She messages me in the middle of the day, “Hey.” And that’s it.
I never know how to respond. But there are so many things I want to say.
“Hey Kate, sorry I suck.”
“Hey Kate, I know it doesn’t feel this way, but I think about you all the time.”
“Hey Kate, I know you have no reason to believe me, but I never forgot about you.”
“Hey Kate, I was so young when I met you. I didn’t know what to do.”
She doesn’t expect much from me, but I already know that no matter what I say, it won’t be enough.
I just turned 40. My hair has started its slow fade from a bold, shiny brown to a dull grey. My hands hurt after a busy day at work. I know I’m not old, but I’m not who I was when I met Kate.
The invincibility and the eternal hopefulness that once spilled into everything I did, and everyone I loved, has been trampled by reality. I tread much more lightly. I hesitate to make my once mighty, now mild, presence known when I enter a new space. Maybe the reason I tend to be more forgetful is because I have so many things to think about. I feel like memories are becoming ever more distant and details are harder to remember.
But I remember the day I met Kate.
Her father and I drove for days. We left the New Jersey shore on a humid summer morning and headed west. I planned a route to get us to Arkansas in less than a week if we didn’t stop too much.
The stops we made in the other states we crossed should have been more memorable. Nashville and Memphis are faint blurs in my mind, maybe because I’d just turned 21 and felt compelled to drink whenever I had the chance. Maybe because I was so focused on getting to Magnolia, Arkansas.
In my mind, this would be as simple as checking off an item on a to-do list. We were heading out to see Kate. Kate’s dad was divorced from her mom, and a year had passed since he’d last seen his little girl.
The child in me was excited to be instrumental in their reunion. Convinced that he would be lost and empty without his daughter, I took him by his willing hands and yanked him into my world of impulsivity. We dropped everything for this road trip.
We arrived to find two girls and a boy standing beside Kate’s mother, and she directed Kate to go greet her daddy. Kate meekly ran into her father’s arms and gave him a soft, quiet hug. She was giddy, but polite. And she called me ma’am.
We spent a week in Magnolia and we saw Kate each day. Her meek demeanor changed as she got more comfortable with us. She was easily excitable and very expressive. Her little heart was overflowing with love and she had plenty to go around. She boasted about having two daddies and said she loved them both over and over. Her stepfather smiled and shrugged at us whenever she pointed this out in front of him.
Kate was delighted in that classic little girl way, every gift we gave her, every meal we treated her to, and every ride she took in our car made her little heart soar with happiness. I insisted to her father that we stay awhile. A little girl needs her father. I know this from experience.
It’d been days into months into years since I’d last seen my own dad. I wanted to save this girl from that crooked balance of a life lived somewhere between great hope and deep disappointment. We settled just south of the Arkansas/Louisiana border in Shreveport.
My heart was in it for Kate, but I quickly started hating Louisiana. My inability to adapt to a new place blurred my understanding that time and patience were the only things that could make me more comfortable. Louisiana is starkly different from New Jersey, and while I could have lived with that, I didn’t want to be so far from my family and friends.
Maybe it was this that dampened my mission to save this girl from life without her father. Maybe I realized that I alone could not be the one to force devotion and duty for her upon anyone. Maybe it was because I grew tired of encouraging visits, gifts, and involvement. Maybe there were many reasons I took a step back and started thinking more about myself, and less about “saving” Kate.
Months went by and we didn’t see her anymore. We returned to New Jersey and had a child the following year. I thought about Kate, and how she would love to hold her baby brother. I had naive faith that this could happen. I was certain that their father would feel consumed by love for both of his children, and he’d want to see her again. An innate wholehearted desire to be a father to his children would usurp his shame and cowardice.
Our baby was so darling and beautiful. I assumed that every time he held our brand new son, his daughter crossed his mind. I believed his love for Kate, rekindled and inspired by the birth of our son, would make him shove hesitation aside and propel him past the fear he allowed to take control.
He would no longer be too scared to attempt resolve, and he would pick up the phone and call his ex-wife. They’d discuss how he’d re-enter his daughter’s life for good. At first I hinted at this fantasy of mine. Then, I asked him how he felt about taking such actions. Finally, I started resenting him, and wondering if he cared about her at all. He couldn’t articulate his feelings except to say that it was, “too much to deal with right now” because we had a new baby, and we were barely getting by.
Consequently, he fell behind on his child support. Partial payments weren’t enough to keep him out of court. First, it was garnished wages. Then, it was a levy on our joint bank account. We lost much needed tax return money.
Court orders arrive, promising arrest warrants if he failed to appear. His ex-wife sent letters through an attorney stating he’d no longer have to pay child support if he signed his paternal rights away, and allowed her stepfather to adopt her. My heart dropped. It seemed like impossible debt from which we’d never recover, but I was absolutely sure he’d never sign those papers.
I held our baby on my hip as I signed for the last certified letter and wondered what made him work so hard for our child, but not for Kate. I fought with him about her, but it didn’t make a difference. His whole family agreed with him, saying this was, “for the best.”
I thought about that little girl and how on earth I might explain this to her someday. It’d been two years since we’d spoken. She was almost nine years old when he made his decision. I sent her little gifts on Easter and Christmas that year. The following year, I asked him if we should send her anything. I don’t remember his answer, I only remember being sad and disappointed.
I didn’t know that this could actually happen – that a signature on paper could erase a child from our lives. She went from being a someday to being a never. I could list a million excuses to justify why I wasn’t brave enough to object, why I didn’t take it upon myself to earn and pay that child support and the arrears, why I didn’t understand his family supporting his decision to stop being her father, why I wanted to help but felt that I couldn’t.
None of that matters now.
I thought of Kate all the time. It would have been more practical to wish that she’d forgotten about us. But I always hoped she’d remember the short time we spent with her. Even after her father and I divorced, I still believed that she would come back into his life and she would meet our sons. I still believed she’d remember the trip, and the time we lived nearby. I even hoped that she’d remember a little bit about when she was small, her parents were still together, and she saw her father every day.
His dismissal of her existence seemed as easy as turning off a light, and walking out of a room. I spent our whole marriage doubting his seemingly steady devotion to our children. Had Kate never existed, I would’ve taken his actions at face value, feeling proud and confident about his love for our sons.
Instead, any minuscule sign of indifference toward their wellbeing made me fear that he could turn his paternal love for them off as easily as he turned it off for Kate. Was he acting? Was he going through the motions, feigning the love of a devoted father just for show? Could I trust the love he professed for me if it was so easy for him to forget about his little girl? Living in constant insecurity wore me down – we had so much conflict and strife. So, before our oldest son turned ten, I chose to leave the marriage.
Twelve years slid by. Twelve years of wondering how Kate was doing. Twelve years of seeing cute little toys and clothes and TV shows that I wondered if Kate would love. Twelve years of wondering what she looked like, where she was, what she loved, and whether or not she needed her father. Twelve years of expectation turning into diluted hope and wishful thinking that her father would say, “I want to make things right with my daughter.”
When Kate was almost twenty years old, I found her profile on Facebook. She was nothing like I remembered, of course. The last time I had a good look at her, she was a cherub-like child. I marveled at the young woman whose photo stopped my heart.
Kate and I exchanged messages for a bit and I gave her my number. I rehearsed every possible scenario of this phone call in my mind for twelve years. I was ready for anything. Whatever she wanted to know or hear or tell me, I was ready. I would tell. I would speak. I would listen.
Her soft voice and southern drawl made me smile. Ever since my first pregnancy, I’d dreamt of this day. Kate’s brothers are my sons. And if I knew nothing else about her, this fact was enough to keep my heart wide open with space reserved just for her.
She’d done nothing wrong. None of this was her fault. It didn’t matter that the rest of the family seemed content to pretend that she never existed. It didn’t matter that her father and I were divorced, it didn’t matter that I could not remember the last time he’d spoken of her. Kate wanted to talk to me.
I felt a surge of excitement, mixed up with relief. Kate was the elephant in the room for the duration of my marriage to her father. Even after our divorce, when he’d provide for, indulge, or champion one of my sons, my heart would whisper, “what about Kate?”
She was the person I had hoped for and wondered about for all this long time. Any girl with a slight resemblance made me imagine what she looked like. Whenever our caller ID showed a number we didn’t recognize, I wondered for a split second if it might be her.
To finally hear her voice made my distant, hopeless dream come true. Talking to Kate after all these years felt like receiving a precious gift that I felt unworthy to accept. After she told me all about her life, what she wanted to study in college, and where and how she lived for all these years, she had so many questions.
I answered them all. I told her the truth.
I didn’t know why her father never called. I didn’t know exactly why her mother wanted her to be adopted by her step-father. I didn’t get into the details back then because at that time, I felt like it was not my place. I told her I didn’t understand any of it, that if it had been up to me, things would be different.
I hoped that she understood this – it was never up to me. I would have made her part of our family. I would have sent her photos and videos of her brothers. They would have called her and we would have sent her gifts every holiday and on her birthday. I told her all about her brothers and confessed that they didn’t know very much about her. After her father signed away his paternal rights, her name was rarely mentioned by anyone in the family, but I never forgot about her.
Kate is now twenty six years old. She has her own life, her own aspirations, and her own struggles 1,400 miles away from me. I can’t make up for two decades of lost time and I don’t have all the answers about her father’s absence from her life, but I will always respond when she messages or calls. I’ll always let her know she is welcome, she is family, she is treasured, and she is important.
I don’t know if that’s good enough for Kate. She deserves so much more. I can’t fill the hole her father left in her heart. All I can do is promise that nothing she says or does will ever change how I feel about her. All I can do is make sure she knows that I’m here for her now.
“Hey, how’s life?” I message back.
It’s not enough.