What I’ve been thinking about lately though is the time my father left our family. Thinking about how it made me feel, and how that night formed for me what it is to leave family.
I was 14. My father had adjusted all of my classes for the year to have the best teachers, the ones who he knew would look upon me favorably because I was his daughter. He seemed to be ever present at my school – shmoozing with everyone and keeping a watchful eye. Being truthful, I kind of liked it. I liked how everyone would say “C, isn’t that your father?” in a solemn voice, and I would answer – beaming – that it was. The frequency of his visits is probably much more in my memory than actual fact, but I strangely looked forward to catching a glimpse of him in the office.
One night, after a particularly awful fight after sukkos when the air was still fresh and leaves hadn’t yet turned the trees bald, I heard the door slam. It had happened before, and I had always heard my father slink back later that night. There would be the silent treatment for a while, but eventually they would go back to normal and nothing would be spoken about. This time was different.
There was no slinking back. No soft sound of a wounded man closing the door behind him. Just the unusual quiet of a home, a darkness that kind of stuck to your skin like an uncomfortable shirt swishing scratchily against your arm. My mother came into my room in the morning, my baby sister carried on her hip in a yellow pyjama set with fuzzy feet. The baby’s thick black hair was at all angles and her hazel eyes were sad, as if to tell the story for our stoic mother. Sunlight streamed in through my window, overcompensating for the gloom in our hearts.
“Tatty left last night,” my mother said sitting down on my bed and passing the baby to me to hug as a proxy for comfort. “I know,” I replied – in a matter of fact way I didn’t honestly mean. I didn’t know. In my heart I suppose I couldn’t lie, but maybe he had come in through the door in the back, through the basement entrance because he had been drinking. He was gone. And being the oldest in some way made me extra responsible to help a grieving mother and comfort younger siblings. Tatty would be back, my eleven year old brother told me. He’s only gone on a trip and he’ll bring us presents soon.
I came to school that morning, bewildered and fuzzy and on the brink of tears at any moment. I heard a familiar voice in the hall, the unmistakeable baritone of a man who had no sorrow or sadness to acknowledge, no grief to hold back a laugh or handshake. We made eye contact, and he quickly stepped in before I could make a scene. Pulling me to a dark classroom, he held me as I sobbed into his chest. He squared my shoulders and looked into my eyes with the piercing blue I see when I study my middle child’s face.
“It’s going to be ok. C, you’re going to be ok.”
I looked into his eyes. The lying I could see directly on the surface. Weeks later, when he had moved back in, I begged him to swear on something he treasured that he was telling the truth. He refused, and that was the same look I got then. My father showed up less frequently in the months after. Perhaps less jovial and more guarded, certainly never ever acknowledging you’ve messed up or hurt others.
Now, I can understand much more than my Tatty will ever know. It’s hard to carry such a burden on your shoulders when you’re in love with someone who isn’t your spouse and you have no way out.
I should know. It’s one of the reasons I needed to leave.