My favorite thing about my father for the longest time was how incredibly stable he was. I looked up to him like an old tree, like he’d never fall. Of course he would, one day, but the multitude of days until one day were filled with him packing our lunch and driving us to school while our mother was off somewhere doing something.
Whatever something it was, we were only left to guess. For a year when I was about nine our house was filled with anger, raised voices, and shushed curses. Then my mother was gone, and when I was twelve we were told she had passed away. I think that may have been the only time I saw my father seem weak until he got sick.
One of my father’s defining characteristics was his dark features and serious disposition. Of course he loved us and of course he showed it, but three years after my father passed my husband still feels a little intimidated by him, whether he’ll admit it or not. My father’s entire family had thick, pitch-black hair. The only exception seemed to be me, cursed with my mother’s stringy, dirty-blond hair.
The gift of my father’s family’s black hair was that even at the oldest of ages it never greyed and they never balded. My father never had much of an option though—the radiation would turn a mammoth into an elephant. And with my father it did, and as Dad’s hair started to thin I began to notice dark marks on his skin. Trying to remain respectful, I asked my stepmother Elizabeth and my sister Carrie if they knew of the origin of the marks, but neither of them did and neither of them wanted to ask.
Soon my father’s hair was thin and wiry, and we could see that the marks were several tattoos. One, my mother’s name. Another, a red guitar. Two black letter Xs. A raven. A plate of spaghetti and meatballs. All concealed beneath my father’s hair.
I finally felt compelled enough to ask my father for the story behind the tattoos. As always, he spoke slowly and with purpose: “They’re markings from my life before I had you kids. It’s a story. There’s your mother, our first date, the band we were in together, the drugs we did together, and the good friends we lost in the process.”
“Why did you get them?” I asked.
“And why did you hide them?” Carrie added.
“They were just for me. When I found out your mother was pregnant with you two, I continued to party and damage myself in ways that I don’t even like to think about. I was different then, and that’s why it was so hard for the first few years of your lives. Not that you remember, of course. The point is, I was still messed up when your mom’s water broke. I tried to come into the room but they wouldn’t let me. So I went down to a friend’s shop, he shaved my head and for eight hours tattooed my life story onto my scalp. It hurt like hell, but actually distracted me from the withdrawals I’d go through next. I locked myself in a room for five days in agony, but then I was done. I met you two and I knew with certainty the rest of my life would be devoted to you. The tattoos were just something to remind me about my past failings. I kept them to myself because I never wanted you to be exposed to that side of life. That’s why I made your mom leave, too. I hope you aren’t mad at me for that. I expected her to get clean, not die. I wanted her to be a mom to you. Thank God I met Elizabeth. She lifted me up and parented you in a way I never thought I’d be able to all alone.”
I had never once remotely suspected my dad of ever having done drugs. I never saw him as a weak parent. I never blamed my father for my mother’s absence. My father’s name was John. He was a normal man and a perfect father, yet he had failings and doubts like any other person. To this day the hardest part of him not being around is not being able to tell him that his doubts were not needed. I want to thank him for teaching me how to keep my failings on my brain just long enough to learn from them and propel me to good. I want to thank him for being my father.