By Eréndira RamÃrez-Ortega
What’s your name? Where do you live? What’s your address? What’s your phone number? These questions are repeated over and over again by my father. And I answer them, carefully enunciating every digit, every letter he needs so he can spell the answers correctly on a scrap of paper. I have him on the other side of my mobile phone and over and over again we go, until there is nothing else to say but thanks for calling. I sit in the car and weep, watching my boys run and swing themselves in the park playground through my sealed windows. My heart is heavy and my voice is broken when I say goodbye to my father. He doesn’t ask, or doesn’t suspect anything I’m feeling. My sobs are the fleeting emotions he can never hear.
I don’t expect anything from my father; he doesn’t call me like he says he will. It’s been this way even before his onslaught of Alzheimer’s. He’ll tell me he’ll be calling me soon, but he doesn’t. His promises are broken over and over again, like the twigs that bind our family tree. Twenty-three years ago, he promised me that he would attend my high school graduation, that he would be sitting in the bleachers to see me walk across the platform to receive my honors. But he never showed up, missing another one of my milestones, another one of his push backs of my attempts to add him to my life. Now, after all these years, he’s only visited me a few times to meet my children whose names he could never remember, despite my locking photos of them together into his hands, bony fingers awkwardly putting them into his shirt pocket.
In 1975, my mother gave birth to me after hemorrhaging on her bed. She called her cousin at work and was taken immediately to the hospital, where the nurse dismissed my mother’s predicament as nothing alarming. You’re not due yet, she was told. Go home and wait. But my auntie insisted. Come look at the blood clots in the toilet, she told her.
My dad, having a family of his own, advised my mother to apply for welfare, but she refused. I’m not having the government raise my child, my mother would say. This baby is mine and I am the only one responsible for her.
My mother never demanded anything from my father. No child support, no visitation rights. She never took him to court, nor did she ever tell anyone at her workplace who her baby’s father was. She wasn’t that soap-opera mistress who turns into a villain, tormenting and wrecking her baby’s father’s life. She wasn’t that stalker who would find a way and devise a plan.
It was I who was the stalker. I can’t recall exactly how old I was when I started to question who my father was, if I had one, or where he was. I remember Father’s Day projects at the day care center in which I would construct greeting cards to no one in particular, make believe sentiments that were conjured up for a moment of craft time and then tossed into oblivion. After years of this, I remember quitting, and dropping myself out of these projects with a shrug. I don’t have a father, I would tell the teachers and their aides. My indignation was easy to summon whenever these Hallmark holidays arrived.
I was fourteen the second time my father visited. He showed up at my house at 6:00 am. It was on a Sunday, and his wife was perhaps in her Catholic mass, singing a liturgical number or two. That was the second time he met me, his first being when I was just days old. Then he had given my mother fifty dollars. Buy the baby something new, I believe he told her, folding the money in the palm of her hand.
At fourteen years of age, he sat in my living room, drinking fresh coffee my mom had brewed and I only looked at his face, a mustache of graying whiskers curling around his mouth. He had his brown Datsun parked in front of our house. So what kind of an attitude do you have? he asked. He sipped his coffee and chuckled. God forbid you have an attitude like mine.
Months prior to that visit, I’d been asking my mother questions. She had been forthcoming about who his children were. My father was a married man with two stepchildren (his wife’s children with her first husband) and three daughters and a son (his and his wife’s shared children). The stepchildren, she said, are not related to you, of course. He adopted those when he married his wife—she came with those. But the three girls, and the son, they are related to you. Those are his and they have the looks of you.
She gave me names, ages, and other anecdotes. She had met the girls on a few occasions when my father would bring them to the factory where my mother and father both worked. My mother knew the names of these girls and she said they had skinny legs, long hair, big eyes, and were nicely dressed every time my father brought them over. The boy, on the other hand, was only a year older than me and she knew very little about him. Shortly after I was born, my father left the factory to work in aerospace manufacturing, thus diminishing any further information my mother could ever get about my brother. She never really saw my father after that, and she’d only see him around town in his Datsun.
I began stalking my father when I became old enough to drive. I would sit in a borrowed car and wait outside his house to get a glimpse of him, his daughters, his son—even his wife. We lived in the same town, about a half mile away. My brother and I were in different high schools by then and he didn’t know who I was—none of them did.
After he left that Sunday when I was fourteen, an expectation had been cemented that we would be meeting again soon. He promised me that Sunday that he would soon tell his family about me. Enough time had passed that I was ready to collect on his promises. In the meantime, I took advantage of Halloween to disguise myself with face paint and knock on his door dressed in my artificial disguise, a cloak that blended in well with other trick-or-treaters dressed as skeletons. I was so close to his front door, so close to get a glimpse of how he really lived.
I waited for years, romanticizing about a new life that just needed a nudge to get started in which my father would visit me with four individuals lined up behind him, groomed and jubilant, ready to embrace me as their own. I’d construct this family by filling in their blank faces with big black eyes the shape of almonds, cheeks twinkling with afterglow, smiles endeared with rosy lips. I drew these fixtures of my father, these unbroken twigs floating over the base, stretching to a bend only with the slightest wind. These were my manufactured figurines.
My mother loved me with a rigid passion, but as I grew out of adolescence, I grew apart from her as well. I remember visiting my father at his job in aerospace, safe territory from the unearthing of secrecy, and he seemed content to see me, a bit aloof I recall, yet polite. I was direct with him then, having the confidence to ask for what I wanted. What did I have to lose and what did I have to prove, anyway? I wanted to meet his children but he stalled every time, he back peddled and would remind me that his wife still didn’t know and well, it would be a blow to her.
So I waited. Again.
But in eleventh grade, my brother called me out of the blue. Our father had just finished telling him about me and he was eager to meet me at once. When he arrived at my door, it was already dark outside. He had a Mustang convertible with a few guys sitting in it waiting for him in front of my house. He met my mom and his manners were polished like Almanzo Wilder from Little House on the Prairie.
Hello, ma’am; no, ma’am; thank you, ma’am. He would graciously nod his head, much obliged.
I left to the bay area for university three hundred miles away from home, partially motivated by the anonymity of a new life, partially because I didn’t get into my top two choices. My father mailed me a handwritten letter on yellow legal paper to my dorm address. I was used to getting the occasional care package from my mother—an inventory of feminine hygiene products, Mexican chocolate, packaged food, a favorite article of clothing. But my father’s letter caught me by surprise that freshman year. He enclosed fifty dollars and I remember spending some of it on a take-out pizza for me and my roommate, and some of it at the thrift store downtown. I have that letter somewhere, the commemorative stamp of Elvis Presley partially adhered to a corner of the envelope.
Two years later, when I was in Mexico doing a field study, my mother called her niece’s house where I was staying.
Your sister called, she said. Your dad’s daughter.
She said, she has a husband, and two small daughters. She wants to meet you when you come back from Mexico. I told her you were over there. She likes to read. She asked me what you liked.
What did you tell her? I asked.
I told her you like studying. I told her you’re very smart and that you like to read and write.
My father was making progress, I thought. But it still wasn’t enough, though, getting thrown a bone now and then, years in between gaps of silence. I wanted my father’s wife to finally know who I was, that seeing me in her midst would be significant. I would no longer be just a passerby, a translucent vein on the wing of a dragonfly. I didn’t want to hide visits and covered up phone calls anymore. I didn’t want to be his secret stash that needed placating because by then, I was ready to implode.
While I was in Mexico, my brother stopped by my mother’s house with his girlfriend. She demanded to meet me after having found a photo of me among my brother’s belongings. She wanted proof I was his relative and not some other girl she had to compete with. I missed that visit, but soon after I returned from my trip, I did meet her.
I met my sister as well, and her sweet family and after several visits with all of them, I met with my sister and brother together. I mentioned their mother and they promptly said, It’s just not a good idea for her to know who you are. We like you, but now isn’t the time for her to know about you. It would really be a blow to her.
I followed my father’s wife to the community college where she had a singing class. I saw her leave her house and maintained a good distance between her car and mine on the route to the college. I was home for a holiday visit.
I waited in the student parking lot for her to come out to her red Honda Civic.
Do you know who I am? I asked her before she arrived to the door of her car. She was a teacher at an elementary school and was heavily involved in the church choir.
She appeared delightfully surprised, which caught me off guard. She asked, Were you one of my students?
No, I said. I wasn’t one of your students. I’m your husband’s daughter. He hasn’t told you?
Her eyes fixated on me. She was scanning the topography of my eyes, my lips, my voice, my hair and nose. She shook her head and looked away at some distant thought she may have been fishing from the past. Maybe she thought I was asking her a question, maybe she knew I was making a declaration. Either way, I had made a bold statement, one she had to stop to think about for a moment. No, she said. I don’t know anything about you. He hasn’t mentioned anything to me. She glared at me and opened her car without anything else to say.
That night, my brother showed up in front of my house in the new car my father had bought him. I peeked through the blinds and heard him rev up his engine. He was livid. He had a girlfriend in the passenger seat. A few days later, she was at my door, inviting me to my brother’s workplace. He’d like to see you, she said. Come with me so he could see you.
I didn’t speak to or see my brother, our sister, or our dad for years after that. I received my college degree and got married.
My husband met my father shortly after we were married in 2003. We waited outside for my father to come out to meet with us after we caught his stepson about to leave in the driveway. When I introduced my husband, my brother told me I should have called before showing up like this. By then, I had understood God’s love more deeply. Through a long process, I came to forgive my father and those were the first words I had for him there in his driveway with my husband by my side.
I came to tell you that I forgive you.
In 2005, I gave birth to my first child, a son. My mother was retired by then and was able to take on the role of caregiver to my son while I went to work at the ad agency. She took it upon herself to look for my father and introduce my son to him. Things were fine, I supposed, since he was open to meeting him. He would come by to visit with my son at my mother’s house. She’d call me at work whenever he’d visit, telling me about all the things the baby would do, and how much my father enjoyed holding him. He told my mother that my brother had a family of his own too. These visits encouraged me and reminded me of a prayer I had the day my son was born. I asked God to use my son as a blessing for those he would meet, to be a light in the lives of others.
Then one day, I arrived to pick up my son after work, my mother gave me some news.
“Your dad came by today,” she said. “He was sobbing when I opened the door because his wife had just been taken away by the coroner.”
When my father became a widower, my father finally accepted a party invitation. My son was turning two years, and he was there under the sun, with my brother and his girlfriend and daughter. The following year, my dad introduced me to another one of his daughters who accepted me without reservation. I met nieces who my father would bring to my house during Christmas or birthday parties. I even drove my nieces to church one night for a Christmas play so they could hear the gospel. Sometimes, he and my brother would come by to help us with our garden, planting seed, tilling soil, uprooting shrubs. Or we’d go to his favorite Mexican restaurant a few blocks away and talk about all the heavy things he had on his mind.
He repented for having rejected me throughout the years, honoring his wife’s wishes to disown me. He’d cry his sorrows into the palms of his hands like an adolescent boy, and I would forgive him each time. Over and over again, it was like this during our meetings. Memories becoming clear despite the clouds in his eyes, wet by tears, a stone in his throat occupying the spaces of his remote past. I would go home each time and shake my head in disbelief. It took this long to see this. I was a mom, and he was my dad now, lonely and afraid, aging through the ladder of his life. I didn’t have to imagine who he was anymore because he was taking shape in the frame of my life, no longer a nebula in a distant galaxy.
He’s told me about that one daughter he would never want me to meet, the one that carried a gun to his door and attempted to use it on him. She was put away and hasn’t been able to recover from her demons. It’s best, he said, that you never cross paths with her. She has nothing wonderful to offer.
Later, I would find out from him about the aftermath of my encounter with his wife, that moment which eventually threw a seemingly in-tact life off course. He told me about how his wife had sent him packing and he in turn found a home in the bottom of a bottle.
I awoke with tremors one night, he said. I was scared out of my mind when I saw my arms and legs shake uncontrollably. I stopped drinking after that happened. Just like that. I kept my last six pack in the fridge for months without touching it. I knew then that I was able to resist the temptation and stop drinking for good.
Three years ago, the sister I first met while I was still in university, resurfaced. She called out of the blue shortly after I had given birth to my third child, a daughter. My sister said she was a recovering alcoholic and only saw our dad on occasion.
You should call him when you can, she said. Dad is becoming forgetful. He’s losing his memory.
My sister was living with a man I never met, and her daughters were already grown, living their lives away from her as best as they knew how, working steady jobs, warming up to the gospel. That was a consolation to me, but what broke my heart yet again was when I got a phone call from my brother’s girlfriend turned wife. She told me my sister was dead.
I didn’t know it then, but the text my sister sent me weeks prior to her death were going to be the final words I’d get from her. Let’s get together for a bite, she wrote. I miss you and I haven’t seen you in a long time.
My sister had stopped talking to me after I confronted our father’s wife that one day. She had spent time at the bottom of a bottle after her divorce, had lost custody of her daughters to the foster care system and was sobering up with a new man in her life. She was living a few blocks away from my mom and was eager to start over with me. We were able to rekindle after all that time estranged. She knit a hat for my baby daughter and it satisfied me enough to know that I had spent time with her during her final years. I still weep at the thought of having missed her call, of never returning her request to meet up that last time she texted me.
My father never found out about my sister’s death until months after the fact. His family decided to keep her death from him since his condition was delicate and—it was said by doctors—that he may not be able to handle the news well. His Alzheimers was intensifying.
I’d call him and he’d tell me everything was fine. He’d ask me what my children’s names were, where I lived. He’d say my dead sister was doing fine. I guess she’s okay, he’d say. She hasn’t called me so I assume she’s doing OK. Then he’d tell me, I went to visit you but a man answered the door and said he didn’t know who you were.
I remind my father when he tells me this story that I’ve moved from a house to an apartment, that we don’t have a mortgage anymore and are renting an apartment in another town, that I homeschool my children, that I had to give up the house to stay home with the children.
Where did you say you live? he asks every time, and I tell him over again.
My father hasn’t remarried and he’s very lonely. He doesn’t drive. Whenever I talk with my father, I never know if it will be the last time. I don’t know what I can do to help him now, other than to call him frequently and hear his voice marinate in confusion and excitement at hearing my voice. “What’s your name? Where do you live? What’s your address? What’s your phone number? How are you doing? Are you doing OK?”
I waited a long time for my father to recognize me, but now I don’t think he ever will again. He did on a few occasions after his wife was buried. But he hasn’t forgotten her like he has relegated other things to oblivion. Alzheimers is the thief that selects which memories it will keep and which it will leave in the recesses of a decaying mind. It is terrifying to be found at a grown age only to be lost once again. This thief of the mind doesn’t know what to do with whom it robs.
We go in circles on the phone as I sit in front of the park playground. I pick up his cue to end the conversation and tell him to call me when he can. I have your number, he tells me. I am going to keep it in my wallet so I don’t forget it.
My husband never fails to remind me that a man is defined by what he does or doesn’t do.
His accomplishments may be many, or they may be worth nothing, he says. Having a career doesn’t amount to much, he says. Not at the end.
When I met my husband, I didn’t know what a man was supposed to be. For so long, my father defined who I was in some way by his absence. I think about what my life could have been like if I had been raised by my father, if his wife had agreed to share him with me, to allow me to visit, to allow him to take me out of a box instead of consigning me to oblivion. But I know now that having been inside that box, tucked away in the darkness of a closet was indeed the safest place for me to be. His wife had to pass away in order for him to claim me openly, courageously.
However, ironically, now that I am out of the box, my father finds himself in one of his own. As I observe what Alzheimer’s does to a man like my father, I’m amazed by the fact that although he’s lived a full life, what good is it if he’s sentenced to forget it in his final years. My father—having reached his eighties as an Alzheimer’s patient—experiences a disquieting guilt which he can’t put his finger on. His sentence confines him to a mental prison by which he cannot ever recover or emancipate from. There’s nothing he can do to correct other wrongs if he’s only suddenly lost touch with their impact on others, but not on himself, having allowed his cowardice to keep him from confronting responsibility, hiding behind his kids, his wife, other women. This affliction will not liberate him as he lives unable to find the origin to his compunction.
My dad had a life before he forgot it. His whole life is now being rubbed out with a big eraser. Every single day, something vanishes from his memory. My father’s lies and deceptions accrued a huge debt that amounted to chaos and division in his house where peace was like catching air. That is why I think it took us this long to bridge the gap between us. I needed to arrive to a place where I was able to forgive him and he had to arrive to a place where he could humble himself enough to ask for forgiveness. I was wrong. Will you forgive me? he said before his breakdown. Those words are some I hope to never forget.
Eréndira’s work is featured in Day One, The Cossack Review, Huffington Post, Red Tricycle, The Tishman Review, Cordella Magazine, Stone Soup Magazine, The Review Review, Black Warrior Review, and other publications. A homeschool mom, blogger, and former adjunct, Eréndira lives in California with her husband and three children. She is writing a novel. You can find her on Twitter or at her website.