December 17th was the day my father and I had our first phone conversation. It culminated in our first meeting (our first HUG) on May 20th. I’m still struggling to process, struggling to find the words. Struggling to get a handle on (hell, a definition of) my emotions. Struggling to overcome the huge, enormous, unfathomable sense of UNFAIRNESS of being without my father, and he being without me, for 40 years.
I’d like to note, just so everyone understands, that it was through no fault of my own or my father’s that we didn’t have a relationship throughout my life. Other people made that decision for us. The truth continues to come out as time goes by, and my sense of betrayal is enormous. I’m looking back at my life, my childhood and certain members of my family and seeing things in an entirely different light. But, I have to put those particular things aside for the moment and just get the positive part of the story down.
Bill and I flew out on Tuesday May 19th – a four hour hop to Philadelphia, then an hour and a half to Portland on a puddle jumper. Upside – flying straight into Portland alleviates the drive up from Manchester (NH) or Boston, though the airfare into those cities is less expensive. Downside – layovers are mandatory, and going from a high capacity jet to a small capacity commuter plane always seems to result in us having to walk to opposite ends of the airport in which we’re enjoying our layover. I always worry that we’re going to miss our connecting flight (oh, it has happened), but this trip at least went smoothly going and coming home.
I love the Portland “International” Jetport (“International” in that they can fly you to another airport from which you can catch an international flight, perhaps?). It has, like, thirteen gates. Total. (No, wait, I just looked online and it’s actually eleven. Total.) SO EASY to grab your luggage, get your rental car, and just go. On the return trip I think our entire process, from check in to security to landing our butts on bar stools, was twenty minutes. And everyone is insanely nice. Plus it’s got to be the quietest airport I’ve ever been in. And the cleanest.
Luggage and car obtained, we drove fifteen minutes to our hotel in the middle of downtown Portland (population 66,000). Now, nothing against the Hyatt Place, really. It’s a lovely and comfortable hotel (though I think they were pretty severely understaffed for the week we were there – I think there was a convention in town). It’s positioned in the heart of the most active night life in the area, and our room faced Fore Street and was directly across from and above the HELLA ACTIVE and LOUD patrons of Pearl Taphouse and Night Club, and Fore Play. But we chose the location for a reason (a short walk to all of our favorite pubs and restaurants) and we knew what to expect. We had our handy dandy earplugs and managed just fine.
Upon our arrival we paused at our hotel long enough to offload our luggage and freshen up, then went straight to J’s Oyster (that’s the Yelp link there – they don’t need no stinkin’ website). It’s the hole in the wall to beat all holes in all walls. Just elbow your way in, jockey for a bar stool (or wait an interminable amount of time for a table), and shout your greetings to whomever is working behind the bar. Prepare to be patient. Have a beer. Or two. Figure out what you want and order it all at once, because the folks are DAMN BUSY. We got lobster cocktail, a bucket of steamers, and oysters Rockefeller. And I had my required Mecca Moment(tm). I think I took my first deep breath of the day, sitting there shoulder-to-shoulder with Bill and shucking clams.
Then we headed down the way to Bull Feeney’s, my favorite bar on the East coast. It’s just… comfortable. And pretty. I could make my home at the foot of their Scotch collection. We left ourselves in the capable hands of our bartender (whom we keep seeing year after year, and he’s never led us astray), and ended up trying five different kinds of Scotch. We loved them all. At this point I was sufficiently recovered from our day of travel, fed and relaxed with a drink to sip, and started to actually think about what would happen the next day. Bill and I continued the conversation we’ve been having off and on for months – what will it be like, what will I say, how will it be, why things happened the way they did. His support has been… staggering. Unconditional love and support, whatever I needed he was right there to provide. Up to and including reminding me to breathe. I was still holding emotions at bay throughout the evening, just concentrating on the moment and enjoying being back in one of my favorite places, in one of my favorite towns. At one point I got a phone call from a high school friend, someone I’ve Facebooked with but haven’t actually spoken to since school. She saw my Facebook posts and actually picked up the phone (unheard of in this day and age of texting every damn thing). I really hope we get to see each other during my next visit, because she’s Good People. I need more of them in my life.
We were about to leave – had in fact paid and was heading toward the door – when amateur night kicked in and a band began to play. I WISH we’d gotten their name, because they kicked ass. The lead singer is blind and plays a helluva harmonica, and they performed some terrific original stuff. Bluesy, switching up to songs with a harder kick, then mellowing again. So Bill leaned against the wall, I put my back to Bill’s chest and he put his arms around me, and we just absorbed. If you’re lucky, like I have been, you’ve experienced great moments in your life in which you are in the perfect place at the perfect time with the perfect person. In a crowded pub it was just me, Bill, and the band. We stayed until the end of their set, then held hands during the foggy walk back to our hotel, totally in tune.
We got up fairly early on Wednesday morning, and hit the road at 8:30. The plan was to meet my father at a park and ride near the turnpike exit in Gray. I got us going the wrong way (AGAIN… happens just about every trip) because I can’t seem to remember that there’s no way to get to 95 from 295. We ended up in Yarmouth and had to take 15 all the way to Gray (sorry, only the locals will care about that part… and “care” might be stretching it). So I’m stressing out, Bill is driving and rolling his eyes at me (“You used to live here, don’t you know your way around?”), and we ended up being about fifteen minutes late. We pulled in behind their car. Bill and I looked at each other, I took a deep breath, and we got out of the car. My father and his wife Ann were already out of their car and walking toward us. Bill’s shaking Ann’s hand while my father just puts his arms around me and holds on. My first thought, “Well, finally.” Second, “He smells good.” He said in my ear, “I never thought I’d see you again.” I looked up at him and saw tears standing in his eyes, and it was all I could do to manage not to start bawling right then and there. “I’m so glad you found me,” he said. Just when my breath begins to hitch Ann is there to give me a hug, and Bill and my dad were introducing themselves. Another round of hugs, then we all climbed back into our cars so we could follow them to their house.
Back in the car, I took a deep, deep breath. Then another one. Bill looked at me and said, “Okay?” “Yep. Okay.” “You look like him.” “Yeah I do!”
So we’re exiting the park and ride, sitting at the red light behind my dad and Ann. Suddenly my father guns it across traffic, running the red light. Bill and I were all, “What the fuck just happened?” Traffic was coming from both directions and yet was timed well enough that nothing tragic happened. They just pulled up a ways down the road to wait for us – the light changed in about 30 seconds and we made our lawful way out onto the road. We followed behind them for a few minutes, then Bill breaks the quiet with, “That could’ve been really fucked up.” I looked at him, and he said, “That could have been a total Final Destination moment. You JUST meet your father for the first time in 40 years, have two minutes with him on the side of the road, then watch as he gets in a car accident right in front of you.”
I shuddered. “Okay, stop talking Bill.” We both shuddered.
As it turns out, I know the route to my father’s house like the back of my hand. We drove by my high school. We passed the convenience store I used to walk to, to get pizza and Doritos for slumber parties. We drove past the lake where I took swimming lessons when I was five. The upset started to rise and rise inside me, the further we drove along this familiar road. Until we turned into their driveway, and I realized I’ve driven past this house a million times and never knew my father lived there. A mile away from where my sister has lived for years, less than that to where her husband’s side of the family lives, 12 miles from where I spent my childhood. So to say I was upset as we pulled into their driveway is an understatement. I believe my exact words were, “You’ve got to FUCKING be kidding me. He’s been living HERE? The whole time?” So I needed to take a pause and a breath before I got out of the car.
Ann (I have a step mom!) makes one excellent breakfast quiche. While we were enjoying it, my aunt and uncle (my father’s sister and her husband) stopped in for a few minutes. More family to meet! I felt absolutely no sense of awkwardness – the exact opposite in fact. Comfort, and an eagerness to learn more about these people that have been missing from my life. All the nerves I had built up prior to our trip just vanished altogether. We just talked and talked and talked at that kitchen table. We visited Dad and Ann for hours, every day we were in Maine, and the majority of the time was spent at their kitchen table. Enough time that we established our designated “spots”. From the very first it was like picking up a long-standing conversation. It took very little time at all to realize that Bill and my father would get along like gangbusters (link to the definition for my non-US friends). So much so that the day after we got back to Arizona, my father called to make sure we got home alright. In the course of the conversation he mentioned, “You know, I miss you, but I really miss my talks with Bill.”
After breakfast we took a drive with them – post office, pharmacy, bank. Bill and I were in the back seat, and when Bill leaned over to kiss me my father said, “Hey, behave yourself back there with my daughter.” He and Ann chatted about the people they knew, the businesses that had changed hands, the anecdotes of a life-long residency. The Maine-isms came fast and furious, and Bill’s eyebrows took up semi-permanent residence in a “What did he just say?” expression.
“Now up here, you take a right. You’re going to want to take a left, but don’t.”
“That boy’s number than a pounded thumb.”
“Nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”
“Didn’t have a pot to pee in or a window to throw it out of.”
“We were way out in the puckerbrush.”
We left their place at about 1:00, and headed back to the Old Port to wander around. We had a late lunch at Gritty’s, then window shopped and pub crawled. My head was packed full – I’ve never experienced that particular feeling in my life, one of not knowing what I felt, or how to feel it, or what to do about it. I waffled back and forth between, “Woo! Happy!” and “Whoa. Confused.” and “DAMMIT, WHY.” and “Dammit. Sad.” So, I drank. And talked to Bill. Eventually we made our way back to Bull Feeney’s, where we joined up with my niece Sable and her boyfriend. We hung out and drank, had some munchies, went to Bonfire, hung out some more, had a couple more drinks. I filled Sable in a little bit on what was going on, she filled me in on what was going on in her life, and we commiserated. There are similarities in our lives that make us feel like we’re the only “normal” people in our part of the family.
After we parted ways with Sable, Bill and I went to Fore Play for one last drink before heading back to the hotel. Bill grabbed a couple of beers at the bar, brought them back to our table, then went off in search of the bathroom. I think it was because I was by myself for the first time the entire day that everything started to hit me. The emotions that had been churning in my gut for, well, months started to rise up my throat. Upon returning to our table, poor Bill had the bizarre experience of seeing the beginnings of a meltdown. Tears started to roll down my face in the middle of a crowded bar (during a techno version of Blurred Lines – that detail stuck in my head), and all I could do was bury my head in the crook of his neck. He must’ve had a big ol’ “uh oh” moment, because he hustled us out of there in short order.
I tried to hold it together, at least marginally, until we got back to our hotel room. I have no idea what the folks at the front desk must have thought when we went by. That whole part of the night is a blur. I know that I have never, ever cried so hard in my entire life. We got undressed and into bed, and I just sobbed and sobbed and yelled and cried and shook and sobbed some more. Bill said there was a couple of times he thought he’d have to shake me to get me to breathe – I was crying in those long, long exhales that seem to go on for minutes at a time, before sucking in a huge breath to do it again. He just held onto me while I cried and clutched and snotted all over him (I think I remember him taking a shower after I finally calmed down). And he was completely glad to be there for me. Later he described it as an intensely intimate experience, a “different way of making love.”
I still have no idea what I would have done without him.
The rest of the week was a series of visits with Dad and Ann at their place. We went out to lunch, visited at their kitchen table, had cheesecake and Twinkies (a particular weakness of my Dad’s), and wandered around their tree-lined property. They cooked steaks on the grill one night and we didn’t leave until after 9:00. Dad called my cell as we pulled out of their driveway to say that he missed me already, and that our taillights were out.
When we weren’t visiting with Dad and Ann, Bill and I played tourist. We ate fancy meatballs, fried clams and fiddleheads at Boone’s. We got tattoos to commemorate the occasion. We tolerated the shrieking eels at Fore Play (read: 21 year old girls hopped up on their freshly legal status, “Oh my god, Becky, let’s TOTALLY do SHOTS! EEEEEE!!!”), and amused ourselves by watching the police (who were having a FABULOUS time) tow illegally parked cars.
Dad and Ann had stuff to do on Saturday, so we made plans to hang out with Kim and her husband. We started the day with a mini breakfast at Central Provisions, where we sat at the Chef’s bar to watch them prepare their very unique small plates. We grabbed a beer at Gritty’s, where Kim and her husband picked us up. The very first order of business was to procure lobster rolls at Two Lights, after which we spent a couple of hours wandering around on the rocks at the Portland Head Light. Kim’s husband had never been to the Head Light, which astonished me (he’s a Maine native). We had a few beers at Fore Play before heading over to Boone’s for dinner. The wait was miserable, the service was slow and Bill’s food was gross enough for him to send it back (and if you know him, you know what a big deal that is). It was, essentially, the exact opposite of our experience there earlier in the week – no idea what the deal was. So! We followed that up with camping out in one of the bar booths at Bull Feeney’s for a couple of hours. The troubadour was the same one I photographed during our trip in 2010, and it turns out that he went to high school with Kim. We sang along to some Irish drinking songs (easy enough to pick up after the second chorus, if you’ve never heard them before). We had a great time, and parted ways at about midnight.
As an aside, I love how often I’ve been able to see Kim over the last few years. Between her visits to Arizona and our visits to Maine, we’ve managed to see each other once a year or so. So much better than it used to be!
On Sunday we packed up, checked out, and had the obligatory lunch at Cole Farms. Gotta have my fix – loaded cheeseburger and french fries with “doo doo sauce” (don’t ask me why it’s called that, it’s just house dressing for dipping). My mother used to work at Cole’s when I was little, and some of the ladies from her time still work there. Then we drove over to Dad’s for a few final hours of visiting before we had to fly out. We wandered around their property, took pictures, and tried to ignore the fact that this would be the last time we’d see each other for a while. After one last picture and five or ten more hugs, we finally had to go. Waving goodbye, I got the same choke-up I used to get when driving away from Grandma. They stood and waved, and we waved back, until we finally drove out of sight. Struggling not to cry (again), I said to Bill, “I hope that isn’t all the time I get with them.”
I’ve had so many emotional conversations with Bill. I’m struggling with my confusion, and I’m finding it very hard to let go of the resentment I feel and just enjoy what we have moving forward. Enjoy all the love that I’ve found. My father and my step mom were “all in”, right away. There was no pause, no hanging back, no doubts. It was just, “Oh, here you are! Finally!” I’ve learned a lot of stuff about my mom, my sister, the past. I always figured that my perception of my life, my family, and my upbringing was immutable. I’ve never experienced this… well, unique shifting of my vantage point. It’s… weird. Which is why I’m still struggling, I guess. I know there are going to have to be some hard conversations with some folks here in the near future, and I’m waffling between wanting to rage and wanting to just let it go. I expect I’ll find some point in between, and just move on from there.
All in all, the positive far and away exceeds the negative. I’m so glad I have my dad back.