Family photos appeared normal to me. My mom and I celebrating Christmas. My mom and I in Myrtle Beach. My mom and I at my high school graduation. That was my nuclear family: me and Mom. No brothers. No sisters. And most importantly, no father.
Rumor has it I do have a father. Somewhere. It's not like Mom opted for the fertility clinic route.
I just never knew my not-so-dear old dad. Mom told me he left when I was 2, that he cheated on her. Mom wanted him out of her life — and mine. There were no weekend visits to Dad. No child support payments. That's how Mom wanted it. And when I was much younger, I wasn't any worse for it.
But school changed things. I realized that I had a rather unique upbringing for a child of the '70s. And I began to wonder why I didn't have a father like my schoolmates, and why my father didn't want anything to do with me.
Knowing my father left was just not something I was willing to accept. I crafted a whole fantasy life for him. He had been a soldier in Vietnam, dying in battle. It was a much nobler way for a father to leave his sole child, as opposed to simply abandoning him. This story was nothing I shared with others. It was merely a way to comfort myself and deny the truth of the situation. But I never knew the truth about my father.
Growing up without a father had long been a source of contention in my world. I didn't always realize that — since my loss often acted on me subconsciously — but it did affect me in ways I did not even realize until more recently.
I didn't have a constant male influence in my life. My uncle and my grandfather helped my mom out when they could by playing catch, talking sports and other such stereotypical father-son activities. But it just wasn't the same.
I had to teach myself many of the rites of manhood, such as shaving. As much as Uncle and Papa tried, I could never bring myself to ask them for help in such matters, nor could I expect Mom to teach me such things. I learned from movies and television shows, a constant and welcome babysitter in a one-parent household.
But there were still "manly" things to learn that I could only really pick up from having a father. Despite the best efforts of my family, I never took to sports. I would watch with envy as other guys my age sunk baskets or hit home runs. The same held true on subjects of cars and tools. My lack of knowledge and skill in such areas frustrated me so much that I bought into all the stereotypes making a man a man. My self-esteem took a serious beating as a result.
I couldn't take solace in what I did have, nor in the contributions that came from my mom and my grandmother, a major influence on who I am today. Gram taught me how to be a gentleman, reminding me (constantly) to say "please" and "thank you" and to hold doors open. She showed me all about love, compassion, generosity and support — all the things I deemed my "effeminate" traits as I was growing up.
That's not to downplay the role my mom played in my life. She taught me the value of hard work, and she was an example of success by pulling herself out of debt and raising a child essentially on her own. She taught me basic fundamentals, working to make me self-sufficient. But I was well into my teens before I even realized any of her efforts.
For my 16th birthday, I acknowledged my family by asking for one thing, and one thing only: I wanted to change my last name to Brady, the same as my mom. I no longer wanted to bear the surname of my father, a man who took no interest in me. It remains the best gift I ever received.
But despite such a major life change, my father's absence in my life still weighed heavily. It was more than just jealousy over not fitting the stereotype of what a man is. I would cling to select male friends as I sought masculine influence. I would have difficulty watching as friends moved on or left town. I buried my best friend, wondering why she too abandoned me. Even though I made friends easily, I felt like I didn't belong.
My issues came to a head last year. More and more despondent, suffering unrequited love and contemplating suicide, I was diagnosed with extreme anxiety and depression. Things grew far worse before they got better. Therapy helped me sort through the haze. Though I had never met my father, he remained a primary influence in my life with his absence a source of much of my pain, hurt and rationale.
It was during this time that I finally learned the truth about my father, thanks to a necessary heart-to-heart with Mom. My dad was nothing more than a scared kid. He and my mom never married. He even suggested an abortion. He wasn't ready for fatherhood. It was perhaps the best decision he could have made.
I wish Mom had told me the truth years ago. I wish I had known that my father was, at heart, a good man. I wish I had known that I was born out of love. I wish I had known that I wasn't alone in my suffering. But I don't know if it would have ultimately changed things for me. I don't know if I would have wanted it to.
After I found out the truth, Gram asked me if I wanted to look for my father. I told her I didn't know. Now, after battling back from my depression, I don't see what the point would be. My father gave me all the tools to become a man. It was just a long journey to get here. ©