I don’t know where my dad is anymore. I did for awhile, but now he’s off-grid again. And this bothers me. Despite the fact that he left my family with no warning when I was 7, despite the fact that I didn’t find him again until I was 30, despite the fact that when I did find him, when I did go spend a week with him, I had to remind him every morning that I was his daughter – despite all that, it bothers me, now, as my birthday is a matter of hours away and Christmas is around the corner, it bothers me that I don’t know where he is. Again.

So, here’s the story: After what seemed like a fairytale childhood, my dad just disappeared. My mom didn’t know why. The neighbor whose wife my father left with didn’t know why. My brother didn’t know why. I didn’t know why. (And none of us could explain it to my baby sister.) One day he was there, laughing and smiling in the clean desert sunshine, the next he was gone and it was winter.

Two letters came over the course of the next 23 years. Both were rambling, written edge to edge on the kind of paper we used in school. Neither explained a damn thing. The letters talked about how he wasn’t with that neighbor’s wife anymore. They mentioned he was living on the streets, had been in jail, had tried to die. The letters didn’t ask about us, about me. They didn’t say where he was. And though they were signed with my dad’s name, the words didn’t sound like him.

My mom made some efforts to find him for the divorce. My sister tried to find him for stability. My brother never spoke his name. I pretended not to care.

But watching Oprah one day I learned that the Salvation Army will look for people for $25. I filled out a form and turned it in. Less than a week later I got a call. They’d found him. Just like that. Found him at the first place they looked – his brother’s house in Florida.

My dad and his brother and the brother’s wife tried to explain what they could about my dad’s condition. My dad said it was like a record skipping, only he didn’t know from day to day what part of the record would be skipped. My uncle said it was from the drugs and alcohol, that my dad had trouble forming short term memories. My new-found aunt told me that my dad was a kind man but that he was a challenge.

Since then I’ve met with a neuropsychologist to try to learn about my dad’s condition. Werenke Korsokov’s syndrome. Also known as Korsakoff’s psychosis, amnesic-confabulatory syndrome. It’s complicated. It’s due to drinking. It causes tiny hemorrhages in the Thalamus of the brain, like stroke, but not. It hits the part of the brain new memories are formed. Some people get better. If they stop drinking.

Since this is supposed to be a quick blog post, let’s fast-forward through the phone calls, the reunion, the confusion. Fast-forward through my spending time with him and learning that his memory of his life before he left my family was clear as a bell. Fast-forward through Florida and seeing post-it notes reminding him to eat, to sleep in his bed rather than under the trees, to bathe in the bathtub rather than the river. Fast-forward through fireflies and a broken moon and a world as far from the desert as I was from the girl-child he remembered. Fast-forward through him meeting my son and husband and forgetting us all the next day.

Fast-forward through my getting to know family on the other side of the country, building a relationship with the aunt and uncle who’d taken care of him for so many years and tried to make up for what he couldn’t give me. Fast-forward through deep breaths, deep-sleep nights, and his name and address in my address book.

Fast-forward through eleven years of sending father’s day cards, birthday cards, Christmas presents. Eleven years of occasional letters and photos from Florida. Eleven years of letting my brother and sister and mother know anything I learned. Eleven years of e-mail between my aunt and I about my dad’s past, present, future.

But things fell apart. There was only so much my aunt and uncle could do. They took away my dad’s booze. They took away his car. They talked to liquor store clerks everywhere my dad could possibly bike to. And when it all worked and my dad couldn’t get alcohol anymore, he moved on — first to a VA place he hated, then to a friend’s place that he seemed to like. And from there? I don’t know.

I didn’t send a card on father’s day. I knew where he was, so I was just going to call. I wanted to hear his voice and the accent he hadn’t had when I was a child. I wanted to laugh at him saying y’all and honey. The day before father’s day, I got a call from Florida. But I’d already mentally prepared myself for the next day, so I let it go to voicemail. It was my dad, wishing my husband a happy father’s day, followed by my aunt trying to explain the new situation. Turned out my dad had been by and she got him to call in case they didn’t see him for awhile. Turned out he had been on his own for many months and they didn’t know how to contact him. Turned out I wouldn’t be able to call him or write him or send him a present for his birthday.

So I’m thinking about him lately. As I try to find the perfect gift for my aunt and uncle, a little thank you for them keeping my dad safe until I could find him, just like I have for so many years, I see things that would be a nice gift for my dad. A waterproof lighter. A holder for his papers and tobacco. A sturdy pen. A notebook. A peace sign on a leather strap. A book about the birds and animals of Florida.

I know I could buy these things and send them to the last address he had, the address of his friend’s place. I could send them off just like last year and get no reply. I could tell myself he probably got my gifts but forgot to write or call. Just like I told myself all those years growing up that he probably thought about me, about us, but couldn’t bring himself to reach out after so much time had passed.

There’s plenty I could tell myself. But I won’t. What I will do? I’ll answer the phone next time caller ID shows Florida. And I’ll hope it’s him on the line.

My dad

My dad

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4 Responses
  1. Stef says:

    Wow, I din’t know he was missing agian. Not sure what to think….what to feel…..nothing knew there. Certainly a little sad.

  2. Des says:

    Great shot, gripping story–

  3. Rob ... ert says:

    That’s some good bitter sweet.

  4. Roni Jo says:

    Thank you for posting this. I have been feeling a bit sorry for myself because my boy is away this Christmas (as he was the last). Your piece perfectly captures my feelings of longing for family and my desire to serve and love in a voice. However, I will see Quinlan again, and we will embrace, and laugh, and remember, and love each other in the way that the term “family” really means. Good grief, we just exchanged email today. I sent him his Christmas gifts with directions to open them immediately, and he wrote to thank me for them. Your piece brought me perspective and a renewed sense of gratitude for family and forgiveness. You are a beautiful, graceful woman, as evidenced in your words and how you join them together. I thank you for letting me know you.

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Cindie Geddes

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