Fathers Who Leave and Fathers Who Return
Christy Wampole on Longing, Addiction, and Patrilineal Transmission
Some strange centrifugal force tugs the souls of fathers away from the center, away from home. Many resist. A few probably don’t even notice this pull, too distracted to obey it, or, in the best case, caught up in watching the germination of the little humans that bear their DNA. But the pull is real and takes two primary forms: departure and suppressed longing. There is a reason fathers need time alone, a reason their space in the house is more sacred and inaccessible than other spaces. That is where they temper and store their longing.
I’d always understood this intuitively about my dad and absorbed his restlessness into my own character. The father archetype is one of the load-bearing walls in my own psychical architecture. My dad and I have lived in symmetry from the beginning. Like him, I am an evasive creature who uses time alone to manage that constant pull. Without this solitude, the agitation sets in and I can no longer sublimate my need to leave. I walk out the door and never look back.
When I was studying in France and got a call from my mom telling me that dad had left, I understood he’d yielded to the pull. But it wasn’t until about eight years later that I recognized that leaving is sometimes not enough.
In October 2006, during my second year of grad school at Stanford, I was absorbed in worries that seem negligible now in the rearview mirror: studying and reading until the pages went blurry, teaching and writing, always with self-doubt eroding those few moments when I thought I might actually deserve to be there. The centrifugal force wasn’t strong enough to pull me out of a pitiful relationship I was in. Insomnia. Heart palpitations. Chronic illness. I was in a troubled state of mind and body.
And one afternoon, I get an urgent call from my dad while I am in the library. The thick walls only let his voice through in broken crackles. He sounds strange. I tell him to wait while I go outside to get better reception, but he keeps talking in this mechanical, insistent voice. I emerge into the violent California sunshine, the skin cancer kind, the kind that makes its point too strongly, cutting out stark silhouettes of saw-toothed palms from the sky. His crackles become words, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Maybe he doesn’t repeat it this way, but that is what my memory hears. I am under the sandstone archway that connects Green Library to the Education Building, pacing because I know what he will tell me is bad.
He has just been bailed out of jail by my grandmother. He and his girlfriend have gotten caught. They’ve been running a meth lab in their house on a lost road in a remote Texas county. Not to sell, just for their own use. Their lab was discovered after a heavy storm blew down the fence while they were away and freed all of the aggressive dogs they’d been using to protect their lab. One of the dogs bit a little boy. The police went looking for the owners of this vicious dog. From outside the house, through the screen door, they could see just enough to make them suspicious and enter without a warrant. My dad and his girlfriend were arrested when they returned home. They sat on the driveway in handcuffs as officers and DEA agents in hazmat suits gathered evidence, the police lights spiraling in frenetic loops late into the night. “I’m sorry.” The call ends and I am left there in the archway. It doesn’t feel like a triumphal arch.
Drugs allow you to simulate leaving. Their odd centrifugal force lets the body stay in one place as the consciousness goes on a voyage, quitting those unbearable feelings and faults.
I learned many things in the weeks and months that followed. My dad had been an addict since I was a child. He’d made meth in his workshop at our house. He’d successfully hidden this from my mom for all those years. He says that if he hadn’t gotten caught when he did, he would have died shortly after. They were on that sick of a binge. I’ve never known why we didn’t know.
Drugs allow you to simulate leaving. Their odd centrifugal force lets the body stay in one place as the consciousness goes on a voyage, quitting those unbearable feelings and faults. It’s sad to think that my dad might have been missing during those childhood moments I remember most with him. Maybe his body was just an empty double.
A few of those memories: He was always pinching my brother and me with his toes or tickling us. He taught us karate moves and played foosball with us when we got tall enough to reach the rods, which we mostly just spun wildly while screaming. He would move his pec muscles to the rhythm of music, which always made us giggle. I used to sit in his lap while he played Donkey Kong, Frogger, Zaxxon, Q*Bert, Cosmic Avenger, Mouse Trap, or Carnival on our ColecoVision. I told on him once for drinking beer. I would ride around with him in his delivery van, and we’d sing classic rock and stop for Slurpees and Super Big Gulps in the blistering Texas summer. In elementary school, he let me get my ears pierced at the Piercing Pagoda at the mall without my mom’s permission, which didn’t go over well at home. He transformed my first car—a 1977 seafoam green Ford Pinto—into a race car, at least in appearance, by adding chrome wheels and fat tires to it. The only time he yelled at me was when he found out I’d gotten a tattoo and when he caught me spending the night at my boyfriend’s house. In my favorite memory, we were at the dinner table and my dad’s mouth was stuffed with food, for which my mom rebuked him. He paused and my mom, brother, and I watched as he slowly and purposefully stuffed one more huge French fry into his mouth. My brother and I went hysterical, and even my mom had to smile at this completely ridiculous gesture. All of those memories feel strange, knowing now what I didn’t then.
Although I am not a father and will obviously never be one, I understand something about that force that pulls them away. There is a sigh they emit sometimes, not a sigh of irritation, impatience, or physical exhaustion, but of utter existential depletion, one that implies that at that particular moment, the point of carrying on is not at all clear. The whole abject process of making and sustaining life is tautological: Life for life’s sake. Every human recognizes this to some degree, but fatherhood underscores this point. Once fathers have added their genetic splash to the soup that will become the baby, they aren’t technically necessary any longer. Their DNA will carry on—which is the point of the whole exercise—thus they no longer have any biological purpose. A vague voice reminds them of this from time to time. They are drawn toward other wombs, which might lend them temporary purpose. They seek a tenderness that sometimes goes away when life’s grind numbs the senses and turns lovers into roommates. They just want to be visible again.
(Much of this holds true for mothers as well.)
Today, there are two competing tendencies: one, to kill the father in his symbolic iteration—the patriarchy, the god, the CEO; and two, to renew the flesh-and-blood father’s importance, to restore the two-parent home, to remind everyone that the dad is as necessary as the mom. When symbolic systems are at war with literal systems, it is impossible to predict which will win. Fathers, caught up in this tug-of-war between “Lean in!” and “Die already!,” slink down to the basement for some alone time. For their secret pleasures. For their myriad sources of release, rebellion, respite. Or they go there just to brood in solitude.
When symbolic systems are at war with literal systems, it is impossible to predict which will win.
Many fathers fear becoming their own fathers. They try to be the opposite of the authoritarian who’d lorded over them or the deadbeat who’d abandoned them. But the principle of “just do the opposite” produces unpredictable results. You might look at yourself in the mirror at 50 and see him looking back at you anyway. Patrilineal transmission is as staticky as the phone call I got from my dad that October afternoon. Something will get through, even if it’s just in fragments.
As I perform a quick mental survey of people close to me, I am surprised to discover just how many of their fathers cheated, left, steadily drugged or drank themselves into oblivion, or cut it all short. A friend of mine—an army veteran who’s done several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan—was visiting me when he got a call from his father. We were in the middle of a conversation and things with them were complicated, so he didn’t take the call. Shortly thereafter, his father hung himself. My friend still wonders if it would have made any difference if he’d answered the phone that day. Another close friend—a father, an incredible musician, an addict—raised his daughter and got her to college, but he’s always lingering right at the precipice. I remember standing with him outside a bar once as he twitched and paced, his eyes startled-looking, hitting the concrete wall and saying things that made no sense. He told me stories about his brother, a heroin addict, whose bedroom walls were always covered with little spurts of blood from his syringes. His brother died of an overdose. I hope I never get the call that he’s taken the same exit. I wonder just how much of this was transmitted patrilineally.
Of course there are excellent fathers everywhere. There are fathers who ache a little when they notice the simple perfection of this small being in their arms, with its unmistakable scent and murmur. The little disheveled head resting on the father’s shoulder, weighing nearly nothing, is the center of the universe. He orbits around it, hovering to ensure its safety. He is tethered to it for good, and if he’s temporarily absent, it’s only to get the child something it needs. You see such fathers in the real world, not just in commercials. They are centripetal. They seek the center.
I am closer to my dad now than I’ve ever been. We’ve tacitly agreed to the rules of our ritual every time I visit: We meet at the same barbecue place at the same time of day. No one else is allowed to join us. And we turn immediately to serious topics: politics, philosophy, sentimental trials and tribulations, where our heads are at. We sit there so long, the servers ask us ten or 12 times if we’d like more hot yeast rolls fresh from the oven. This ritual belongs to us and no one else. Our relationship is conspiratorial; it always feels to me like we are conspiring against the world together, planning some way to overthrow it.
He has been clean for almost ten years now. I feel a little pang near the area where my heart is when I notice that his hair is all white now and he ambles a little more slowly each time I visit. His soul is less restless, and he’s made peace with the hurt he caused for other people and with the hurt he endured himself. He is part of me: I have his chin dimple, his eyebrows, his angular nose, his pinky toenails. Our souls have a certain symmetry, too. He is my true friend and even in the worst moments, I never wanted anyone else to be my dad.
The thing with centrifugal fathers is, sometimes, like boomerangs, they actually come back.