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How My Absent Father Helped Me Create a Loving Family

And the only time I saw my MIA dad cry.

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photo collage of picture of father covered with a door that family portrait on top
Tyler Spangler
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The only time I saw my father cry was when he turned 80 at his surprise birthday dinner. It was unnerving to witness this flow of emotion from a man who had always been steely and cold. The image of his tear-soaked face appears in my mind like an uninvited guest.  

My father, who died 18 months ago, is not someone I think of often. He does not deserve to show up in memory because he rarely showed up in my life. He left my mother and their three young children when I was 2 — and soon after, married the woman with whom he had a long-term affair. 

Although spending every other weekend with him was a condition of the custody agreement, my father would often cancel the visits at the last minute. By the time I was in high school, I stopped looking for him on the sidelines of my field hockey and lacrosse games. I also stopped expecting to hear from him after parent-teacher conferences, as to these, also, he was a no-show. Many of my friends with divorced parents still had both moms and dads at these meetings. I craved expressions of pride, which they heard from two parents, when their accomplishments were shared by teachers.

I honored my vow to be nothing like my father by becoming the mom who cheered from the bleachers at every sports competition and clapped in the back of the auditorium at the end of every performance. My husband of 25 years has always shown up for our three children, too. 

Starting when they were babies, he cradled them while climbing up and down our staircase which was the only way they would fall asleep. And despite his demanding doctor’s schedule, he went on field trips and attended nearly every school event.

He never missed a single parent-teacher conference.

Raising confident toddlers into teens who knew they were safe and loved made me profoundly aware of what I missed growing up. I wistfully saw that my friends with divorced parents still had two warm places to call home. Each house was filled with a second set of clothes and toys and things they loved.

At my father’s house, I was a guest in a small, bare bedroom. The only personalized items for children in his home belonged to my half-sister.

I remember standing in the doorway of her room when I was 11 and she was 3. There my father was — sitting on the side of her bed, reading out loud from The Wizard of Oz. I was held captive by the scene not only because of the story, which I loved, but also because it was completely unfamiliar.

My husband read to our children religiously. There were countless nights that I quietly tiptoed into one or another of our kids’ rooms to gently shake him awake as I removed the book that had become tented on his face.

My father never said “I love you” to me — ever. My husband constantly says these words to our kids.

It took me a few years into our new marriage to trust that my husband was not going to leave when our life with three small kids got tough for us — as my own father did. And, since my mother never remarried, I had no model of a solid partnership on which to base my own.   

I had witnessed only one way to resolve an argument — yell, storm out and slam the door.

Fortunately, my husband’s disposition enabled us to model how to love and also how to argue. Key to both was listening and feeling heard. Our children know how much we value what they say and how they feel. That is one reason why empathy for my sobbing father on his 80th birthday eluded me. I did not know how to give him what he never gave me.

The flash of that image is like a key to the locked closet of my subconscious where disturbing memories are stored. I cannot think of him crying without being thrown back into scenes from my childhood and his cool, even dangerous, indifference.

One July afternoon on a rare beach vacation with him, he wanted to swim in the ocean. Rather than leave me, a 5-year-old, on a crowded beach by myself, he put me on top of an old, plastic raft and pulled me deeper into the water. He looked back at me only once — when I first cried out in fear as I gripped the raft — and then quickly turned away, ignoring my obvious discomfort. 

A wave upended the raft not long after his brief glance and threw me into the water. Decades later, I can still feel the water’s chill and force pulling me under and remember thinking that I was going to drown. Perhaps it was the push and pull of crashing waves that landed me back onto the beach.

It certainly was not my father. As I lay there breathless, I could see him way off in the distance with his face to the sky, floating in the sea.

So, here I am today, amazed and so happy of the family I was able to create. Our children are kind, ambitious and confident. Thankfully, they are nothing like me, when I was young. My dreams were modest and veiled by insecurities. Building courage and confidence in my children has turned me into a courageous and confident woman of 53.

Recently, I attended the funeral of a dear friend who died unexpectedly. Each of his four young adult children spoke, recounting the many lessons from their beloved father, their “hero.” At best, my father was an anti-role model whose absence helped me discover how to provide my children with love, attention and security.

I cried and cried during my friend’s funeral. I cried for our friend and the pride he would have felt had he been there listening. I cried for his children and their devastating loss. And I finally cried for the child in me who never had fatherly love to lose. 

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