I ducked down into the back seat of our minivan, pressing my face as close to the floor as the compressed leg room space would allow. Somehow my 7 year old brain clung to the 4 year old logic that if I couldn’t see them, they couldn’t see me.
I knew they were coming for me. They’d seen my face. My mom showed me the poster she’d found pinned to our windshield.
“Did you see this?” She had asked, looking as if our dog had jumped the fence again and was chasing another squirrel into the street.
“No…” I replied.
“What did you do?”
I looked at the poster in her hand. The poster with my face plastered onto it, and the word “WANTED” in all caps written just below.
“I–I don’t know,” I said, my face turning from pale to translucent.
“There’s a cop right over there,” she said glancing to the parked patrol car. “Hide,” she whispered.
That’s when I dove into the back seat.
I lay pressed to the floor of the van, the coarse carpet scratching against my cheek. The muffled laughs from the front seat were silenced by the rush of blood through my ears.
What had I done? Why was there a $10,000 bounty on my head? Had I hurt someone with the cap guns we bought at Wicked Willy’s Wild West gift shop? Or maybe the bow with suction cup arrows? Maybe it was when I peed in that bush–is that illegal?
I kept my head down as the thoughts turned from what I’d done to what they were going to do to me if I was ever caught.
Though it felt like longer, it was probably less than a minute before I felt a poke on my back. I turned to the side peeking up at my dad who was looking at me from the drivers seat.
“Gray,” he said, “there’s no one after you.”
I looked at him without much a change in my paranoid expression, clearly in need of further explication.
“You’re not actually in trouble,” he reiterated.
My parents went on to explain to me exactly what happened. Earlier when my picture was taken in one of the gift shops my mom had it printed onto a fake WANTED poster. They then decided it would be fun to pretend as if I actually was wanted.
As they explained this to me, I did my best to pretend as if I was totally okay, that their little prank had not actually affected me to such an extent. But my now red face and utter inability to produce words betrayed me.
That was the event I remember most from our family vacation.
Recently, I asked my dad about this story to verify my account was accurate. It was. He also added it is something he still occasionally feels remorse over. My dad quickly realized they might have gone too far when he saw the genuine fear in my eyes. Looking back on the story, I find it hilarious. It’s a prank I could easily see myself pulling. And I’m certainly not holding a grudge against my parents over a silly prank. But for my dad, it is something that weighs on him. And it is not the only thing he feels guilt over.
I remember one late December I was riding passenger to my mom as we drove home from the grocery store. We were motionless at a stoplight when I looked into the back seat and saw a modest stack of video games lying there. The new Ratchet and Clank—a series that defined my childhood from ages 6 to 10—was sitting on top of the stack.
“What’s that?” I asked my mom, already beaming a smile at her.
She glanced over her shoulder seeing the same stack of games I saw and immediately let out an expletive I dared not repeat. I watched the color drain from her face, not understanding the immediate change in demeanor. I knew they were my Christmas gifts, of course, and was perplexed as to how that could create anything but happiness. The stoplight turned green before she gathered herself.
“Please don’t tell your father,” she said, her eyes locked on the road ahead but looking elsewhere.
“What?” I asked.
“I just—I can’t deal with it. Please don’t tell him you saw your gifts. You can just pretend you’re seeing them for the first time on Christmas Day. Promise me you won’t tell him?” Her eyes remained fixed to the road.
I can’t remember exactly how I responded to this. I know that whatever I said it took a long time to decide. Over the span of a couple minutes I’d gone from the universal joy of finding Christmas gifts early, to being asked to either lie to my father, or betray my mother. I chose the latter. That night over dinner I casually mentioned seeing the games. The look of pure contempt my father shot to my mother was not unlike the look my mother shot to me. The shouts they exchanged that night were not unusual, nor was the curtness my mother treated me with for days afterward.
I imagine this all seems trivial to you, because it is. They were just Christmas gifts. What was the big deal? It is only recently I learned why my mother so wanted it kept secret.
From the day I was born to the day we moved to Illinois I spent virtually every day and every moment with my dad. We played Empire Strikes back on the N64 taking down countless AT-ATs. We watched The Simpsons together against my mother’s wishes. We drove across disparate parts of Texas as I asked him endless questions, the volume of which would have driven many insane. He loved every moment. We were, in his words, “best buds”.
Then, on my fourth birthday, we moved to Illinois and everything changed. My mom and dad had agreed he would be the stay-at-home parent while she worked. It was what both of them wanted. But my mother’s Texas teaching certificate was useless in Illinois. She couldn’t find a job anywhere, so my dad was forced to be the provider. He got a job working 11 hour days at $10 an hour, and I went from spending every waking moment with him to seeing him a handful of hours each week.
For months I refused to eat until he got home. There were days I sat at the dinner table for hours, a full plate of food in front of me, not so much as smelling it until he walked through the door.
“Its getting cold,” my mom would say.
“You can eat now and sit with him when he gets home.”
“Dad’s not going to be home until very late tonight.”
“Will you please just eat?”
I ignored her for months, but eventually I started to forget how close my father and I had been. After a while I ate without him, I started doing everything without him. He became the parent I saw on occasion, the one I’d spend a vacation with here and there, but one largely removed from my daily life.
My mom, meanwhile, became the stay-at-home parent, the one who homeschooled me, the one who spent most of her waking moments with me. It was not her cup of tea. There were days she locked herself in the bathroom crying and called my father.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she told him through tears.
“What’s happening?” My dad asked.
“I just—I don’t want to be here. I feel trapped, like I can’t do anything.”
“Well then get a job so I can be there, because someone is going to be there for him.”
“Hey Mommy,” I asked knocking at the bathroom door, “What should I do next?”
“Just hold on,” she said, her inflection masking the subtle sobs. “He’s knocking at the door asking what to do and I don’t know what to say,” she said in a hushed tone to my dad.
“I’m at work. I can’t deal with this right now. You don’t want to be home with him? Get a fucking job.” My dad said before hanging up.
My dad recently told me that story. He didn’t recount the exact details of the conversation, but having enough of their fights to draw from, I imagine that’s about how it went. He hated my mom for that, still harbors resentment to this day. All he wanted to do was be home with me, and here my mom was calling him at work crying about how she had to be there with me instead.
That was why the Christmas gifts mattered. My dad wanted to be in every moment of my life. And when we moved to Illinois, he felt robbed of that, robbed of what he had been promised. Not being able to see my jubilant expression on Christmas morning as I saw my gifts for the first time was yet another moment stolen from him.
This dynamic persisted for a decade or so, and to some extent has never left. He never was able to reclaim his role as the stay at home parent, or the relationship we’d had in Texas. My mom was relegated to that position, and she enjoyed it as much as he enjoyed working 60+ hour weeks. So, I kept to myself mostly. It was never something I inspected too much.
Just before I went off to college, my dad and I went on a father son camping trip. Nothing significant happened on the trip until we were heading back. I was driving us out of the campground when he broke the silence.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
I was lost as to what this was in reference to and turned to see tears pooling in his eyes.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t there when you were growing up.”
I’ve known my dad to cry one other time in my life, and that was on September 11th, 2001. The tears I saw now terrified me. The anger he typically hid behind I could manage, but tears? Crying? That was too much. I refused to even look at him, keeping focused on the road ahead.
“Oh,” I replied.
“I’m sorry I abandoned you.” He continued, the words frail and broken. I saw in my peripheral him wiping tears from his face.
“It’s fine,” I said.
It’s fine. What an absurd response. It’s fine is what you say to a Starbucks barista who gets your order wrong, not to a father who just apologized for abandoning you. But what was I supposed to say? I was blindsided. I didn’t feel abandoned, not consciously, anyway. And I certainly didn’t know he felt that way. So that’s what I said. I said it’s fine, and that was that. He wiped clear the tears from his face, and after a minute or two one of us made a quip to bring back the status quo. We drove home and a week later I left for college.
I don’t know if this story invokes some kind of pity. It’s not meant to, not for me anyway. I am lucky enough to have had two parents who could provide everything a kid needs, and who cared as much as they did. And frankly, had my father been the one to stay home with me, I think I’d be softer, less independent than I am. My mom’s desire to leave me to my own devices prompted me to be resourceful and seek out things on my own. If my dad had been there to hold my hand through everything, I might still need someone to hold my hand now. It’s my dad I feel bad for. He feels like he missed out on my childhood, like he abandoned me. How does one carry that around with them every day of their life? How does one know with certainty they lost years they can never get back and just pretend like everything is okay? It doesn’t help I’m so far away from him, that there is no way for him to make up the lost time. I feel like I abandoned him more than he abandoned me. He didn’t have a choice. I did. I willfully chose to leave home, to leave my family behind. I guess that’s what all kids do: we abandon our parents.
Maybe I should do more to include him in my life now. Maybe I should make more of an effort to text him, to talk to him, to visit home. Maybe I should do more to rebuild our relationship.
I think that is what I will do.