A letter to my father

In the span of five months, a friend of mine passed away at 27 and my grandmother passed away at 93. Ever since then I’ve faced this sort of undeniable truth that we all will turn to dust at some point. All living things don’t live forever–some live longer than others, some sooner than most–and yet this reality doesn’t quite hit you until someone’s presence erases itself in a matter of moments. In the front of my brain, I’ve left some space for this truth to sit. I’ve invited it to take up space. I’ve allowed it to invest in my emotional state.

Do you want some tea? I’d say on the Tuesday morning after death.

Can I get you anything? I’d say a few short weeks later–Christmas Eve–when it showed up again. Do you have the rent money? I’d ask hurriedly a few days before my birthday in mid-January.

Will you ever go away?

This truth and I sit together sometimes without saying a word. I find them staring at me during the times when I least want to talk. Most of the time I’m running away from it; I like to give them just enough distance to see if, like my shadow, they find their way back to me.

I’ve humanized it; forgiven it for taking up too much space; spat angry words at it early in the morning when I’ve felt a small twinge in my chest. Are you trying to take me too? Is this my time?

I imagine talking to them in this way hasn’t given me enough clarity to accept it yet. So here I am speaking our relationship into existence, hoping that I can paraphrase it in just enough words to make sense for you.

I tell this story because it’s what gave me every reason to write you.

My mom has always reiterated to me how I never want to have any regrets with anyone. She talks about how forgiveness is one of the greatest gifts we can give to those who have wronged us, hurt us, or taken something away from us. You never know when the person next to you will be gone tomorrow she says. I know that this is a subtle way of her telling me to talk to you. I know she’s right–she’s my mom and she knows me better than I give her credit for.

I think of you because, if I’m being honest, I would regret not saying something to you if something were to happen. There needn’t be a reason for something to happen, that’s just the way things happen sometimes. We all make plans for later this week but later this week isn’t guaranteed. And I know writing to you as a response to death isn’t ideal, but it’s honest. It’s what I have right now. It’s what I can offer, what I can freely give to you without letting the hurt manifest itself.

I’ve gotten every text you’ve sent me since January of 2015.

“Happy birthday, Robbie! 24 already. Wow. Hope you are having a beautiful day!”

I’m sorry I never responded. I guess I just didn’t know what to say that would be strong enough to move the animosity out of the way long enough to be genuine. Since you left the second time (when I was in college), I haven’t had the strength to understand fully what forgiveness looks like between you and I.

One of my favorite poets says that forgiveness is the release of all hope for a better past. I’ve thought about all of the realities in my life where that’s true. Maybe I’m wishing too hard for the ability to rewrite our history. No matter how hard I try to hang onto hope that it can be done, I face the reality that there’s no story that I can write about you staying. You were meant to leave. I was meant to learn something from that. I was meant to be shaped by that void. What’s done is done and that needs to be accepted better than what I’ve been willing to.

I tell people that you’re my biological father. Every time you’ve called and started a conversation with “Hi Robbie, it’s Dad,” I’ve never believed that to be true. I didn’t realize until a good friend indirectly pointed out how I’ve never called you Dad that he was right: I don’t regard you as my dad. Being a dad is different. It’s staying. It’s struggling together and learning together. It’s hurting together and teaching together. It’s not always having the answers but it’s being in my corner when I need it most. It’s reassuring this awkward, lanky, curious, and intensely shy young boy that he is okay to be who he is in his own skin.

Being a father is biological. I will never be able to change the DNA inside of me. I am a Williford through and through. This is what you have given me that cannot be denied. It’s a part of my identity–it’s what everyone around me sees. A father is one half of what makes a child.

But my dad is someone different. He’s someone who walked into my life and saw something in me that I was never going to see in myself. He’s someone who taught me how to throw a football and how to make peanut butter and banana sandwiches. He’s the man that would stay up with me and play video games until 4:00AM. He’s the man who hasn’t been perfect either, but has always resolved to showing up when I least expect it and when I need it most. He’s the man who gave me a chance–this scrawny, pale, second-guesser of a little boy who would always folded into himself when things hurt too much.

This man is not you and has not been you. For years you have been my father. I’ve reduced you to a distance that was far enough away for me to understand but not comprehend. I’ve been comfortable with that for so long, and yet, writing this letter hasn’t been easy. I’ve said I was going to write this letter months ago. Years, even. But each time, I’ve ran away when the anger rises to the top of me. The journey of the retreat has been in my bones for years. Every time it shows its face, I follow every off-ramp and every exit sign that my eyes can spot.

Still, you are a part of me.

I don’t know how many years I’ve hated you for that. Throughout my younger years, I wanted you to show up the way my dad always had. I often wondered how my existence couldn’t be worth much to you, how I could never been worth the time or the miles. There were moments that we did spend with one another: Thanksgiving in your tiny Bay City apartment when mom filled her car with canned goods and non-perishables so that we would have enough to eat; going to work with you in 2003 and us realizing that we got to spend 01-02-03 together; staying with you a few weekends in the summer when you moved into a trailer near my mom; borrowing your Jeep when you moved into mom’s basement because I was a senior in high school and everyone else was driving cars; seeing you come to a baseball game of mine when I wasn’t playing; emailing back and forth when I finally learned how to compose a message. These moments are small in my mind, but they stick out as times when it was evident to me I wasn’t going to mean much to you. It was always when it was convenient for you to be a parent. Right place, right time.

I remember how helpless I felt in those moments. I didn’t have enough of an understanding to know that you couldn’t really afford for us to be there with you. I wanted you to love me in a way that a Dad should love a son. I wanted to be given a chance to love you back. As I got older, it became clear that this wasn’t going to be our story.

My mom would tell me that you didn’t have the greatest childhood. She would tell me how the 14-year-old version of you would have to go into the local bar and drag your mom home. How you were never her favorite and how your brothers would beat up on you. How your dad wasn’t really around and the profound effect that had on you. But how you still managed to go to school and get a law degree, passing the BAR exam in multiple states.

I suppose I never realized until writing this that I couldn’t have realistically expected you to stick around when you never had a healthy example of your own growing up.

Still, here we are.

I know that you’re not going to be my Dad. I’m 26. My adult life has been well underway for a few years now. I’ve graduated college with an English and Creative Writing degree and I’ve sweat my way through a Masters degree in Higher Education. I’ve paid my own bills for years–carefully researching the best retirement to invest in, deciding what benefits package to choose, figuring out budgeting 101 for my life. I’ve carved out a life of substance and I’m steadily moving towards growth in my stubborn steps. Even without you, I’ve been given opportunities to make a name for myself. I suppose I’ve always valued relationships with others because I know how easy it is to not have people around when I need it most.

I didn’t really know how this letter was going to look or what I was going to write until I gave myself the time and space to actually sit down and write it. I apologize if it’s jumbled or lacking any sort of flow to it. This is just kind of who I am right now and I’m okay with that. I hope you are, too.

One thing that I’ve wrestled with, too, was that I made the choice to not make you an active member of my life. You weren’t around and it was easier to keep it that way when you were ready to come back. I stopped having hope that you would take the space I was giving you to exist in my life. I’ve written you off and dismissed any chance for us to have a relationship. I still don’t know what that looks like right now and I don’t know when I will.

I want to say I’m sorry. I’m sorry for not forgiving you sooner. I’m sorry for not loving you enough, for not agreeing to give you any sort of chance the last few years, and for not visiting you. When I lived in Akron, I always had it in my head that I would stop by unannounced. You weren’t far from me. I never made that trip and I’m sorry.

I don’t really know what I mean to you or who I am when we exist in the same space. I imagine that we won’t know that any time soon. I’m sorry for that. It’s just that much of my identity is wrapped up in this idea that you don’t exist to me right now. I’ve carefully cut you out of every picture in my head with dull scissors; you haven’t gone easily. A part of me has always believed that you would come back, that you would tell me that you’ve loved me all along and that you’re sorry for leaving me. That part of me has minimized itself and I haven’t done anything to stop it.

I know you’re sorry, too. I forgive you. For leaving, for not calling, for having to ask other family members what my birthday is, I forgive you. It’s not a complete story of forgiveness but what I’ve learned at this point in my life is that if I don’t give forgiveness in increments, I won’t give any at all. Not with this. Not with you.

If I don’t give you grace despite history giving me every reason not to, I’ll never know you at all. And I want to. I just don’t know when. Or how. Or why, really. But I do want to.

This anger that I’ve carried with me everywhere I go was secondary. It was anger because anger is easy. What isn’t easy is feeling hurt. Feeling hurt is hard to come to terms with. But this is me finally learning how to let the anger go so I can explore the hurt and to find ways to heal.

I’m not looking for you to say anything. I guess this writing has been more of a catharsis than I thought. In retrospect, every piece of writing is. I never know what’s going to come out until it actually comes out. I only have time to marvel at whatever that is for so long before I close again. Mine as well do that now.

I owe you a thank you. For giving me the opportunity to feel such a contradictory set of feelings at the same time. Most of my closest friends would tell you that I love them pretty deeply. I never want anyone in my life to question the love that I have for them so sometimes I give a little (a lot) too much love to them in hopes that they’ll always have enough. When hearts break around me, I feel them deeply. I shoulder as much as I can while I balance my own heartbreaks. I’m determined to show people how much they mean to me, how–together–we can go pretty far.

I want you to know that I love you, too. Even when you’ve felt pretty far away from me, I’ve loved you deeply.

If something were to ever happen to you, I’d have such a hard time expressing how regretful I am that I let so many months pass before I mustered the courage to face one of the hardest shadows in my life. I know I’ll beat myself up for it, even if we find common ground moving forward.

I want you to know that this is me taking a small step. I won’t know what that means until I’m ready to take another, so please bear with me. I’m trying to show you what loving you looks like to me. I hope we can examine this tree from the deepest root to the top-most branch so we can explore who we are to one another.

I don’t know how to end this letter. There’s still so much for us to say to one another, so much to catch up on, so much to discuss. I hope you’ll write me back. I promise I’ll read it. I promise I’ll listen.

Until then,


Published by Robbie Williford

Writer from Flint, Michigan. Partial but slowly becoming. Educator. Storyteller. Bashful. Paying attention to the quiet.

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