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The Things We Carry
Hospitals had never been bad places for me. The only negative incident that had taken place at one was stitches when I was much younger, and the only part of me that remembered that trip was the small, puckered scar on the knuckle of my pinky. No, for me, hospitals were wonderful. They had gift shops and good food and visits from family members and we left with a little sister that I absolutely adored. Hospitals were a place of warmth, of love. Of family.
But that was before my grandmother’s surgery went wrong. It should have been routine; it wasn’t. Something didn’t go according to plan and I, for the first time in my short ten years of life, had to face something I’d never even imagined; total, devastating loss- the feeling of seeing someone whose existence you’d taken for granted, someone you loved and laughed with, just….stop.
This isn’t about the cherished, fading existence that brought me to the hospital, though. This is about the lack of an existence I had taken for granted suddenly showing up.
He was never around. I had no memories of him, and few pictures. Most of those I did have had been edited by me to keep him out of the picture in every possible sense of the word. He showed up for a couple of early birthdays, and then stopped making even that small effort. I hadn’t seen him since, and the only lasting thing he ever gave me was his surname until I changed that, too.
Some of my family on his side, however, made an effort to take me out every now and then and keep in touch. My grandmother was always the main presence in my life from that side of my heritage. She always made time to see me, to take me to movies, to take me to lunch, to get me presents for missed birthdays and holidays. I remember our days out at Olive Garden as if they were yesterday. It was always so warm- not so much in temperature as in atmosphere. Soft, yellow lights akin to the familiar time-stained pages of an ancient book made the restaurant cozy and welcoming, and the buttery golden light always seemed to make my grandmother look like the angel she most assuredly was. She was a beautiful woman, short and sweet with graying hair and warm brown eyes and hands calloused from a lifetime of love’s labours. She was a force of creation, engineered to give and programmed to love with everything she was.
She loved me more than he ever tried to, and for that, I am eternally grateful. When we got news that she wasn’t doing well due to the surgery, I spent the day at the hospital. Eventually, they said that she was going to be fine, and I went home thinking nothing would change. Later that night, we got the call saying that she wasn’t going to make it. I was devastated.The next day we went back to say our goodbyes.
I was cheated out of a proper reunion. We had been waiting for everyone to arrive when one of my aunts had taken me into my grandmother’s room and pushed me into the arms of a stranger. I had been tricked into comforting a sobbing man as he said goodbye to his mother, my grandmother. I remember holding him, hugging him even when I didn’t realize what was going on, rubbing soothing circles gently into his back as he cried. Pain is hard to witness, even from someone you hate. The moment seemed to last a lifetime, my heart cement in my chest and my brain reeling, trying to connect the dots.
It had taken me a few minutes to put the pieces together- this man, this stranger, was the father I had never had. It was a painful day. My first real memory with my biological father, and it was tainted with tragedy. It had taken someone dying for the man responsible for my creation to actually show up in my life.
After the final goodbyes, I had the first memorable moments alone with my biological father. He was shorter than I’d imagined, with dark, greasy hair pulled into a short stub of a ponytail. His skin was caramel, the bright brown explanation for mine. I tried not to look into his face, too afraid to see all the parts of him that had been passed down to me, too afraid to see the similarities, but when I did catch fleeting glances of his expression he looked both painfully uncomfortable and apologetic. I didn’t blame him.
The memory is tinged in white- white walls, white lights, white tiles speckled with steely grey. The hallways only interruption from the white were the windows that cast longing glances to the world outside and the occasional stripe of color lining the walls, soft and blue and blurred through the lens of remembrance. It was mostly empty, only the occasional nurse or visitor passing through our little bubble of lost time. We had created our own little section of existence, amidst the gentle sternness of the hospital’s long hall, a glimpse into an alternate reality in which I hadn’t grown up carrying the burden of being less important than the temporary bliss of drugs to the man who made up half of my DNA. We were both lost and mourning, both unsure of how to approach the other without shattering the moment. We tiptoed on this unfamiliar terrain. He had never learned the fine art of being a father, just as I had never learned how to act as his daughter. Family was never a word I had thought to associate with him.
Family was the mother who had always been there for me, who had worked so hard to support a baby at sixteen and was always full of laughter, who shaped so much of who I am. It was my grandmother and grandfather, who we had lived with for the first half of my life, who loved me unconditionally and acted as the substitute for the missing half of my real parents. It was the beautiful baby sister I had never known I’d love so much. Family was my blue eyed father, the father who had chosen my mom and chosen me, the one who taught me how to ride a bike and pulled loose teeth and showed me what a father is meant to be. Family is presence- it isn’t measured by how much blood you share, but how much love you share, through just being there to begin with.
We talked. He asked about school, about life. He told me about how my grandmother had talked to him about my habit of pretending I could change traffic lights, a silly, stupid pass time, and I couldn’t help but feel just the slightest bit betrayed. My entire juvenile life, this man had been the unseen enemy. I treated him as taboo. I cut him out of the few pictures we shared. Even his name was altered- he had never earned the term father, and I couldn’t stand saying his real name, so he became ”It”. This was the man who had caused me so much pain and insecurity- all of the thoughts that I was worthless, that I wasn’t good enough, stemmed from the man who had never stuck around long enough to give me a chance.
But, when I talked to him, I finally realised… he wasn’t some terrible monster, intent on ruining lives. He didn’t seem terrible or despicable. For the first time in my life, I realised that the bogeyman… was just another person. Yes, he had done me wrong- but he was only a kid himself. He was sad, and lost, and his life was a trainwreck- but that didn’t make him a monster. It made him human.
Our conversation was short and underwhelming, considering it was the first real conversation we had ever had. He made empty promises of future meetings- but I knew not to expect much. I may have settled into a subdued and forced denial that I was grieving for my grandmother, but that day, I was able to exorcise one demon. Meeting my biological father helped to show me that- as much as I wanted it to be- life wasn’t a fairytale. Not everyone was easily defined into good or evil, black or white- there was always going to be a gray area. Sometimes people do bad things, and those bad things hurt good people, but that doesn’t make the people who do them bad. Everyone has a story that you don’t get to see- and people who damage are the most damaged themselves. Holding onto anger at someone doesn’t change what they did. It doesn’t make them a better person, and it can only serve to further damage you. You can’t control what others do to you, but you can control how you let them change you and what you do in return. The one lesson my biological father ever truly taught me was this- as tempting as it is to hold onto the anger and the bitterness and the frustrations of the past, you’ll never lighten the load you carry until you learn to let it go.