[Trigger Warning: mention of drug misuse, domestic violence, emotional abuse]
I was 5 when my heart broke for the first time.
I was sitting on the front steps of my grandparents’ house on the Northwest side of Chicago following my parents’ fourth, maybe fifth break-up. My dad had moved out and I hadn’t seen him in a few weeks but he had called me from my grandpa’s phone earlier in the week, saying he was going to take my cousin Bianca and I mini golfing at the Putting Edge on Saturday at 2. The day came and I woke up with the happiest smile on my face. I put on my favorite striped t-shirt, had my grandma do my hair in a ponytail with my fringe hanging down in the front. I waited around all morning, excited to spend the afternoon at my favorite place with my favorite people.
Around 1:30, Bianca arrived. We sat outside with my grandpa and waited for my dad to pick us up. An hour passed and he hadn’t shown up. I asked my grandpa to call him and he didn’t answer. “Call again,” I said. Still no answer. He tried him a few more times. No answer. I called him from the landline inside. No answer. Bianca called, too and there was still no answer, but she left a voicemail. I can still hear her saying “John, this isn’t fair to Marissa. You promised and a dad shouldn’t make promises he can’t keep.” I started crying instantly. I was embarrassed, angry, hurt. I was 5 years old and got stood up by the man I loved the most.
A week had passed and I hadn’t heard anything from him until one day he showed up at my grandparents’ house after school and apologized to me. He cried and said he never meant to hurt me. He told me the reason he didn’t show up that day was that he had spent the week in jail. My mom stood behind him, her eyes filled to the brim with tears. He hugged me and asked me to forgive him. I said I did because I was 5 and it’s easy to forgive when you’re 5 and think your parents can’t hurt you.
A part of me is still that 5-year-old girl. I still have a favorite striped shirt. I still wear a ponytail with my fringe hanging down in the front. I still forgive very easily, but I know now that parents can hurt you. Sometimes they’re the ones that cause the most pain.
I overheard my mom and him arguing in the basement afterwards. The door was cracked and I could see through it enough to know it was something I wasn’t supposed to be seeing. I remember her saying she couldn’t bail him out of jail anymore and that he needed to stop getting into trouble. I remember him asking her for money and her saying she wouldn’t support his drug habits. I remember her saying she didn’t want him around my brother and I so long as he was doing them. I remember he became physically aggressive; he shoved her and tried to hit her then took a gun from his jacket pocket and held it to her head. I remember running upstairs and crying in the bathroom. My heart shattered that day. I didn’t know how to explain it to anyone so I repressed the painful memories of that week and didn’t revisit them until I was in therapy when I was 15 years old.
My dad came in and out of my life every year after that. He promised me he’d change but never did. He stopped doing drugs, but he was never a consistent presence in my life ever again. And even when he was around, he was an emotional bully because he was sober and miserable and wanted to make everyone around him miserable too. He always made me feel bad about my weight, my height, my face, my personality, my nationality. I wasn’t pretty enough or girly enough. I wasn’t sporty enough. I wasn’t smart enough. I wasn’t white enough. I. wasn’t. enough. But then he’d take it back a few minutes later and there I was, doe-eyed and forgiving in my striped shirt and ponytail.
He stopped apologizing when I turned 14. He told me I was old enough for his absence and words to no longer affect me but I’m 20 years old and still feel his words cut through me like a knife. I still feel the pain of him not being here. I wonder if those feelings, that pain of being wounded by a parent ever go away. If the hurt is something you eventually forget about or something you heal from. Or if it’s something that’s going to tint the brightness of my reality and future forever, like a shattered mirror whose pieces you can put back together but whose cracks you will always see.
He and I speak on a peripheral level now, via email or text. I saw him once for 15 minutes at a Starbucks this summer and then ran into a bathroom and cried afterwards because the man I had just had coffee with, the man who made me, was a complete stranger. My once favorite person in the world is the most inconsistent and toxic person I know. He’s the type of man I hope I never marry.
I was 5 years old when my father broke my heart. His inconsistency and deceits cut me open and shattered my world. He left me with disappointment, a fear of abandonment and an emptiness I sometimes cannot explain. Still, deep down I know that all of this pain has made me who I am and has shaped me into a better person.
I sometimes worry that I have too much of him in me and hate when my family members say I’m like him or look like him. I don’t want to think I can be like someone who has inflicted so much emotional trauma onto me, but the reality is I share so much of my personality with him. A lot of who I am is because of him. I cannot escape him no matter how hard I try, and that’s hard to accept while I’m trying to heal and be at peace with myself. More importantly, I’m trying to forgive him even though he is no longer seeking forgiveness.