My dad hit me only once.
It wasn’t unusual, per se, because my family certainly believed in corporal punishment. I have no recollection of the event whatsoever because I was a toddler when it happened. I only know it happened because my mom told me. She wasn’t even there; my dad told her about it. After it, my mom said, my dad cried as he confessed to her and said he would never hit me again. My mom told me this when I was in high school or college, and I remember wondering what was so special about me that he never wanted to hit me again.
I’d watched my father bodyslam my brother, WWF-style, onto the dining room floor. I’d witnessed him choke one of my sisters, her back slammed against the living room wall. I’d seen him lift my 200-pound sister off the floor and send her body sailing all the way across the living room. I’d watched him referee a fight in our front yard between my other sister and a neighborhood girl, who literally kicked my sister’s ass as our dad looked on.
He never would have done any of these things to me. What made me different?
I was his youngest child, had by his second wife before he was formally divorced from his first. I thought that maybe that was it: I was his baby, the one to be treasured and held more closely than the others.
But he and I both knew that wasn’t true. He kissed, hugged, and tickled my teenaged sisters while I looked on, wondering when he was going to play with eight-year-old me that way because it would actually be appropriate at my age.
Then I thought about it the other way: he never wanted me because I was the product of his home-wrecking with my mother.
But that wasn’t true either. Though he wasn’t divorced from Wife #1 when I was born, he was separated because she was a drug addict who frequently abandoned her own children.
When I was 30, it dawned on me that violence was a way to make my father’s children feel accepted and make him feel needed.
From early on in my life, he taught me little skills that my mother held off telling me, hoping she could keep me closer longer. My dad taught me how to put on my clothes, how to cross a street, and how to manage the steering wheel from the passenger’s seat (should I ever find myself in need of said skill). Reliving these memories while writing my memoir awakened me to the possibility that my father wanted me to not need him.
He wanted to make it so that I wouldn’t attach myself so much that I couldn’t drive away and leave him, that I couldn’t go to college and learn more than he ever knew, that I couldn’t travel the world. He wanted me to live without him, which was living fully and happily.
But that still didn’t answer the question of what made me so special that he knew this from that first and only moment of violent contact?
I think he had a vision. Honestly.
My father was a spiritual man, a jackleg preacher, as they’re called in the South. He might not have truly been on the Straight & Narrow, but he pontificated from the pulpit and made himself and the congregation feel good for at least two hours every Sunday morning. This allowed my father access to another realm, not one of his world, but of the next.
I think he saw me and my three sisters, especially, in the future, in our adult lives. I think he saw them as unhappy, empty, and listless. He saw me as thriving, prosperous, and healthy. It might have bothered him to not see all of his progeny having great lives. So he wanted to change my sisters’ path, beat inspiration into them as they grew. He didn’t know that this would actually stunt them, and that it would inadvertently fulfill the prophecy that he had feared. As he watched the inevitable unfold, I think his made him jealous of me and of his vision of my future.
I think what my father saw for me is coming true. I’ve been married for almost five years, all happily. I’ve got two degrees from a prestigious Washington, DC university, and the flexibility to turn to a career in writing from one in finance and maybe back again. I don’t have kids yet, but I hope, when they do arrive, that they’re sensible and reasonably well-adjusted, with a more comfortable life story than mine.
I am confident that my father was intimidated by what he saw in his three-year-old daughter, whose hair grew slowly and who had big eyes and brown skin, just like him. Because of that fear, he rarely ever touched me after that fateful spanking, not even to hug, kiss, or tickle me, and much less to discipline me. In fact, he didn’t connect with me at all.
When my mother left him and took me with her when I was nine, he never called to see how I was doing in school or see if I needed anything when I joined the band or tennis team. Actually, he called me twice, once when I was 16 (and I said that I was “busy,” busy being angry at him for not calling me) and once when I was 24, following the 2010 DC Snowpocalypse, but after almost all the snow had melted, so even if I had fallen into an eight-foot mountain, my frigid corpse would have been found on the grass by then.
I spent 20 years wondering what was wrong with me, why we couldn’t be like a normal dad and daughter, then spent 10 years trying to diagnose him with various mental illnesses from my psychology textbooks.
At 31, a year after my dad passed away from colon cancer that had spread throughout his body, I realized that the fault lie with both of us. We were both afraid of his vision for me. Instead of embracing my successes together, we tiptoed in opposite directions away from each other after mumbling accomplishments and a corresponding obligatory, “I’m so proud of you.” I was afraid that he would feel like a jerk for not loving me better, and I think he actually did feel like a jerk for not loving me better, but felt that it was too late to turn back.
Accepting each other for who we were probably would have done us a world of good. If he had not been afraid of who I was going to become, and if I hadn’t been so set on his changing that I lost hair from psychic stress, both of us could have enjoyed my—and therefore, our—successes even more.
I can’t change the past, as much as I want to. All I can do is learn from everything my dad taught me: the tag goes in the back, look both ways before you cross, and, in reverse, the car’s butt goes in the direction you turn the steering wheel.