Monday, June 16, 2014

Dear Dad (A Letter To My Father)

Dear Dad,

I know you speak very little English, and can perhaps barely read it. I wouldn't normally knock someone for that, but let's be honest: you've been in this country for over 38 years -- the fact that you cannot communicate with your sons is your fault, not ours. Perhaps someone will translate this letter for you someday.

I'm writing to let you know where you went wrong. Apparently it might be some mystery to you, and perhaps you have some misconceptions surrounding the current state of our relationship. Or rather, the lack thereof. So let me set some things straight. If it's okay with you, I'll like to start from the beginning.

As a child, the only parent I ever knew was my mother. She was my day and night, my rock, my wisdom. She was both mom and dad to me. I remember you used to come by the apartment every now and then in the early years of my life. Vague memories, really. I see you standing there in the kitchen, being very quiet but mysteriously ebullient. I never knew who you were. My mom called you by your given name, and never once did either of you instruct me to call you 'Dad.' I just knew you as a friend of my mother's who would stop by to chat, play with me in a totally platonic, non-committed fashion as most adults without children are wont to do, and then leave just as abruptly as you had arrived. My mom had quite a few friends like you, so no reason for you to stand out among that jumble as far as I was concerned.

Not long after that, my mom met our stepdad and your visits ceased altogether. For years onward, however, mom would still take us to your mom's house across the river on occasion, and we would call her 'grandma' without really knowing why. I know it may sound odd, but I never once asked my mom who my dad was. I guess it never really mattered back then. She did everything for us that a mother could do. All. By. Herself. That was more than enough for me. I'll never know why you left us. Why you left a young woman, barely out of her teens, alone to raise 3 boys all by herself. When I was younger I was angry over the possibility that you had selfishly abandoned us because you were weak-willed and afraid of being tied down. I mean, that is the cliché, right? But as I grew up and became more wise to the world, and to human relationships in particular, I understood that situations likes these were not always so black-and-white. I was probably missing a lot of context to the larger picture, and that perhaps I should cut you a little slack. Perhaps you and mom had a normal couple's falling out. Perhaps she was very difficult to be in a relationship with. A whole host of reasons I could use to not lay the blame solely at your feet. Of course, only you two know the truth; and one of you is deceased, while the other cannot communicate in the official language of the country he's been residing in for most of his adult life.

See, you've probably been thinking all these years that I blame you for not being there for us while we were growing up. But that's where you're wrong. I can't know the reason that drove you away--not without having a real sit-down, heart-to-heart conversation with you before you or I die--but this is not why I refuse to have a relationship with you. See, I can forgive the indiscretions of youth. We make mistakes when we're that young, and sometimes those mistakes are grave and far-reaching. Add to that the fact that my stepdad was a psychopath, and you probably had every right to fear for your life and never show your face around our house again. Fine, I can somewhat accept that. Although, for the life of me, you would have to kill me to keep me away from my children. I don't care how tough the other man living in their house thinks he is. But, okay, I'll let that one slide.

No, Mr. Batista, there is a far deeper error you made. See, you leaving my mom is between you and her. You never coming to visit while she was still alive is your fear at fault. For your part, the few times we did see you while visiting your mom, you were very nice and cordial to us. We still never knew you were our biological father, but you seemed like a nice, friendly sort. And some in your family were at times very kind to us.

No, it seems to be beyond your ability to understand, but none of this is why I refuse to have any contact with you today. All of that stuff happened before I was truly old enough to reason for myself, and as such I cannot take you much to account for your cowardly (in)actions back in those days. No, what concerns me is what you did when my mother was murdered and our stepdad taken to prison. There, right there . . . you had all the opportunity in the world to finally step up and take charge! To be the parent I needed during the most difficult time a 9 year old boy could never hope to experience. You had your chance, and you blew it.

Someone in your family told me years after the fact that you felt my mother's mom--our other 'grandma,' and the woman who would continue to raise us until adulthood--needed us more, and that the reason you did not take custody of us right then and there was because grandma was an emotional wreck, and because she needed us as much as we needed her. Fine, this is all true. She did want custody of us. But never get it twisted: we WANTED her to have custody of us! We knew her well. Unlike you and your family, she had always been there for us. Mom would take us to visit her almost every week at one point, and she and auntie both made holidays the most special times of the year for us children. We loved our mother's family to pieces! You and your family, by contrast, were very mysterious, strange, and largely an enigma to us boys due to the rather large language barrier between us. The fact that only the odd cousin or two could actually speak English in this great metropolis of New York in which we all shared residence shall forever remain a source of irritation for me. You do your culture a huge disservice by being so backward, 'Dad'!

But, guess what? Despite what you seem to think, it was not grandma's words that turned us against you. If anything, this woman is constantly singing your praises. Even yesterday--Father's Day of all days--she was telling me what a good and kind man you had always been to her. That while you may have your faults, at heart you are a gentle soul and full of love for humanity. That speaks more to her heart than yours, by the way. Let's just be clear. She's beautiful like that. But as you can see, then, she is hardly the originator and perpetrator of this wide gulf that separates us today, Dad. No, this is all you. And it's time you man up and take responsibility for your mistakes.

So, here was the situation: It's circa 1986. Your two still living sons--along with their sister conceived from another man--are all living in the mother's family's residence. Upon the death of their mother your boys were finally told the identity of their real father, and you were given full visitation rights, no holds barred. And, yes, in those early days shortly after the tragedy we were seeing more of you than all previous years combined. But they were short visits, and again the language thing made it very difficult for two rambunctious and impatient young boys to really get to know you. Whose fault was that, might I ask? Whose fault as well was it when you would call to say that you were stopping by to pick us up and take us to play baseball, but then would inevitably flake and leave us staring out the window for that figure who never showed? Not once but so many times I would eventually lose count? Who, Dad, who? Why, it's no one's fault but your own. Grandma didn't do that. You did!

But it gets worse. Oh yes. For, you see, those times when you rarely did show up and take us out? Do you remember those times? Too bad, because I remember them clear as day even now. Oh yes, you were taking us to go fishing. Or to the zoo. Or to a game. But first, you had to stop by your mother's house. Or your sister's. Or your cousin's apartment in Queens. Oh, just to say hi and show off "your boys." What a jolly good time! What every kid loves, right? I mean, being forced to meet complete strangers and told to act as if you love them like the family they are? These strange faces whom also don't seem to speak a lick of English? These people? Why would two boys who just had their world turned upside down by a homicidal maniac they once called "daddy" feel uneasy in such a scenario? After all, this is FAMILY!!! Blood of your blood, right? That makes everything right, right???

But, wait, where are you going Dad? You're just going to the bodega for some cervezas? Why, aren't we going to miss the baseball game? Oh, you want us to stay here for a few minutes in the home of our grown cousins, once removed, whom we don't know from Adam nor Eve? To whom we only have YOUR WORD that we're even related? Whom don't even have much room in their cramped apartment for their own sons, let alone yours? Is that okay with you? Well, okay then. If it's only for a few minutes.

Except, those few minutes stretched into hours, didn't they? And then days, didn't they? 4 days, to be precise. Yeah, I counted. You left us alone for 4 days, motherfucker. For 4 days you took us out of our home and left us in a whole other borough with people we not only did not know, but could not even communicate with. Oh, the number of times we tried anyway. I was the oldest, so it's more accurate to say that I tried. My little brother could only look to me to figure out a solution to our dilemma. I asked them to call you, or to let us call our grandma. But guess what? No phone! How is that even possible? To be sure, these were actually nice, if somewhat backward, people. I'm sure they were illegals. They tried their best. They fed us and tried to make us as comfortable as possible, bless them, but even I could see the fear in their eyes by the 2nd day you did not return. You dumb fuck -- I could kill you for that, thinking about this now! They could have been closeted pedophiles, for all you knew. Or cannibals. Or something. Shit!

But guess what? I forgave you. Eventually you did return, and in your dumbass broken English that was harder to understand than if you had just spoken in Spanish, you tried to play it off as no big deal. Apparently you wanted us to get to know our family. Wow, way to go, Dad. You totally endeared us to them. Big time! But like I said, I forgave you. I figured you forgot us. It wasn't a good feeling, that, but you did come back at least. And you did take us back home. It was a disappointment we never did get to see that baseball game. But, oh well.

Only, everything wasn't so well. You did it again, maybe, say, a few years later. This time you took us to your mother's house over Easter recess, and left us there for the whole goddamn week! I was in tears by the end of it, begging someone in the house to just please let us go back home. Our home. The one in the Bronx with a grandma who practically raised us from birth herself, and who could speak the same language we spoke at the very least. But no, we had to wait for your return. And yes, you did return and took us back to our real home. But this time I made a vow to myself: I vowed that I would NEVER let you take us anywhere again. I thought to myself: this man only wants to pretend to be our father. He wants to show us off to his family members, some of whom were only seeing us for the very first time, but he wants no actual parenting time with us. We're too young, too Americanized--too much work! But I bet you one thing, I told myself. Watch how fast he'll want to be your father when you are grown and making money and taking care of yourself. When the years creep up on him and he starts to realize he's alone in life, and that a man with two healthy sons to carry his name and bloodline is blessed beyond measure. Oh, how he'll want to be a father then!

And in the meantime, I put you out of my thoughts and went about the business of doing just that: growing up and learning to take care of myself. But I always knew you would be back.

Remember when you did return? I was a year away from graduating college. You came over during Christmas break and asked my brother and I if we wanted to see our other grandma. Of course we did. She was the one member in that family we actually did know and love very much. She was an amazing woman, our abuelita. So we did so, and things were good that visit. Until, that is, you got up and told us that you were stepping out to go to the store for a minute. And then you didn't return for hours. Oh, how the rage boiled up inside me. This was JUST LIKE that last time when we were kids. But, do you know what was different this time? This time I was 20 goddamn years old, asshole! I told my brother we were leaving. He wanted to stay and wait for Dad. Fine, I said. He was an adult himself. He didn't need me to make his decisions. But I was walking right out that door and hailing a cab. Or walking back home, if needed be. That's when you showed up, so shocked that I had the temerity to put my coat on and say my goodbyes to everyone. I should have knocked you on your ass right there. But I contained it. I was very terse with you, remember? I told you I was leaving, and apparently the coldness was in my eyes because you stopped and backed away. My brother ended up leaving with me after all, too. He saw you for what you were as well: a weak man with no convictions. Oh, how I loathed you that night, sir.

And that was it. That was the last time I had anything even remotely nice to say to you. I remember you did come by several months later, just as I was packing up the car to head back up to college after Summer recess. You told me your sister had died in a car accident back in the Dominican Republic. I knew my aunt, and she was very nice to me once upon a time. It saddened me, but I was not going to attend the funeral with you. That ship had sailed, old man. I had my life to get on with.

And so, here we are. I haven't seen you since then. But your daughters, my sisters, tell me how you're doing. It seems you would love to get back in contact with "your boys." Oh, that would be so sweet, wouldn't it? You're like, what, 61 by now? 62? You have less years ahead of you than you do behind. Now's that time in life when family is oh so important, isn't it? I bet you're feeling every one of those years, too! But I remember that prediction of mine from back when I was 12. That when being a father is the easiest, that this was when you would appear. When you no longer had to take us to baseball games or to the movies or to the circus, but when you needed the most help in return. Well, I hope you can now understand why there won't be no tender Maury moment for us anytime in the near future. And I hope you finally stop blaming my grandmother for the distance that has been between us, and for once take responsibility for your own agency in all this.

And do you know what's the truly sad part about all this, Dad? It's that I would like to mend things. I would like to be the adult here and form some kind--any kind--of bond with you after all these years. To give you that one last chance to redeem yourself. But the truth is, you're not really reaching out, are you? You've given up. I hear "rumors" of you from my sisters, but even they are not pushing the issue. They're just as wary of you as I am--and they actually lived with you all their lives! Not a ringing endorsement I must say, pops. You really do need to try harder if you want something to happen here. I'm just saying.

So, here we are at the conclusion of this very long letter. I've said my peace. If fate should have it that we never meet again, then at least I hope you somehow find your way to this letter. May it bring the same understanding to you as the closure it has brought to me. And if this is the last of my words ever spoken to you in life, then so be it. If you would like it not to be so, you know how to reach me. Happy Father's Day, "dad."

Cordially, your "son,"

David J. Batista

Edit 6/19/2014:  Just realized I forgot to include this video clip from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. It makes me tear up every DAMN TIME! This is almost exactly how my dad makes me feel, although I never had a chance to express that rage and abandonment the way Will does here. I had to teach myself how to shave, how to tie a tie, how to stand up for myself, how to fight, how to ask a girl out. All on my own! I guess that's what this blog entry was about, my chance to air it all out. But watch this scene, and notice the way Will calls his dad "Lou." That look on his face when he says it. It's very clear what he's thinking in that one moment. Awesome acting by Will Smith! He nailed it. All those times my "dad" would get me so excited at the prospect of getting to hang out with him, only for him to call with some excuse and a promise to get together "next weekend" instead. Yeah, okay "dad". Whatever you say.

5 comments:

Botanist said...

Wow, David, that's a side I was not really aware of. What a sorry tale. I've known "friends" like that, but I can't imagine how hard it must be to conclude that your own father is someone you are better off not knowing.

Yvonne said...

Oh sweetie! How difficult this letter must have been to write and how emotionally spent, it must have left you. You have done a great thing, forgiving your father and letting it go. Your letter was the first step in letting go and forgivness.

Hope you find peace, my dear friend. :)

Cin said...

This post made me tear up. :( I really get the rage, anger and helplessness you felt as a child. I think that's unfortunately the part I understand the most because of my own life experiences. You did so much with so little and you should be proud of where you are today. I am proud of you. :) The road to peace is filled with many bumps and dead ends. You have a good sense of direction, Mr. Batista, use it. :) Sending you lots of love always. :)

David Batista said...

Ian -- Yes, it would hurt a lot less if this was just an acquaintance I was talking about. But alas, those closest to you possess the greatest capacity to hurt.

Yvonne -- It did feel good to get it all out. You're right about that. The peace will hopefully follow. :)

Cin -- Thank you, sweetheart. Your words are always a huge help in times like this. I appreciate it, greatly. :)

Ashe Hunt said...

Man, that took some doing to write. Most of this I already knew but it was good to read it...in a strange way. I'm always here but you know that.

Up the universe!, my friend.

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