(CNF, Written for class at Ball State University, 2014)
When I was a baby, I refused to let my father hold me. He worked so much that I didn’t recognize him when he came home. My mom used to tell me this whenever I’d curl up next to him and ask for a story. My dad was older than most. My brother and I were kids 4 and 5 for him, and my mom was wife number 3. I don’t remember much about the days when my dad lived with us because I was only five when he moved out, but I remember feeling like my family was different from the ones I’d seen.
Barely beginning kindergarten and I already had my first experience with the cruel judgement of my community. I’m from an urban freckle on an otherwise alabaster midwest state. Divorce should’ve been more common. They said it was normal, that parents sometimes split. Mentioning the lack of divorced couples in my elder-driven methodist church is no shock, I’m sure. My church community was my first glimpse into how different my family was. Sunday school teachers and friends of the family would always ask how my mother was doing in this difficult time. Even at a young age, I picked up on the social ques.
When I was born, I was introduced to my siblings one by one in the hospital room. First, a bright-eyed toddler, then a pair of blonde girls, and a boy a few days later. Pictures showed no internal distinction between the kids. All were well represented in frames at home. All four names painted onto a 1992 Christmas ornament. I don’t recall ever actively thinking three of my siblings didn’t look like me much, or that they lived in another state. My peers had brothers and sisters too. I brought home an assignment about my family and my mother said, “just write Mommy, Daddy, and Joel, sweetie.”
“But what about Jayme and Justin and Julie?” I asked.
“Your teacher just wants to know who lives with you. Jayme, Justin, and Julie don’t live here.”
That was the best explanation she could give to a five year old. I always struggled for attention as a kid because my brother was very charismatic and easily made the center of attention. The morning of our last christmas as foursome we all sat downstairs with orange juice in hand, eagerly awaiting presents.
“I’m gonna pass them out. Just sit there and I’m gonna give them to you, Jess.”
Joel handed me gift after gift, shaking them and offering his opinion on them.
“Well this one is a Barbie. Um, this one is probably clothes. And this is probably that casette player you asked for.”
He got every one right. I sat there and watched Joel get the N64 he wanted so badly. Dad decided to wrap the box at least 12 times to throw him off the scent. As Joel unwrapped the present, he and Dad laughed about it all. I sat there quietly playing with the hem of my nightgown, awaiting my turn.
“Dad! Thank you so much! I knew this is what it was! It had to be!” Joel yelled.
“Well when your sister is done opening her gifts we can go plug it in the next room,” my Dad told him. “I got us at least four games upstairs that I didn’t wrap for ya.”
That Christmas I sat alone playing with my Barbie Dream House, listening to the music from Joel and Dad’s video games.
The summer after kindergarten is when my parent’s officially split and a judge granted partial custody of my brother and I. Packing up my pink and black art deco duffle bag became a weekend ritual. My mom told him that we were his kids and that he had the right to see us whenever he wanted no matter what the judge said, but our twice a month visits held on. His exclusively late hours factory job kept him at bay from his kids. Exactly what he wanted, I imagine.
In the moments where I missed my Dad the most, I watched Robin William’s 1991 classic Hook. Sometimes I’d imagine that my dad was like Robin William’s character, a child trapped in an adults body. He didn’t know how to be a grown up man because he didn’t grow up. Peter Pan was a father. He tried the best he could for someone that never wanted to leave Neverland. I saw a lot of similarities between them, both surviving against their better instincts.
During visits to my dad’s house, that he shared with my soon to be stepmother, my dad really tried to make it an easy transition. Every other Sunday, I woke up to a full pancake breakfast made by Lynne. This usually was followed by Joel and Dad playing video games or watching football. We sat on the white lace-detailed couches with the sun pouring in the windows. Joel and I drank soda and Dad usually had a Miller Lite.
“Oh! Ouch! Way to go boys! YES! Get ‘em!” erupted from them every few minutes. I pretended to care until I got too bored and retreated to my room. I could still hear the yelling while I colored and listened to music. My room was covered with yellow floral decorations, big Greek letters spelling out “Alpha Phi”, and loads of half used make-up. Lynne had a daughter that was in college, Lori. She came home occasionally from Ball State and it was always an interesting dynamic when her weekends home coincided with Joel and I’s visits.
One weekend we had the house packed with both Lori visiting and my half-brother Justin. Lori and Justin were both 20, both kind of immature for their age, and both related to me. We sat there playing some Disney related video game (one I actually could play), and I felt invisible.
“So Don tells me that you dropped out?” Lori asked.
“Yeah, college is not my thing. I’m actually working at this movie theater at home. I think I’m going to an apartment soon, though,” Justin responded. “What about you? How’s school?”
“She wouldn’t know. She spends all her time here,” Joel chimed in. Lori leaned over to smack him on the arm and muttered something under her breath. Justin laughed while I sat there patiently waiting to hear the garage door. Moments later my dad came home, sat down with us, and picked up a controller. I was bored so I offered him mine. He gladly picked it up and started gabbing.
“So weird with all my kids being in the same room,” Dad laughed.
“Well Jayme and Julie aren’t here,” I corrected.
“Yeah, but I still have four of ya. I have my first boy,” he gestured to Justin, “my little smart ass, my big smart ass, and my baby girl. I’m all set.”
The conversation lulled as they focused on the game, but eventually it came around to my sister’s recent employment.
“So Justin, wanna go with my tomorrow to Hooter’s to check out your new sister’s friends? I’m sure Lori wouldn’t mind hookin’ ya up. If I were you, I’d do it.”
Joel began making fake barf noises while everyone else laughed. Comments about sex, boobs, and other vulgarities were pretty common with my dad. When I did homework at his house, my hand rested on a computer mouse pad with fake ‘hooters’ on it. As I got older, I just rolled my eyes and told everyone, “yeah, my dad’s gross”. He had always dreamed of being rich and living a life Hugh Hefner would envy. This dream was shattered when he had my older sister Julie in 1977. He didn’t want kids. He’d swear up and down about how he wanted to be a lifelong bachelor, but that was impossible as a father of five, so his plans adjusted. If he was destined to have a family, then he was going to live the American dream.
He wanted a football star, a beauty queen, or even a hard-working blue collar guy like himself. Poor guy must have been so disappointed when my brother first quit little league baseball, and then football, and then basketball. He was especially distraught when my brother traded in his cleats for a french horn. It was apparent from birth that Joel wasn’t ‘normal’. My parent’s accepted early on that they’d never be able to challenge Joel to a game of wits. He was extraordinarily smart, cunning, and an all around mensa. He was a kid that anyone would be proud of, and yet at his first marching band competition, my father was making jokes about how he’d always dreamed of having a son playing on the football field, not ‘walking around like a girl’.
My father had similar sentiments when I decided on a career in theatre. I remember one evening I told him of my intentions to be an actress at the Steak n’ Shake by my house. It was after working my first show backstage. At 15, I knew what I wanted to do, and I decided to ground myself on the hard the plastic bench and tell him.
“Dad, I think I’ve finally figured out what I wanna do in college.”
“Yeah?” He looked up from his burger. “What’s that?”
“I really love singing and acting. So I wanna look into theatre schools.”
“Jessica, if you go to college and intend to play dress up all day, I won’t be paying for it.
I was speechless. After years of him attending dance recitals and junior musicals, it hadn’t impressed him. Considering my ever present feelings of not being enough for him, I knew that he truly thought I couldn’t do it. After my first show choir competition later that year, he told me he’d never get used to sitting around and watching girls in tights on stage.
“I just don’t get it,” he said.
My brother chimed in, “Well the important thing is that your solo was great, Jess.”
Ending my freshman year of high school, I didn’t know how to even be around my dad. His jokes about my preferred future in theatre made any conversation with him impossible. I started seeing him less and less because of school and being without a license. Joel and I spent a year together at the high school and became inseparable, but now he was at college. I grew accustomed to confiding in Joel. After all the things we went through as kids together, I think we finally hit a sweet spot of being friends and siblings. The less my Dad parented me, the more Joel had to fill in the gaps.
The downward spiral was fast. It was only two months into my sophomore year of high school and my whole life was in pieces around me. I was seeing a therapist for the first time that fall after being diagnosed with my most incurable curse. The silver lining was that I finally knew that only some of the crazy in my head was my own creation, but mostly it was genetic.
I’m not sure I even told my dad about the therapy or the diagnosis. He was on a journey to rock bottom himself. My step mom had moved out leaving him in a state he’d never been in before: alone. Being a father to his 15 year old daughter quickly became a back burner job for him. He was barely keeping his head above water.
I went to visit him with my brother right after she left. The living room used to be draped with white lace curtains and matching sofas. Fake flowers in purple hues were on every surface. All of these extravagances were replaced with two bar stools in the middle of an empty room. My father reluctantly offered Joel a seat while I chose to stand.
“I told her she could take the furniture. I’m never home anyways.”
Joel changed the subject to sports and school. No one talked about the absence of fresh cookies that usually sat in the kitchen, or about the hollowed out version of their daughter and sister in their company.
After that night I didn’t hear from him for 6 months. Our hour long weekly calls disappeared with him. He didn’t post ridiculous jokes on my Facebook or come to single performance. My step mom took me to dinner for my sixteenth birthday, and he didn’t even call. Being 16 doesn’t make you an adult. I never once told him I was grown up, that I didn’t need my father. That was something he decided on his own. He really thought his kids didn’t need him, and as much as we wanted that to be true, it wasn’t.
I had been getting texts from my step-sister as the snow thawed out from the longest winter I’d known. She told me that our parents had been talking again, even sleeping over. We weren’t sure how to feel, but decided ultimately that it wasn’t our place. At this point I hadn’t called Don Weyrauch my dad in months. We had taken to naming him ‘the Don fellow’. I hadn’t received so much as a carrier pigeon all winter, until the day of my state tournament for high school speech and debate.
Lori warned me that he wanted to come watch the meet since it was my first time at state. I never thought he’d show up. My mind was focused on the competition. I was standing in the hallway of a local high school preparing when I heard the faintest sound of Joel’s voice. He had driven home from school to cheer me on. Instinctively I turned around and saw Joel holding my dad at bay with his palms. My step mom stood on the other side of him. It was like they were placed there from a time machine. Nothing had changed in their mind. Dad was in his usual jeans, loafers, and polo. My step mom wore a yellow sweater and blue jeans. They held hands just like they always had. I watched the scene play out for what seemed like an hour.
Joel tried to stop them from approaching, but I breathed deep and gave a nod of approval. Joel wanted to protect me. He knew that it had been a rough year for me and wanted to give me the chance to be better. I knew that even then. Joel has always wanted to give me the most normal life he could.
Dad was polite and asked if they could watch my performance. I was young and missed having my dad in my life. I let him in completely, without judgement, and against Joel’s advice.
It was hard to dislike my dad for too long. What had been clear to my mom for so long was finally becoming clear to me: my dad and I were very alike. We had similar taste in food, the same nose, and the same destructive tendencies. I saw a strange turn in him as I finished high school. He was happy, or least not depressed.
I competed in a singing competition junior year, and he actually came. He rushed out of work, across town, and made it in time. He showered me with compliments and pride. We talked about how I could go to my stepsister’s alma mater and major in theatre. Despite wanting that sports superstar, he seemed like he was finally proud of the actress and musician in front of him. My last musical at my high school was so important to me. I had finally reached the top of the food chain and was getting the chance to show myself. The only downside was that my brother was studying in Washington D.C. at the time. I cried on opening night because I knew that my best friend wasn’t going to be able to see my moment in the spotlight.
The next night we had a cast party at my friend’s house. Friends and families of the leads were invited. Joel called me to ask how the show went and I could hear the sadness in his voice. I entered the house and went straight to my mom.
“Joel called. He’s so upset he can’t be here and I feel awful,” I whined.
“I know, sweetie, but I think he’ll be okay.”
Just as my face twisted, confused, I saw a shoulder peer out from the kitchen, navy colored wool. I gasped as my brother appeared before me. I attacked him with a hug, mascara running all along my face, seeping onto his coat. I muttered a collection of questions, to which my brother respond, “call Dad”.
Moved by my performance on opening night, my dad called and booked my brother a plane ticket during intermission. It only took one act of a musical to inspire an act of paternal love from him. Things had never been this good with family. I wanted to bask in that moment forever.
Looking back I often see that time as the calm before the storm. College did not go the way I’d plan by a long shot. My dad plunged back into depression after Lori had to move in with them, causing a huge financial strain. Joel was halfway across the country working, rarely able to come home, and I spent my days hiding in my bed from the thoughts in my head. My paralyzing mood swings kept very up and very down. I knew I had anxiety. I knew that by the time I was a second semester sophomore that I was depressed. I started drinking heavily. I can’t even remember a day where I wasn’t high. It was a quick snap back to reality when I realized that I hadn’t been to classes in four weeks. Only after I tried to escape reality for good, did I come clean to my mom.
The third diagnosis of my mental state came a week later. Each one’s been worse than the last. First, it was totally normal, then it was something so common for people with troubled pasts, but now it was only 2.6% of U.S. population. I was angry. I wanted to know why, on top of everything else in my life, I had to live with bipolar disorder. When I tried to tell my dad the bare minimum of my situation, he suggested I was stressed at school. He said I went out too much and I was being dramatic. He had shaken me off for the last time. Jessica will be okay, he must’ve thought. She’s always been okay.
My new, expensive, and highly recommended psychotherapist told me on the first session that there were two types of negative people in the world: vampires and werewolves. Vampires would slowly suck you dry with their negative energy and you’ll wind up thanking them, and werewolves just bite your head straight off leaving you with nothing. She made it clear that my father’s depression was sucking me dry. I was defending him to everyone for so long that I never noticed the effect he had on me.
But now I wasn’t okay. I was kicked out of school, sick, and heartbroken from digging up 20 years worth of pain twice a week. I promised my doctor that I wouldn’t contact my father until I felt prepared. I spent my summer dodging texts from my dad, until Joel had to sit him down and explain what I was going through.
The moment I finally felt ready, armed with a regained sense of self-worth, wasn’t until I convinced the university to let me attend the fall semester. I built myself piece by piece until there was only one missing.
My sweet, unemployed brother spent his summer as my personal crisis manager and Dad liaison. He communicated that I was sick, needing space to heal. It wasn’t until the rest of my siblings stepped in that my dad realized the severity of the situation. He’d missed so much by now, my fears told me it was easier to just let sleeping dogs lie. Joel patiently waited for me to be ready for a last push.
“He’s meeting us there at 5. Jess? Jess?” He paused. “Are you sure you’re ready?”
“Yeah, I can do it.”
I didn’t know what to say to him, what to look like, how to act. At what point in the meal was it going to come out? Joel told me beforehand that I didn’t need to tell him about the pills I washed down with a bottle of tequila. I was protecting him from me. Again.
It was a cold fall day. I wore the new cable knit sweater from my closet. The sleeves were long enough to hide my shaking, nervous fingers. Joel kept his hand on the small of my back as we approached the man in the yellow jacket. He looked older and greyer than the last time I’d seen him. His cigarette fell to the concrete when we caught his eye.
I mumbled a greeting as I felt the strong arms of my father wrap around me. Hot tears came soon after. He said the only thing I needed to hear from him:
“Well it’s great to see you, sweetie.”
Joel mediated an adult conversation over dinner. I spoke and then my father did. It was a dialogue I couldn’t have imagined given our history. His voice was calm and without mocking. Joel’s training was apparent but he spoke from the heart when he told how much he worried about me. He told me he was truly sorry for the things he’d done, whether intentional or not.
That dinner was the day my dad grew up. My brother pulled him kicking and screaming out of Neverland, threw him into reality, and made him give up his life as a Lost Boy. I am slowly making the efforts to include my father in my life again. He’s receiving weekly calls, he’s met my boyfriend, and my roommates. The recovery process is a slow one, with or without a mental instability, but what comes after the wound heals is anybody’s guess.