“Lina, this is your father...”
A raspy voice spoke on the other end of the line before trailing off to inaudibility. No. It couldn’t be. He couldn’t be. In front of my eyes, my whole world was crumbling apart. I tried to swallow down the lump in my throat but it stubbornly stayed. Once the initial shock wore off and the reality started to sink in, my mind was immediately bombarded by an endless stream of questions. Why was he calling? What did he want? Did he know about what happened to mom? I held my breath and waited, assuming he would fill in the blanks. After a few minutes of unbearable silence, I decided to make it easy for both of us. I hung up.
He continued to call and text despite the complete lack of response from my side. I was still grieving for my mom, missing her terribly as days went by. I was confused, not knowing where ‘an absent father wanting to reconnect’ would fit in my life. Then one day, out of the blue, the calls and messages came into a screeching halt making me wonder why he gave up too quickly.
Contrary to what my father may think, I had known about him for quite some time. There were hints –– some subtle, some not-so. The email that was left open on my mom’s laptop. A black and white photo of them together, hidden away alongside the clothes in the cupboard. When asked about them, my mom didn’t exactly act shocked. Maybe she was discretely hoping for me to find the truth out. She talked about how they met each other and fell in love, her eyes turning dreamy as she recollected their moments together. The conversation gradually moved to the part where he left for New York when she was still pregnant. She talked about how one thing led to another and he couldn’t come back to us. She framed her words very carefully, her intention was clear. She wanted me to think of my father as a flawed hero, not a villain.
“He was helpless, Lina. He didn’t have a choice.”
She failed to convince me there. There’s always a choice. He didn’t choose us…
It was a slow day at work and I was going through the spam folder, clearing the junk emails one by one –– something I religiously practise, to avoid drowning myself in spam. The sender line of one of the emails suddenly caught my attention and I paused. The email address was pretty straightforward. First name. last name @ some company.com. As soon as I recognized the sender, I laughed a little at the irony of it falling into the spam folder. I wasn’t surprised that he managed to get hold of my company email address. As the marketing assistant of the company, my official contact details didn’t exactly enjoy a ‘private’ status. I was about to toss the email to the trash folder. But something stopped me –– plain curiosity or maybe hope. I started reading it.
The content more or less resembled a business proposition. An invitation to join him for a coffee the following week. It even started with “I would like to invite you ––”.
For some inexplicable reason, the cold and impersonal tone of the email annoyed me.
I wasn’t sure what possessed me to come here today. A part of me was curious. I wanted to know how he looked. And the other part — yet to figure out what it really wanted.
A waitress approached with a smile and handed me a menu. Having nothing else to do, I simply glanced around. The place was nearly full, which wasn’t unusual for a Saturday evening. Soft jazz music was playing in the background. Young and old couples. Tourists. Groups of young men and women. Teasing and joking. Loud chatter. It was depressing.
Some days, I think I have a perfect life. A well-paying job. A house all to myself. No husband or boyfriend to go back to. On days like today, well, I just want to chase away my naivety with a broom.
Hard to watch all my friends falling in love and settling down with children. Even harder when they pester me with constant questions. It is difficult for me to let someone in, without worrying if they are going to leave me one day for greener pastures. I have deep-rooted issues, with trust and security and till today I haven’t found anyone patient enough to deal with my issues and me.
Through the corner of my eye, I saw a man standing beside my table and I almost jumped back in shock. I knew right away. He looked different than I had imagined. Taller, older. Thinning grey hair framed his pointed face. His eyebrows were scrunched up together in a frown, making the wrinkles on his face look deeper. He was looking down at me expectantly.
My mouth was too dry to speak. I only managed a weak nod.
At my confirmation, his gaze softened and a hesitant smile touched the corners of his mouth.
I watched him slide into the chair across from me. I couldn’t sit still and I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. I was scared, caught between conflicting feelings –– anger, betrayal, rejection, sadness, hope. He seemed to be affected too, looking everywhere except at me. After an awkward pause, he reached for the glass of water in front of him.
How do we start? Where do we start? We were already past the stage of basic introductions and greetings. I wished I had asked someone for help. Would there be a ‘How to talk to your father, for dummies?' Absurd. I know. But one can always hope, right?
“Are you ready to order?” The waitress reappeared and I instantly welcomed the distraction.
I flipped open the large, leather folder and busied myself studying the names of the fancy drinks listed.
“What would you like to have Lina?” My father asked, his voice sending shivers down my spine.
“I am not really hungry.” I lied.
Pretending not to hear me, he turned to the waitress and said, “ Two Chicken Caesar Salad sandwiches please.”
It was weird sharing a dinner table with him and acting as if everything was normal between us. Once upon a time, I had craved for it. The bonding. Friendly banter. A normal childhood. They were all denied to me. And I resented him for that.
Soon the waitress came back with the sandwiches. Followed by coffee and cheesecake. Along with the food, the awkwardness started to disappear slowly. We sat there, talking, the two of us. Safe topics. Salty salad dressing. Soft textured cake. Bitter coffee. A polite laugh here and there. Neither of us talked about the elephant in the room –– what brought us here today. A small laugh escaped my lips at the realization of how superficial our conversation sounded.
“I am sorry.”
I blinked rapidly, startled at the sudden confession coming from him.
I wanted to ask him what exactly he was sorry for. Because the list we had here seemed to be quite long. I quickly shook away the bitter thoughts. I had promised my mom that I would give my father a real chance if he ever came back. This meeting was all about that –– rebuilding the ties, one thread at a time.
I nodded, acknowledging his apology.
“I...went to the Church. Then I… wanted to come and see you. But…I thought to let you grieve in peace without adding the stress of handling me.”
The words stung. Thinking back to that day and remembering how lonely and vulnerable I was feeling –– I might have appreciated a shoulder to cry on.
There was an uneasy tension in the air, thicker than anything I had ever experienced.
“ I am really sorry for the pain I caused you both. I was always planning to come back. I just couldn’t give my wife a guarantee on when exactly.”
He paused briefly, his voice taking on a self-deprecating tone. “It wasn’t about the money. I had goals. I wanted to achieve them. Be somebody. Be worthy. The money kept coming. And I thought someday that would make me feel less guilty. But that moment never came.”
He cast down his eyes in shame.
“And by the time I realized the emptiness of my achievements, I was late. Too late. I never intended to abandon my family, Lina. It...just happened. I hope you believe me.”
He looked sad, dejected. His eyes were misty, his nose turning crimson. On a whim, I reached out and held his hand in mine. His touch was warm, unfamiliar but oddly comforting. I did believe him. I surprisingly did.
“I know I don’t mean anything to you except someone whom you share your last name with. I want to change that. I sincerely do. I...would like to get to know you. I am ready to take whatever you are willing to give me...”
The man sitting opposite me with a pleading look in his eyes wasn’t a villain. He was a flawed hero, defeated by life and the choices he made.
He squeezed my hand, desperately seeking some assurance.
I squeezed his hand back and smiled, hoping that was enough.
Today was the day for hope and acceptance, not forgiveness.
One day, I might be able to forgive him, fully from my heart. One day, I might invite him home and we will have dinners together. One day, we might sit and talk about mom and how much we both missed her.
One thread at a time...