see how much you weighed. I have your birth certificate downstairs. Let’s go take a look,” he says.
He digs the paper out of his files, and stares at it for a while.
No birth weight. Turns out this isn’t listed on most birth certificates, after all.
He puts his arm around me, and we can’t help but laugh.
Another mystery to add to my collection. It’s perfect this way, I think to myself. This was my story, but it won’t be hers. And nothing comforts me more than that.
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