I didn’t have much of a relationship with my father growing up. As a child, I only saw him between his stints in prison, when he was sober enough for my mother to let him be around me.
By the time I left for college, I hadn't seen my father since I was eight years old. We'd spoken on the phone a few times while he served a nine-year sentence for armed robbery.
When I was in my first semester at NYU, my mother told me that she'd learned that my father was HIV-positive. I was young and still questioning why he loved drugs more than me, in the way that the children of addicts do, so I didn’t try to reach him. I had feelings about it, but I compartmentalized them. At that age it was easy to be self-centered and consumed by new things like people you find attractive.
A few years later, I was 24 years old, living in Los Angeles, and pursuing comedy. Night after night I'd get onstage and make fun of myself and the world, too young and excited to be away from home to even begin to process my hurt.
Around that time, my mother got pregnant, and I was about to become the half-sister to a baby girl. That made me think of family in a way I hadn’t before. Discussing my family history at a doctor’s visit made me realize I had no idea if cancer ran in my family. Diabetes? I didn't know. I could only answer for my mother's side. I imagined being unable to answer questions about my lineage to my own children.
By then it had been more than a decade since I’d seen my father, and years since we'd spoken on the phone.
I thought of my mother’s unfortunate update on his health and wondered if he were even alive. People can live with HIV now, but given his drug habit, would he have fared as well as others?
I was afraid to pick up the phone. If he were dead, it would feel as if I were choosing the day he died because whether it had happened months or even years before, for me the day I heard about it would always be the day it became real.
And if he were alive, where would we begin? Did I want to know him or did I just want answers? If he was still on drugs, was that something I wanted to invite into the messy-yet-promising life I was making for myself?
It seemed like now or never. I had already made plans to fly east to visit my mother, hoping to be there for my sister's birth, and I decided to make time to meet my father. If things didn't turn out well, at least I could be comforted by the parent who had always been there.
During a slow day at work, I picked up the phone. I called Susan, a distant relative. My mother had recently run into her so I had a direct number. When she realized who she was speaking to, she excitedly told me that my father wanted to see me.
He was alive.
I was both relieved and confused. Now what?
About two days after I arrived in my hometown of New York City, I called my father and spoke with him directly. Before I could say much, he broke down on the phone, apologizing for every mistake he'd made as a parent. It didn’t make me forgive him, but it softened me. It relaxed my nerves and made me curious, rather than fearful, of a reunion.
The next day, I took the train to the end of the line and finally met him in person. He was living in an apartment with my grandmother, whom I also hadn’t seen since I was a child.
He was shorter than I remembered, but still quite tough looking. The disease wasn't yet visible on him, but age had slouched his broad boxer's shoulders. I had been losing the memory of his face, but as soon as I saw it, everything filled in.
We spent hours talking. He listened with patience as I spoke. He grew excited when I said I’d been doing comedy. He beamed with pride as I described the myriad of odd jobs I pieced together to support myself and gain experience as I figured out what I wanted to do. Every weird bit about my work—from being a lowly production assistant, to working at a frozen yogurt startup—entertained him.
When I paused, he sat back in his chair, and looked as though he were assessing me. Having taken in all that he'd just learned from my stories and grown-up appearance, he looked me straight in the eye, and with a grin, he stated firmly, ”You’re a hustler.”
I knew he meant it as a compliment. He meant I'm a survivor. Someone who is willing to work hard and do whatever is necessary to make things happen. While it often felt like we weren’t always speaking the same language, I understood that much.
I returned to Los Angeles, and we stayed in touch.
A year later, I moved back to New York City, and as he grew ill, and the effects of his disease showed on the body he didn’t care for well enough, I visited him in the hospital. I was by his side, holding his hand as he struggled to take his last breaths through ragged lungs. Primal wails found their way out of me as I watched his pulse grow faint on the monitor. Looking back on that time, those wails were the sound of the chip on my shoulder disintegrating.
He died a little more than three years after we were reunited.
He never became anything near a perfect father. He wasn’t even exactly a “dad.” But by reaching out and letting him in, I recovered some of my history, answers to questions, and a peace I had never imagined. I found me. Even in my worst moments since that time, I’ve never felt as lost as I had before.
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