“Your father’s crew just won the World Championships,” I remember my mother telling me as she got off the long distance call with him.
He was in Switzerland. It was 1974. I was eight.
He had been away all that summer, first with training camps and then with the World Championships. He was a rowing coach—the rowing coach of that era. I remember knowing from a very young age that he had coached his crew to win the gold medal in Tokyo in 1964, the year before he married my mother.
His rowers adored him. He was tough, but he was excellent. There were always oarsmen at our house—towering, lumbering, deep-voiced, powerful men. Not one of them stood less than 6’ tall, but they all looked up to my dad as if he were a demigod and not the man in the 5’1” body who yelled instructions at them from the coach’s launch through a blowhorn.
When interviewed about his success as a coach, he would often say that he treated his rowers like they were his children.
He was often away, coaching, for long stretches at a time. When he’d first get home, he was ebullient, interested, loving. But once he was home for a while, he became distant, unhappy, volatile.
He and my mother fought a lot, about his traveling, about his coaching, about his never wanting to be home, and he yelled at us a lot. Their fighting frightened me. His anger frightened me. His absences became relieving for me, because the fighting would stop, the yelling would stop, but the nightmares continued.
After having had six children together, my parents would divorce when I was 17. By then, I had developed anger of my own and internalized ways of coping with disappointments suffered at the hands of people whose attention I yearned for but couldn’t capture. Only in college, in an intro psych class, would I learn the term “intermittent reinforcement” and realize that mine was a text book case.
It suddenly all made sense to me, but it felt tragic, and I was unbearably sad. I came face-to-face with my feelings of abandonment but was ill-prepared to manage them.
My choices in men were consistently charged with the longing to not be abandoned.
Because that’s all I wanted a man’s love to feel like—that feeling you get when someone doesn’t leave you. And isn’t it true that we accept the love we think we deserve?
By the time I turned 35, I was certain I’d never get married and had all but given up on having children. Determined to live a full life without having achieved such milestones, I had convinced myself I didn’t need these trappings of the American dream to be happy.
At 36, I met a man in an online dating forum. We exchanged pleasantries, chatted, talked on the phone and then met in person within the span of 96 hours. Our first date lasted three days, by the end of which time he had proposed to me.
We eloped two months after we met.
It was a crazy whirlwind, a giant fuck-you to the institution of marriage and a major blow to my own self-esteem in the guise of a power move.
I married someone who fancied me but who didn’t value me.
I was 37, and we had been married less than six months when I learned I was pregnant. Our marriage turned sour at a rate directly proportional to the rate at which my belly grew full with my baby. And my husband grew resentful and abusive at a rate directly proportional to the rate at which I became nearly lupine in my fierce protectiveness of this precious, unborn creature.
He and I separated three months before my 38th birthday, and my daughter was born four days after it. A mutual friend told him I had gone into labor, and he called me in the hospital after she was born. He cried when he met her the following day, but still he could not summon devotion.
During that first year of her life, he came and went, ultimately gone for periods longer than the ones for which he remained. By the time she turned one, he was nothing more than a shadow in both our lives.
Two years later, he would return, apologetic, contrite. I was distrustful at first, allowing him proximity to her only in small segments, measuredly distant.
Eventually his persistence prevailed, and he stayed around.
But only until he left again—this time, after three years of absorbing the light of her love. She would come to know him as her father in that time, to feel the warmth of his smile on her skin, to know the sweetness of familiarity with someone she was hewn from. And then he’d take it all away again, without so much as a goodbye or an explanation. And she would be crushed under the weight of his absence, and nothing I could do or say could take this pain away for her.
Because even though I was so much more to her than one mother could possibly hope to be, I was never the father she was missing. And I never will be.
And then my work here became clear to me.
Through my own acts of forgiveness, I would model for her my self-salvation. Just as my father’s struggles were not my fault nor was his pain of my doing, her father’s struggles are not her fault nor is his pain of her doing.
She and I are bonded in the cycle of life in which we are destined to sail in the wake of our fathers’ courses unless we learn to skip over the current into clear water.
Sarah Rosenberg runs with scissors, eats with her fingers, and encourages her dogs to kiss her on the mouth. She lives and breathes as the grateful shepherd of her nine-year-old daughter, whose old soul belies her young bodily incarnation. Sarah’s writing creates fissures in her seemingly hard surface, allowing slivers of brilliant light to shine out from within. She is a sheep in wolf’s clothing.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise