I can remember what I was doing on each and every one of my birthdays since I was 3. A Mickey Mouse themed 3rd birthday with neighborhood friends, a house party when I was 4, a trip to the movies when I was 5, an amusement park when I was 6, Chuck E Cheese when I was 7. By the time I was 8 my home life had come undone. Love couldn’t win over crack. Crack turned my doting father into a scary man that I didn’t recognize but for some reason I still waited up for the stranger that answered to my father’s name every night on the stairs.
I am a person who does not sleep well — a diagnosed insomniac. On a good night, I will get 6 hours of sleep. In a good week, I will sleep for 6 hours on 4 out of 7 days. If I take medication, I can get more hours but I am overly cautious about taking medication, about doing any drug.
I am an insomniac because of my father’s drug addiction. People never really discuss the habits you develop when you are the child of an addict. Crack changed both my father and me. It kept him out late. It kept me up late. It made him quick to anger. It filled me with rage. I’ve worked on the rage, I still haven’t quite figured out how to sleep.
What had started as me waiting for him to come from work became me watching the door waiting to see who would come home that night — the papa who bought me candy and played games with me in the yard or the vacant-eyed wraith who had used a test tube from my chemistry set as a crack pipe?
I remember all of my birthdays but I don’t remember when I started waiting up for my father to come home from his side gig as a DJ. But I was very young when I began to leave my room to sit on the landing of the stairs and wait for my father. My mother, my sister, my aunt, might try to put me to bed but I would end up on the steps. Waiting. Before crack took over, I remember him coming in tired, but with a smile for me as he carried me to my room. My father was the center of my world. He had a big smile and he always brought me some small gift or treat home from work. I ate over-gravied egg foo yung when the family had Chinese takeout because he liked it and it meant that just the two of us would share the cute container. I reveled in being told I looked like him. He was my papa. And I did not sleep well until he was at home.
What had started as me waiting for him to come from work became me watching the door waiting to see who would come home that night — the papa who bought me candy and played games with me in the yard or the vacant-eyed wraith who had used a test tube from my chemistry set as a crack pipe? My child’s mind turned nighttime into a time to contemplate how things that had once been so real and good could become fantastically horrible. I developed the habit of replaying every moment of the day in my head at night. Had something happened that caused him to retreat into the small bathroom and emerge wild-eyed and restless? What could I do to fix it? How could I make it so that my mother didn’t look so stressed out when she got home? What had I done that caused them to argue in hushed voices behind their bedroom door?
By the time I was 8, I knew my father was on drugs. No one ever talked to me about it. All around me the adults pretended — for my sake, I guess — that what was happening in our house was not happening. When I discovered the broken and burned test tube from the chemistry set stuffed at one end with bits of Brillo tucked into the back of a cabinet, it was because I had went looking for it in the middle of the night. I had seen him go in the room and come out. I left the cabinet door open, left the contents exposed, so that someone else would know and see. They saw and then didn’t say a word to me about it. Each night I sat on the landing of the stairs trying to think my way out of the problems that the adults around me never spoke to me about. I waited for someone to tell me something, to explain it, to tell me why he had chosen to spend more and more time away from home, away from me.
When I was younger, I’d fall asleep on the steps waiting for him. By the time I was 8, I would stay awake — waiting, watching, wanting. I’ve never been able to undo that damage. I still stay up almost every night overthinking everything. The child me thought that if I could just get a handle on what the problem was, we could fix it. The adult me knows better but frequently is unable do better and go to sleep. I wrote this at 2 am because I couldn’t sleep.
Each time I rode that bike I felt like I was betraying myself, failing to keep my righteous anger at him for getting us kicked out of our house, for breaking my heart, for becoming a stranger.
One night, just before I turned 9, my father full of crack rage, came home in the middle of the night and ordered everyone out — my mother, my sister, my aunt, everyone — but me — had to go. For all of the things we would disagree about later, my mother and I agreed there was no way in Hell I should stay with him alone as he tweaked out. I don’t know that I had ever chosen to leave my father on purpose until that day. I was the sort of kid that would cry and whine when her father had to go anywhere without her. That was the last night I would live with the stranger that crack made of my father. That night everyone stayed up all night until the morning.
By the time I turned ten, the house where I had spent so many nights on the stairs had a padlock on the door, all of my favorite things still inside. There was no big birthday celebration that year. I didn’t want to celebrate anyway. I was living in an apartment in a neighborhood where I had gotten into a fight the day after we moved in. I laid in bed that night, a few weeks before my birthday and thought up a lie to tell my mom about where I gotten the scratch on my face. She probably doesn’t even remember that day. I do, in vivid detail, because I turned it over in my mind a thousand times that sleepless night. I still had the scab on my cheek on my birthday. I remember picking at it in the backseat of my mother’s car as we drove to some church function.
I hated middle school even though I made good grades. I became an angry kid. I spent everyday afraid. Everything and everyone it seemed wanted to hurt me. It might not have been true, but it felt true. I spent those three years hoping that the worst case scenarios I played out in my head at night would not come true. My mother had a new boyfriend. A man who I hated mostly because he drank too much and he hated me. I spent many sleepless nights wondering if my father knew that I was afraid of my mother’s boyfriend, that I lived in a neighborhood where I had to fight, that the lights had been turned off even though my mom was working two jobs.
I was 11 the last time my father showed up for his scheduled visitation. He bought me a bike, an early birthday gift. It was the last thing he ever gave me and I hated that it was great bike. It was a 10 speed mountain bike, purple not pink, with wide wheels. I didn’t have many nice things — it was the nicest of all of my things. Each time I rode that bike I felt like I was betraying myself, failing to keep my righteous anger at him for getting us kicked out of our house, for breaking my heart, for becoming a stranger.
My birthday is a day before my mother’s birthday. Confusing, I know. My birthday is on the 5th and hers is on the 6th. I was born 30 years and 364 days after my mother. We spent my 12th birthday at my godparents’ house. My godmother cooked and there was a cake for us to share. I didn’t eat. I had gotten into an argument with my mother’s boyfriend. She had, as she always did, taken his side. It was a fight about something trivial but I remember it. I remember staying up all night. I remember all of my birthdays.
I got my ears pierced for the second time and my own phone line at our apartment for my 13th birthday. They were gifts signaling a temporary peace between my mother and me. 13 was a hard year but that day was a good day. I slept and didn’t wake up until late the next morning. (I turned 13 in 1992, the same year Ice Cube is rumored to have had the eponymous good day of his classic song.)
The last time I saw my father was just before I turned 14.
I hadn’t seen him for 3 years. A friend of mine moved to a new subdivision. Her neighbors turned out to be my uncle and his wife. I had been seen in the friend’s yard by one of my cousins. I hadn’t seen any of them for years, I wouldn’t have recognized them even though they recognized me. Somehow my mother was called and plans were made. I would be picked up for a cookout by the one cousin on my father’s side who I still saw on occasion. And surprise — my father would be there! I was told he would be there in the car on the way. They treated springing my absentee father on me like a gift that I should be happy to receive. Being forced to make small talk with the stranger who had my father’s face made me feel sick inside. After, I stayed up for 3 straight days trying to make sense of it. I was delirious and couldn’t keep anything on my stomach. I remember thinking I might die from the shakes that not eating and not sleeping gave me. No one seemed to notice when I barely ate any of the cake my mother bought home for our shared birthday celebration. I snuck out of the house that night to hang out with friends to do things that parents pray their children won’t do at 14. I came back in with the Sun.
In my twenties, my father ceased to exist. He hasn’t died really, or at least I don’t think he has, I simply don’t have any interest in his existence. Late one horrible night when I was broke and broken and wondering who in the world would help me fix what was wrong, I realized that I had often wished for the return of my father. He had become this always wanted and never present figure in my late night imagination. I was addicted to the thought of him. Was he thinking of me? Who would he have been if he hadn’t become an addict? Who would I have been if he hadn’t become an addict? Every question led to another more painful one because the reality was he was not and could not be anything other than whatever he had become and that person was not in my life.
The disappointment I felt about his absence was just another thing to be hurt by and I had plenty of wounds to heal. I decided that I couldn’t keep the rage or the hope or the longing I had when I thought about my father anymore. If he no longer existed, I no longer had to keep worrying myself over his absence. I started telling people who inquired I was a fatherless child. It was true and it set me free from carrying the imagined him around in my head. After a fitful night of crying and screaming that threatened to rend me to pieces if I didn’t stop, I went to sleep as the Sun came up and slept the whole next day. I lost no more precious and rare hours of sleep imagining a father I would never have or wanting an impossible relationship with a father that could somehow make up for the missed birthdays, graduations, and all the traumas.
If I saw him on the street today I’d walk past him even if I recognized him.
My father stopped being for me one day in my twenties. I’m not faking. One day, it was like I wrote my imagined father out of the story of my life and only those few memories of the man from my childhood remained. His story line ended in my universe. His character got no more plot points. Until I started thinking about my upcoming birthday, I actually had not thought about my father in years unless prompted by someone else. On my birthday last year, a family member lamented how sad it was that he and I had no relationship. I shrugged and meant it. Perhaps he is sad about it. I am not. I grew up without a father. It is who I am. I’ve given it all the tears or time it will ever get from me. I don’t much care if that makes other people uncomfortable. I have, without a moment’s hesitation, told family members I do not need or want updates on the man who my father became. If I saw him on the street today I’d walk right past him, even if I recognized him.
A good friend of mine also has a father who has been a crack addict most of her life. Over the years, we’ve wondered together if it was better to have no father than to have one like hers who comes in and out of her life, bringing destruction every time. We’ve agreed it makes no sense to compare our suffering. I am not thankful that I lost my father to crack. I am not a better person because I was able to think myself — after years of sleepless nights — out of a father and my friend still struggles to help hers. She is an incredibly resilient and empathetic person but she’d trade those traits in second to not have lived the hurt of being a child of an addict. She’d give up her great story of perseverance to keep him from taking the first hit. I’ve turned fear and rage into some type of wonderful life, and still, I might fight anyone who dared to say all the bad happened for a reason. I owe the child me more than the cop out that her pain was necessary for my adult happiness.
I remember all of my birthdays. Some of them were great and some were terrible. Maybe I’ll share more about them as my big 40th approaches but right now I’ve been staying up nights thinking about how good the last decade has been and about that summer I turned 9.
I spent my 30th birthday in Atlantic City with my home girls and my husband. I met and married him in my 29th year. Though I’ve had some serious health issues, this has been the best decade of my life yet. I have spent everyday of the last 10 years of my life being loved by the best dude. We had our daughter a month after I turned 31.
We have roles in our house. He puts her to bed, I wake her up. He and the girl have a nighttime routine. He comes in and chats with her before telling her to “be great, not just good” the next day. He often has to go into work before she wakes up, so the nighttime talk is essential. They are the best of friends. I’m pretty sure she only eats strawberry ice cream because he eats strawberry ice cream and I hate it. She looks just like him. They both sleep well and snore, while I stay up late. And on the approach of my 40th year, it hasn’t escaped my notice that this year I am the age my mother was when her marriage was falling apart and that my daughter is about to turn 9, the same age I was when I spent the last night on the stairs waiting to see which version of my father would walk through the door.