My mother packed her bags and left my father when she was seven months pregnant with me, her belly swollen under her loose-fitting maternity dress. She planned to stay with her parents until my father “got his act together”. But he never did, and she never returned.
She raised me on her own, with the help of her parents. My childhood was quiet and simple. I read books in my spare time and went to camp every summer. For vacation we would take the train for free to Montreal, or New Brunswick, enjoying our frugal travels thanks to my mum’s employment with a railway company.
Most weekends she was at work, so I spent Saturday and Sunday with my Maltese grandparents. My Nanna would cook stuffat-tal fenek (rabbit stew), and tell me it was Maltese chicken. I would watch hockey for hours with my Nannu, while we cracked peanuts into a bowl, shovelling handfuls of them into our mouths.
The first goodbye
When my grandparents were not able to watch me, my mum would reluctantly drive me across town to visit my father. Our visits were rare and stilted, our relationship like a broken car that fails to ignite.
I do not recall an affectionate hug or a tender word between us. I do remember empty beer cans piled high in a rubbish bin, the smell of cigarette smoke that coated the back of my throat, and the weight of my dad’s dog curled up in my lap.
I felt lonely at my father’s house. I would sit on the blue velour couch he had found in a rubbish dump as murder mysteries played on the TV; the silence between us as thick as the smoke he blew in my direction. Still, I held onto a seed of hope that one day things would change.
My father never said or did anything to make me think he loved me, and I held my love for him close, afraid of letting it show – but feeling it just the same.
When I was 15 years old I spent an evening with my aunt and uncle on my dad’s side. They were a loving couple who embraced both my mother and I, despite the fact that my parents had divorced long ago.
As I scraped the remnants of my chicken and potato dinner into the rubbish, I overheard hushed whispers from my mother and aunt.
“I don’t think Ryan will live much longer,” my aunt was saying of my dad.
I stuffed that piece of information deep inside of me and plastered a fake smile on my face for the rest of the evening.
When it was time to head home I asked my mum about it. Her tone was matter of fact: My dad’s live-in girlfriend, who I adored, had left him. He was spiralling out of control; the house he now lived in was a gathering place for addicts and drifters. He had been found unconscious and beaten recently, likely by someone who was staying with him.
I felt myself sink into the seat of the car, deflated and defeated by my mother’s words.
I tried my best to hide my feelings, but as soon as the car pulled into the driveway I ran into my room and slammed the door, sobbing for the father who had never shown any interest in me.
I did not want my dad to die, and I did not want him to be an alcoholic and drug addict either. I wanted a normal dad, someone who would take me to baseball games and watch me in school plays.
A few days later, afraid to go alone, I asked my boyfriend if he would come with me to visit him.
A few of our friends rallied together and we drove over to his house. He seemed a little shaky and more haggard than the last time I saw him.
Before we left, I hugged him, unable to recall the last time we had touched, and he hugged me back. I wanted him to know that I loved him, especially if this was going to be goodbye.