A few years ago, I went on a date with a man who started psychoanalyzing me before the appetizers arrived.
As I ate my fried calamari, this fellow told me that my body language was too guarded. That I had the posture of someone who was “damaged.” “I bet you have daddy issues,” he said. I flagged down the waitress and asked for another drink and the check.
“Don’t you want your entree,” she asked. I told her I’d take it to go.
I got out of there as fast as I could, throwing the tip at the hostess stand as I ran out the door. Was this guy an asshole? Yes, he was. He clearly didn’t know that this wasn’t an appropriate conversation for a first date—for any date if you ask me. He didn’t get into my pants that night, but he sure as hell got into my head.
In spite of his really bad taste in footwear (old, smelly, white sneakers, really?), the guy was right about me. I did have issues with my father. At that time, I thought that I’d worked them all out. It was simple—I was fine with my father as long as I didn’t have any contact with him. He felt the same way. It was the one thing we agreed on.
I hate the word “closure,” but when it came to my father I used it with pride. We had slammed the door shut and moved on with our lives.
No more uncomfortable phone calls or stilted e-mails. No more dinners out where we shoved the food down as quickly as possible and talked about the latest episode of “60 Minutes.” There was too much anger and disappointment between us to have anything but the most superficial relationship, and even that was exhausting. After years of battle, we were both too tired for treaties.
I rarely thought of my father after we cut off contact with each other. He’d been a workaholic for most of my childhood, so not having him around wasn’t new. It felt so natural to join the ranks of the many fatherless people I knew, most of whom had grown up with single mothers. I would’ve been totally content to remain that way for the rest of my life. However, the universe abhors a vacuum. When my biological father bowed out, a new one appeared.
Donnie is my best friend’s father and one of the most kind-hearted people I’ve ever met. When he met me, I was an angry teenager who didn’t trust anyone over the age of 20. Rebelling against my own parents wasn’t enough. I needed to piss off every parent. If you had a child, and I was friends with that child, you probably banned me from your home at some point.
I wasn’t rude, due to my good Southern upbringing. The fact that my eyes said “f*ck you” but my mouth said “yes, ma’am” made a lot of parents uncomfortable.
Somehow Donnie saw through the black hair and cigarettes and sexually graphic Jane’s Addiction t-shirts—the bad crowd costume didn’t scare him one bit. Where most of the parents were distressed when I spent all my time at their homes eating their food and monopolizing their basements, Donnie would give me an extra helping of his famous apple pie and tell me I was welcome to stay the night. What so many others had interpreted as mooching, he recognized as survival.
He and his wife never asked me why I spent holidays at their house, or why my parents never called to check on me. Adopting Donnie as my dad seemed as natural as ending my relationship with my biological father did. There was no banner moment when it became official, but a thousand tiny moments that made me love and trust him. He was a father to me long before I realized it.
And I’m certainly not the only one Donnie has adopted. He’s a sort of superhero who has been there for so many fatherless kids. He doesn’t wear a uniform or scale tall buildings, but he is able to reach kids who are damaged and often unreachable. Sure, Batman can kick some ass, but give him five minutes with an angry adolescent and see how fast he’d crumble.
This past Father’s Day, I thought a lot about how lucky I am that the universe gave me what I didn’t even know I needed. There are millions of people out there who live happy, successful lives without two parents. I thought I could be one of them, and perhaps I could’ve been. I’ll never have to find that out. Part of my practice is honoring what Donnie has done for me and doing the same for kids who may need a little extra support.
Perhaps it was my bad relationship with my biological father that made me seem vulnerable and awkward on that date many years ago. It was my good relationship with my Dad that allowed me to pay the check and walk the hell out of there with pride.
I may have issues, but not about you, Papa D. Namaste.
Editor: Kate Bartolotta