Who He Is and Who He Isn’t

I watched my father use a wrench to twist off the training wheels to my bike, which were bent and worn, and he explained without looking up that, “We’re not getting a new pair. Time you learn to ride without them.”

I fought back tears that Florida morning as the summer sun beat hard against my back. Sweat dripped down his forehead as he propped the bike up. My father traveled for a job I knew nothing about, except that he left at the beginning of the week and returned Friday afternoons sometime before dinner. Other than cutting the grass on Saturdays, I don’t remember him doing much else around the house. Certainly not making me a sandwich or reading a book or pushing me on a swing in a park, which is probably why I planted my feet firmly on the driveway without any intention of getting on that bike. Too young to articulate or define words like trust, I wasn’t too young to know that if my mother had coaxed me on the backseat of that bike, I would have edged closer without much of a fuss.

I’m not sure how my father convinced me to finally sit on the seat and then peddle furiously as he ran behind me, holding on until I gained my balance, but I do remember feeling the exhilaration of the wind sweep my face when after several attempts, I successfully rode by myself down the street. He stood on the driveway and watched with his arms folded across his chest, smiling each time I passed in front of the house, proud, like a father would be, that we had accomplished something together.

There was no way to know then that this would be one of the few things he would teach me as a child, that soon he would leave my mother, remarry, and have two other children with his second wife. My father didn’t have the skills to navigate or blend one family into another, especially when the two wives had contempt for each other. To show up for my brothers and me, his first family, meant he had to disappoint or rearrange plans with my half siblings, who were much younger, and the tension this caused proved to be too difficult for him to manage. At some point, he relinquished trying to be any kind of father to his first three children, making excuses for his absences. There was some immediate relief when my mother, brothers, and I moved to another state and our lives were separated by miles, but his infrequent phone calls and once a year visit, did not come without pain, a reminder of a father who once taught me how to ride a bike.

My dad is now 86 years old, and over the past ten years, we have forged a friendship. He has called frequently these past few months, more than he has in all the past years, wanting to share how lonely he is, how his life has little purpose, how my half siblings are successful and busy with their lives and rarely drop by to spend an afternoon. As I listen to him, I wonder if things had been different, would I be the one dropping by to pass an afternoon? Although I have come to terms with who he is and who he isn’t, I’m upset to hear that his life has not turned out as he expected, that his last years, possibly last days are filled with disappointment and sadness. I recognize the regret in his voice, a desire to have done things differently, but I just listen, not wanting to engage or represent my side of things anymore. No amount of apologies can recapture the opportunities that have passed. At the end of these conversations, he manages to ask how I am, if I am doing well, and before we hang up, I tell him yes, yes, I’m well. Nothing is new on my end. Nothing has changed at all.


Debbie Weaver teaches writing at a local university and directs a writing center. Any chance she gets, she heads to North Carolina where she hikes and looks for new waterfalls.