By Krista Schumacher
On my sixth birthday, I watched my father ride away on his Harley Davidson. As the years went by, I wondered what roads he traveled as I blew out the candles on my cake, remembering how I used to wait for him until my mother forced me to bed. It has taken me forty years to understand that I never stopped waiting. So what are my options? Hold tight to the dream of what could never be, or accept what is and move on?
My father made decisions that suited him regardless of the wishes or feelings of others. The annual motorcycle trips with his buddies existed long before I was born. After he became a father, he saw no reason to stop. Just as he saw no reason to stop “returning to the office” every night after dinner, or to stop beating my mother when he came home. Although I begged him to stop smoking because I didn’t want him to die, and I struggled to breathe around cigarettes, he continued to smoke as he drove me to school every morning. When I took a new pack and tore all the cigarettes in half, he whipped me with his belt.
This was the same man who left without saying goodbye to his parents the night he graduated high school, so eager to flee the rural Iowa landscape of cornfields and grain elevators. I see this as his first major act of abandonment.
And then there was the night he left my mother. I still remember how I felt when he drove away without a word to me. I understand now: turning his back on his family was his way of coping with his own pain, whatever it might have been.
I don’t know when my parents’ love for each other faded—if it ever existed—but by the end of their marriage, their mutual hatred hung in the air as thick as my father’s cigarette smoke.
They divorced when I was twelve. I was glad my father wouldn’t be around to beat my mother, but I hadn’t considered that he wouldn’t be around at all. I struggled to reconcile my need for his attention with the pain I saw him inflict. I wrote in my journal, “He’s being so mean to mom, but I miss him so much. I just wish he’d come back home. I’m so confused.” I reacted by shutting him out. My mother didn’t encourage visits with him. “It’s up to you,” is all I remember her saying, but likely she said more.
I trusted my father would be there when I was ready. A few months after he left, he called to ask if I wanted to go to the Oklahoma State Fair that weekend. Still wrestling with my emotions, I said I didn’t, although a part of me did. “Maybe you’ll change your mind,” he said after a short laugh. I did change my mind, true to my indecisive Gemini nature, and called a couple of days later to ask if we could still go. “We’ll see,” he said. “I’ll let you know tomorrow.” The state fair came and went with no call from my father. No state fair with Daddy. Not then. Not ever.
In 2004, not long before he died, I saw him at my grandparents’ estate auction. I was thirty-three, and it was the first time we’d talked in eight years. I watched him arrive at the auction, park in the graveled area outside my grandfather’s workshop, and step out of his pickup. His hair had turned gray, but he was still thin, a lankiness he passed on to me. A cigarette dangled from his fingers as he walked around the tables piled high with the relics of his parents. He greeted his sisters, although he made no effort to seek them out. Nor I. The next morning, as the auctioneer took the stage and the locals gathered to vie for tractors and smaller treasures, my father finally spoke to me. “It took me the longest time,” he said, “to figure out who you were.”
I stared at him. What could I say? That if he’d been more involved in my life he might know his own daughter? That he had just described our relationship in one sentence?
Later, I stood with him in the cemetery before my grandparents’ graves. I followed him there, fearful that being in the same car with him and his cigarettes would awaken the wounded child being driven to school in a cloud of smoke.
As we stared at the tombstone, he said, “There’s something you should know. Sherry and I adopted a little girl from Haiti.”
Although I had learned this earlier from one of my aunts, my body still tensed. “You already had two daughters,” I said, “but you left us.”
“Who left who?” he said, smoke swirling around his head. “I don’t know.”
Since he was the one who filed for divorce, I took his question to mean that my sister and I had left him. For a moment, I fantasized about snatching that cigarette from his fingers and snuffing it out in his eye. Instead, as if arguing a point, I said, “I was twelve when you left!” I was reluctant to ask the important question: How can a child leave a parent?
Later, I remembered how I had moved in with him when I was fifteen, unable to bear my mother’s rages and perfectionism, her undiagnosed but likely bipolar disorder. A few months after that, I moved back home for reasons I can’t explain. I only remember a conversation with my father at his office, the nauseating smell of overflowing ashtrays and cigarette smoke, and telling him that I wanted to move back in with my mother in time for my sixteenth birthday. Why for my birthday, I’m not sure. But my sister tells a different story. She remembers our father saying that he kicked me out for breaking some trinkets and dishes. Whether my father lied to my sister to protect his ego, if I willingly moved out, or he actually kicked me out, I’ll never know.
On my thirtieth birthday, I wrote in my journal: “I can’t blame him for being gone so much when I was a kid, but in his absence, a part of me died.”
It has taken decades to unravel the confusion I felt when my parents divorced. I could never understand why, even as an adult, I longed for a father who refused to be one. But now I know. Despite the anger I felt for beating my mother, I was angrier at his abandonment.
When my sister called in 2006 to let me know that he had suffered another heart attack and might not survive, I couldn’t bring myself to drive the one hundred miles to the hospital. I admired her strength for being there, and how the few miles she traveled from her home to the hospital masked the emotional chasm she had to traverse. That she went was symbolic of our lifelong desire for his love.
A few days later, we learned how he felt about us. On his deathbed, he announced that he was leaving everything to his brother. When my uncle asked why his children got nothing, he said that my sister had used his money for college just to find a husband, that my brother had sided with our mother in the divorce, and that I was a druggie. At the time, I was finishing a graduate degree and was writing grants for the state’s largest community college. His last memories of me were from when I was a rebellious, pot-smoking teenager. He had never taken the time to know me after that, but in his mind I had betrayed him.
Despite leaving home in a rush when he was young and rarely returning, my father had his body flown to his hometown in Iowa. I found it ironic that the boy who couldn’t leave home fast enough wanted to be buried there. He knew he’d have no visitors in Oklahoma, but buried a few rows from my grandparents, whose graves my aunts often visited, he would not be forgotten.
I saw his grave for the first time in 2018 when my sister and our husbands drove to Algona for a family reunion. We always felt close to our father’s sisters, and our grandfather had reached saint status among most of the family. As I stared at my father’s tombstone, carved with the State Farm logo and memorializing his forty years as an agent, I remembered our conversation in this cemetery and the question he had asked me about who left whom.
In the end, there is no definitive answer. Nor will I ever understand what led my father to be the way he was. After we left the cemetery and headed for home, and as the country roads of Iowa receded behind us, my search for understanding receded as well. In its place, I sensed a clearing in the smoke and an open road of acceptance.
Krista Schumacher is a native Oklahoman who ventured to the West Coast for a while before discovering her heart lies in her home state. She lives with her husband and brood of rescued dogs and cats in the country outside of Tulsa. Krista is pursuing a Certificate in Creative Nonfiction through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and was a semifinalist for the 2018 UCLA Allegra Johnson prize in memoir. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a PhD in research and evaluation. Her work as a rural health researcher at Oklahoma State University funds her writing habit, which started the first time she held a pencil. Her interests include exploring how place shapes our identities. This is her first published essay. Krista can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.