Khadijah Costley White never really knew her father. But it wasn’t until after his passing that she realized how much she wished she had.
The 17th anniversary of my father’s passing last week has me thinking about my views and experiences related to fatherhood, though it’s a journey hard to chart.
I’ve often thought about fathers as similar to a third arm: something that might be nice and helpful if you had one, but might also get in your way. I mostly saw dads as distant relatives that dropped by every once in a while, that guy you spotted walking past the library while you were picking out a book, or that man a family member would occasionally say you resemble while you played with your dolls.
Although I was curious about my own father, for the most part, he rarely piqued my interest. I grew up surrounded by family from my mother’s side, tons of cousins far and wide, innumerable uncles, aunties, and godparents. At school on grandparents’ day, I actually loaned a few of mine out to my classmates. My grandmother’s grandmother—that’s right, my great-great grandmother—didn’t die until I was a sophomore in college, so that gives you some idea.
I also had other men in my life whom I dearly loved, even one I called Daddy. He was the husband of my mother’s best friend and the father of my best friend in the whole world. My godsister was 11 months older than me and since she called him Daddy, it seemed only natural that I did too. It was his name to me, although it made for some confusing looks at church. And my little sister followed me, squealing for Daddy as we ran into his arms or pleaded for treats. He introduced us all proudly as his daughters, taking us on trips around town and even a long visit to the family farm down south. Like all the other extended kin I had grown up with, his blood relation to us (or lack thereof) was immaterial.
My biological father lay in the background for most of my childhood. I don’t have many memories of him aside from some old letters he wrote to my mom while he was in prison—notes asking her to hug his baby girl for him. My mom told me that my paternal grandmother never believed that I was his child, so I imagine that’s why I was cut off from that side of my family even though they lived only a couple miles away.
When I was about 7, my father decided to include me on a family trip to the Poconos. I was excited about the adventure and about meeting new family members. I remember staring out of the window, waiting for his car to pull up. And I remember thinking he was the tallest man I had ever seen when he ducked down to get through the frame of my grandmother’s living room door. Before we started the long drive, he stopped at a friend’s apartment and introduced me. I was so pleased and proud at the words, “my daughter.” While happy about the trip, I wasn’t used to spending so much time away from my mom. So after a few days, I decided I wanted to go home.
That was the last time I ever saw him.
It wasn’t until I was 9 that I realized that fathers could be dangerous. My mom married a mean, abusive man who forced me and my sister to call him Daddy. There were times—when he threw me against a wall or squeezed my neck as my feet dangled off the ground—that I thought he would kill me. Years later, when my mom finally divorced him, I was relieved to be free of a male presence in my home. Fathers were volatile, unpredictable, I thought. I wanted less of them, not more.
When I was 16, I decided it was time to get in touch with my biological father again. When my grandmother picked up the phone, my heart skipped a beat. I told her who I was and that I was trying to get in touch with Jerry. “Oh, big Jerry?” she said, “He’s gone.” It took me a few seconds to realize what she meant. I was stunned. No one told me, no one even bothered to call. I didn’t know he had been sick. I didn’t even know where he was buried. He’d been gone three years before I learned of his death.
It hit me that I would never be able to talk to him or know what he was like. I’d never find out whether he gets cold easily like I do, or whether he’d be proud of all the years I earned good grades. Sometime after I got off the phone, my mom’s mom told me that my dad had left a note on the front door of her house a few years back. It said he was looking for his daughter. It wasn’t until then that I wept.
I guess he’d never find me.
But, I shook it off. I had done just fine without him. Years later, my mom met someone else and they decided to get married. When I gave them my blessing, I told him that I thought it would be good for my younger siblings to have a man in their lives that would love and support them. “What about you?” he asked. I laughed a bit, reminding him that I was too old for a father. But he loved me anyway, giving me my first nickname (Butterfly), lovingly doting over me by checking the oil in my car, shining my old boots when I was wearing them down, or taking me out to breakfast just to catch up. I realized soon enough that he was fathering me. I thought it was sweet, but unnecessary.
And then one day recently, something changed: I saw a colleague of mine with his daughter. The way she lit up when she saw him, and when he saw her—in their brief exchange, I saw uninhibited joy. That kind of limitless, soul-wrenching father-daughter love took my breath away. Never had I experienced from a man a love so unconditional. I had never known a man who loved me simply for being. I had always thought a dad was a pop culture reference to some guy who came and left, a natural phenomenon that blew in like the wind or the rain. But I realized that for some folks, fathers stay. And love. And give. With that realization, I felt a loss I never knew I had.
I guess I wanted that third arm after all.
My boyfriend now sometimes stares at me, wondering aloud which of my features might come from my dad’s side of the family. His speculations about my father continue to startle me. I never think of myself as half-finished, but I am starting to appreciate more and more that there’s an entire part of myself that I don’t know very well. A part I may never get to know.
I try to keep in touch with my brother, my father’s son, but we grew up in different worlds, and it’s hard to bridge gulfs of other folks’ making. The anniversary of my dad’s death meant something for my brother—it marked a memory, a person, a sadness that means very little for me.
But at least now I can admit that there is a loss. And maybe that’s getting me somewhere important. If grief is all I have of my dad, then I guess it’s what I’ll have. I’m finally able to say I lost someone I would’ve loved. And even though I’m still trying to figure out what that means, I know it means something.
Photo courtesy of the author
Khadijah Costley White is a faculty member in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Find her on Twitter here.