I let the phone ring three times before I answer. I’m hoping it’s the boy I have a crush on, and I can’t seem too eager, says Seventeen. I close my algebra textbook.
“Hello?” I lilt the O.
“Can I talk to Katharine?” a man drawls. I’m disappointed it’s not for me.
“Sure, hold on one minute please.” My phone etiquette education did not include requesting the caller’s identification. I put down the receiver and walk to the landing to shout downstairs. I lift the phone back to my ear to confirm she’s on the line. I should hang up, give her privacy, but I am intrigued. What strange man is calling for my married mother?
My sneaky heartbeat pulsing in my ears drowns out most of their initial conversation, but I figure out quickly that it is him. Something about child support, new job, late check. I try to quiet my breathing.
“Hey, you know, her birthday is coming up soon. You could send something,” my mom suggests.
“Oh, yeah? When is it?” he replies.
I hang up as the tears come. My father doesn’t remember when I was born.
It is a Saturday morning, and I am cashing out a regular for her bagel and coffee to go, chatting about the April rain. A woman carrying a white wicker basket of small pink flowers walks up to register and waits until we’re finished.
“Is there a Hilary here? These are for her and she needs to sign.”
I beam; I have never gotten flowers delivered before. I come around to the front of the counter to sign the clipboard, hold out my hands for the transfer of the basket. My coworker Brittany nods, a silent I’ll cover you, as I hurry back to the kitchen, out of site of customers, in order to investigate this floral mystery. I pull the small card from its plastic trident.
Happy 16th Birthday!
Your old man, Neil
He has sent me flowers. Before I can even wonder how he knew I worked at this café, I think pink. My least favorite color. Of course.
Work is slow because of the midday thunderstorm. I have already swept the floor and wiped down all surfaces, rearranged jars of jam, and rotated the stock in the cooler. I am allowed to eat all the fruit I want during my shifts at the farm stand, so I routinely make myself nearly ill on cherries. My hand mindlessly travels from quart to mouth while I flip through the local paper. My half-trance is interrupted by the ring of the office phone, and I hastily spit the last stone into the nearby wastebasket.
“Hello, Love Apple Farm.” I hope it’s my boss telling me to go home early.
“Is Hilary there?” It is not her.
“This is she,” I reply, internally questioning my grammar. There is a too-long pause. “Can I help you?”
“This…this is Neil,” he stammers, and begins to cry. “Your mom sent me your graduation announcement from the paper, and I just want to say I’m proud of you. And I’m sorry.” The crying continues.
I ask how he knew to call me here, because this is all I can muster.
“I called your house and some kid told me,” he says, now mostly under control.
“Oh. That’s my step-sister.” I can’t be mad at a ten year old for not having better sense.
He keeps talking. He is crying again. I have never before spoken to my father and he is calling me at work. I am ill-equipped to handle this. I think he asks me questions about future plans, but I can’t be certain. I assume I answer them. I hear the sound of tires on the gravel driveway and interrupt him to say I have a customer. I hang up and the portable drops from my shaking hand. Thankfully, the car drives away instead. I cannot eat more cherries that shift.
Bored, I decide to visit the beloved campus psychic. After greeting me with a hug, declaring me at once both well hydrated and dangerously fertile, she tells me I will never have a healthy relationship with a man until I resolve issues with my dad. Despite being annoyed at the trite nature of this claim, I resolve to reach out—it can’t hurt, I think—and later that day send a belated Christmas card, expecting nothing.
Today has been the kind of day where I’ve invented ways to look busy at my desk job. When the phone rings for the first time around noon, I am sadly excited to answer it.
“Hello, Alumni Relations; this is Hilary.”
“Hi, this is the front desk of the Student Union. You have a flower delivery.”
“I’ll be right over!” I hang up and grab my coat from the back of my chair. “Hey, Bev,” I say to the office manager, “I’ll be right back—I got flowers!”
“Probably from your boyfriend for Valentine’s Day!” That hadn’t occurred to me; she’s probably right. Giddy, I arrive rosy-cheeked from the February air to the Union, and identify myself to the student worker who dips away and returns with a basket of daisies. An odd seasonal choice, I think, before chastising myself for being an ungrateful snob. There is no card.
I protect the flowers from the sleet as best I can on the walk back through the main campus corridor. After showing them off to Bev, I start to write a thank you email to Nick, but the phone rings again.
“Hello, Alumni Relations; this is Hilary.”
“Did you get my flowers? The florist says they were delivered. Happy Valentine’s Day, kiddo. Thank you for your Christmas card.”
I am flustered. “How did you know how to send them? Or call me?” I start to sweat despite the chilly office.
“I did a search on the internet, found your college, got this number.” Oh, I think, of course. The internet.
“Well, um, thanks. I like daisies.” I don’t mention that he can’t possibly know this. He starts to cry.
“I would like to be in touch more. Can we email?” Yes tumbles out of my mouth; he spells his unique AOL handle out for me. “I found yours online. I check at work every day,” he adds.
“I’m in college, so I check all the time,” I try to joke, though I doubt I sound funny. We hang up after that, his conscience once again temporarily soothed. I rush to the ladies room, lock myself in the farthest stall, and try not to vomit. An email is waiting for me when I get back to my desk.
We begin to correspond frequently, slowly sort of getting to know each other. It is awkward, because we are strangers, despite moments of bloodline similarity. I avoid asking him the important questions—why did you leave? How could you forget my birthday?—and he apologizes nearly every time, a blanket “I’m sorry” to cover his paternal omissions over the last 20-plus years. Several weeks into this seemingly regular exchange, when waves of nausea no longer accompany opening my inbox, I read one that says only I want to meet. I respond to tell him that for my upcoming spring break, I’m headed to California to get out of the Northeast weather and visit the friends I met junior year during my semester abroad. California is so much closer to New Mexico than Pennsylvania! he writes back almost immediately, having understood my implication. When will you be there? I reply with my basic itinerary, noting that the time I’ll be in Los Angeles is probably more convenient than when I’ll be in San Francisco, geographically speaking.
I never hear from him again.
My fiancé and I are sitting on opposite couches reading. My cell phone rings, and he instinctively glances over. “It’s my mom,” I say as I flip it open to answer.
“Hi!” I am always happy to talk to her.
“Hi.” Her tone seems off. “Are you sitting down?” I tell her I am, though I slide off the couch onto the floor. She pauses, and I think I hear her crying. “Your dad died.”
Uncontrollable, visceral grief takes over. I curl into the fetal position and quake with guttural sobs. Pete hurls himself off the couch and wraps my shaking body with his. I have managed to hold onto the phone and hear my mother repeating I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.
As quickly as it came on, the storm is over. I wriggle out from Pete’s clutches and nod to indicate that he can safely retreat to the couch. He looks wary, but does so.
“What happened?” I ask, drying my face with a shirtsleeve. She explains that Neil had been in a motorcycle accident and is quick to add that he was wearing a helmet. He was in a coma and they—his wife and other children, half-sisters I’ve never met—took him off life support. She is silent. I wait.
“In April?” Pete raises an eyebrow at me and I wave him back to the book he’s now pretending to read.
“Yes. With everything going on, Terry didn’t call me until now.” I sense protective anger in her voice. How could you do this to my kid? “I’m so sorry you never got to meet him.” Her tears are back.
“Me too,” I reply. We hang up after I’ve assured her I’m ok. I relay the information to Pete and open my laptop.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
“Looking up his obituary.” I find it easily on the site of a Santa Fe newspaper and begin to read.
I am not listed as one of his surviving children.
My cell phone buzzes with the arrival of a text. “We’re walking in now!” it reads. I check my hair one last time in the chintzy Las Vegas hotel room mirror and hurry down to the foyer with nervous anticipation. After a few moments, I see three people whom I recognize only from Facebook pictures round the corner. I don’t know whether to stand still or rush them, so I split the difference and start walking. Jeff, the husband, is the first to introduce himself and sticks out his large hand to shake. After sing-song introducing their strawberry blonde daughter he’s holding in his beefy arm, he steps aside. My half-sister and I wait a beat, then furiously embrace.
“It’s so nice to finally meet you!” she nearly shrieks. I echo her sentiments, and we stand there, hugging and crying, ignoring the looks we get from tourists on their way to the casino.
We head across the street to have lunch, and after we order, Jeff is smart enough to occupy Olivia so Shawna and I can talk. We start with basics, like how grad school is going—I’m in Vegas for an academic conference—and how her job has been and segue into chitchat about the reelection of President Obama, especially since we’re both liberals living in swing states. “He would have voted for him,” she says, “in case you were wondering.”
“I was wondering,” I reply, “though I’m pretty sure I knew he was a Democrat. My mom is too big of a hippie to have married a Republican, especially after Nixon.” It occurs to me, not for the first time, how little I know about him. Shawna and I fidget in our chairs. “What was he like?” I finally ask.
“He was hilarious,” she replied, smiling. She tells me about some of his antics, like goofy costumes for childhood Halloweens with her and her older sister Erin, how he loved the family dog, and other tidbits you learn about your dad when you grow up in his house. “But he also drank a lot. Until he got sober. It was the PTSD.” My mom had told me that he’d wake up with violent nightmares and sometimes had too much beer as a way to handle his combat medic demons. Shawna stops to eat a fry and gets a wistful look. “I miss him.”
“I know you do. I’m so sorry.” I have to force myself not to just stare at my salad.
“I’m sorry, too,” she says to me. “It must be hard for you.”
“It is, but it’s harder for you. You actually knew him,” I deflect.
“He talked about you a lot. I’ve known about you since I was a kid.”
“He did?” My fork clatters to the table. I leave it there, feeling sheepish at the cliché dramatics. She begins to tell me his version of my parents’ divorce. “That’s not the story I got from my mom,” I cut in. Inside I’m trying to calm my anger. Of course he invented a story that makes them look equally at fault. I correct a few factual errors, as I know them.
“Oh.” She pauses. “Well, I bet he just felt guilty and didn’t want to tell us the truth. I wanted to meet you ever since I was little,” she adds. “He just always said that it wouldn’t be a good idea. So. Your mom is probably right.”
Now I feel guilty that I’ve potentially reconstructed the impression a daughter has of her late dad, whom she adored. I don’t tell her about the phone calls, flowers, emails, or how I felt reading the obituary. These are my memories of him, not hers. She doesn’t need to know.
After another hour or so of talking and watching Olivia play around in the mall fountain, it’s time for them to drive home. We take a couple of pictures together, and I hug all three, saving Shawna for last. I watch them walk toward the parking garage in the bright Nevada sun.
No one ever asks how hard it was for me.
As a small child, Father’s Day was celebrated for and with my grandfather, until he died when I was sixteen. Beginning in ninth grade, I also had to appear invested in honoring my then stepfather, but I’m quite sure we all knew I was faking it, and thankfully that ended before I was twenty. Now when Father’s Day rolls around, not only do I reach out to my male friends with kids, I make sure to check in with my friends who have lost their dads, too. But the latter sentiment is never reciprocated.
Maybe it’s my own fault: I’m quick to deflect the occasional comment that even hints at the potential emotional challenges I may have faced growing up without knowing my dad. I point out how worse it is for kids whose parents get divorced in middle school and have to split time between two houses, or for my friends who are now adult orphans, or for kids in the overcrowded foster care system or who are victims of abuse or neglect. When I get asked the inevitable “so what do your parents do?” question on first dates, I tell them that my mother is a nurse at a drug rehab facility. If pressed with a follow up question about the other parent, I matter-of-factly say “my dad left when I was a baby and died in 2008.” That’s usually followed by a sincere apology for my loss and a quick change of subject when I reply “that’s ok, I didn’t know him.” I even dropped my given last name in an act of feminist defiance when I was 23—a man who didn’t raise me shouldn’t get the privilege of me walking around with his lineage attached to my signature.
I don’t tell people that the storyline on Gilmore Girls when grouchy diner-owner Luke Danes discovers he has a daughter he’s never met and immediately sets upon building a relationship with her had me weeping jealous, broken tears. I look back on my boy-crazy high school and college days with a sense of pathetic embarrassment, knowing now—thanks to both therapy and maturity—that I was merely desperate to feel wanted by a man. Once, when I was 11, angry that I had to keep practicing the piano, I had a fleeting thought that perhaps my mom had abducted me, since it seemed unreasonable that a father just wants nothing to do with one of his children.
I am able to piece together bits and pieces of our shared humanity. I find it oddly comforting when my mom tells me, after finding a few letters and photos during a spring cleaning binge, that Neil’s favorite song to play on the guitar was “Sound of Silence.” It’s the first song I memorized the harmony to at summer camp. After a friend confesses she recently learned her Dad is not her biological father, I impress upon her the regret I have for never having met mine, despite our circumstances being quite different. When I backpacked through Southeast Asia, I had a heavy heart from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi, knowing what horrors he surely saw as a medic in the Vietnam War.
Grieving a ghost was hard. Forgiving one was even harder.
Hilary Brewster is an Assistant Professor of English at Marshall University. Her essay “Traveling in the Time of Trump” was published by Cargo, and her scholarly publications include book chapters on Harry Potter and The Hunger Games and an article in Bookbird. She hosts the podcast Damn Near.