Last week at church, I sat for a while in the chapel, after everyone had cleared out. A few people came to make small talk with me, but mostly I just sat and thought.
My heart was troubled, and I was mostly trying to gather up the tattered scraps of my usual tent of self-preservation. (You know how to get through the day, to be able to look like you’re normal and everything’s fine and all of your troubles aren’t just whipping around in your psyche, you pull yourself together and put on your “everything’s fine here” face? Or is that just me? The image I’ve made of that process is putting up a springbar tent, right around my softest bits, to keep them from the storm.) I kept thinking no one better say anything nice to me or I’ll just melt down into a crumpled bawling mess.
I just feel so…uncertain, I suppose.
I thought when I got to this time in my life, with teenagers and adult kids, I’d feel more grown up. Like I had the answers and knew how to do things correctly. I thought I would be successful at things I feel like I am failing at. I never imagined just how heartsore I would feel.
So I sat in the quiet chapel and tried to tape up my tent and get functioning again. A little while later, people from the other ward started coming into the chapel. One of them is my across-the-fence neighbor, Hugh. (You’d think that I would be in the same ward as my across-the-fence neighbor, but this is Utah, so: no.) Hugh has a beautiful garden and hands me zucchini and summer squash and acorn squash and tomatoes over the fence all summer. He has an enormous family with who-knows-how-many grandkids, and sometimes on Sundays I hear them outside, all playing together. He is a kind man and always takes the time to have a conversation with us.
Plus, he once killed the mouse we found in our blow-up swimming pool. (We caught it in a bucket and handed it over the fence to him. A few minutes later, he gave us back the empty bucket.)
Hugh didn’t come and talk to me, thank goodness. No one wants to witness an Amy meltdown. But he did wave at me, and smile, and as he did I had, at last, a name for one of my aches:
I want a dad.
I want a wise and comfortable old man in my life. Someone who knows me and knows what I need. Someone who I could take my troubles to and who would have advice for me. Advice that would do more than comfort my aches, but actually help me.
What’s strange to me about this realization is that the wanting is for a father. For a man. Because I believe in women sharing their wisdom with each other, and being a resource, and a source of generational knowledge. I feel and love my women ancestors so much it is like they are all knots on a rope that I am climbing, and their knots keep me from sliding. My women friends bring me joy and comfort and advice I couldn’t find elsewhere. A life without my sisters and my daughter and my mother is unimaginable. I have lived with knowing that I don’t need a man to complete me or to save me for so much of my life that I am startled by this need.
But it’s still there. I want a father.
And it’s not, exactly, that I am missing my dad, even though I do miss my dad. I love my dad and he was a great influence in my life. He did the best he could with who he was and what life brought to him. But he wasn’t that kind of dad. The one who watched out for his daughter’s emotional needs, or who offered advice. He didn’t have a lot of answers for his own life, so how could I ask him for answers to mine? And who knows—maybe that’s exactly the kind of dad he would have become for me, if he had had the chance. If Alzheimer’s didn’t exist.
But I don’t think so. I think in a way, I always felt like my dad was a person I needed to protect from the world. From my mom’s quick anger. From his sense of failure. From debt and unemployment and a bad back. My dad had a kind heart, and the world is not kind to those, and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel like I needed to shield him. (Even though, of course, I never really did that.)
As I have moved around the edges of this discovery, I am learning about myself. I don’t think I ever really realized, for example, that I did feel protective of my dad. That I wanted to keep him safe from the world, and that I couldn’t is a sort of failure that is different from the other ones I’m quicker to see. But what a piece of knowledge to finally understand: I wasn’t ever fathered. Not really. The part of me that wants to go back to a time when I felt safe and protected—I keep going back and back in my memories, but I can’t get there. Maybe I never felt that.
I’m not sure how I lived this long, lived for decades into my adult years without realizing: I want a father. I want a dad so badly. And I must have been feeling this all along, but I couldn’t name it until now. It is something—to name that ache. To know it and start to learn what it means.
Life, I’m pretty certain, is not going to give me a father. And I will be OK, because I have been OK. You can live your entire life without having a father like the one I want and be OK. Just like my friend Chris is OK, even though she grew up without her mom. Just like Haley will live her entire life without a sister, and she will also be OK. The not-having will shape her, but it won’t be a bad shape. Just like my shape is OK. Not many people get the archetype.
But knowing this—knowing I want a father. Understanding this about myself helps me understand some of my choices better. Some of my failures and successes. It helps me see my children in a different light. It helps me feel like I need to be braver, to try harder to be a good mother, because I don’t want any of them to feel this. To want a mother.
Because it’s pretty raw. And unsolvable.
So I just sat there, in the chapel. I waved back at Hugh and I felt like I was sitting in a puddle of light. Just for a second—just knowing. I want a dad. Being able to say it makes the lump in my throat a little easier to swallow around. It would be nice to have a dad. To have someone tell me how to fix what I am doing wrong. But I also know the other side. I want a dad, but I don't need one. I can't need one because I don't have one, which means all I can do is continue bumbling through, continue trying to bumble less, continue trying to love and protect my own children. I want a dad because I want to feel like someone beside me is responsible, is going to fix things or at least tell me how to, and of course: there's no one else.
Fatherless, all I can do is continue trying.