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A Conversation with My Dad

I searched for words to bridge the gap between Dad's disappointment and my desperation, but in the end, I didn't need to.

I packed my bags haphazardly, not really caring about the clothes I was bringing. Most of them I left for my sister, since soon none of them would fit me anyway. Dad was waiting downstairs alone. Alyson, my older sister, had left for school hours ago, and my step-mother was out of town. Her stipulation was that I be gone by the time she got back. They could've put me on a plane or train, but my dad chose instead to drive me the ten hours to Ohio. It was an odd choice for him to make, I thought. The car ride was bound for painful and awkward silence.

We rode in the car for three hours without saying a word. Long silences were not uncommon where my introverted father was concerned, and he was especially uncomfortable with conversations of any emotional kind. I opened my mouth a dozen times to say things, but closed it each time I realized there wasn't anything I should volunteer about my predicament. If he wasn't asking questions, how could I impose the answers on him? Regardless, even if he made the predictable queries, the answers weren't very enlightening. Yes, it was my first time. No, we didn't use anything. Yes, I knew better. No, I had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life.

If this last question were asked of my mother, however, the answer would be one of absolute certainty.

"You'll come home to Ohio," she'd said on the phone. "You'll have the baby here. I know of a high school program for expecting girls. And, of course, we'll help you raise it." These words were uttered between her sniffles and sobs, but the crying only lasted a few minutes. Maybe she was in shock. But it was more likely that, with four young kids of her own to take care of, she was comfortable with this crisis. It meant she was getting me back.

When I got back to the car with a bottle of Sprite and a box of Ritz crackers, Dad wasn't in the driver's seat. I spotted him in a phone booth with his head bent close to the receiver. Breaking open a sleeve of crackers, I watched him shake his head rigorously as he talked to my step-mother. They were fighting. This was a rare occurrence, and I felt guilty.

Dad walked slowly to the car.

"Debbie?" I asked, needlessly.

"Mm-hmm," he grumbled, and came around to unlock my side of the car. I took a deep breath as we both strapped on our seat belts.

"Dad? I'm so sorry." He didn't look up. "I didn't mean for this to happen," I croaked. Minutes of silence passed, and the despair was overwhelming. I thought of the past few agonizing weeks. The day I skipped school and took the pregnancy test alone, my hand shaking as I held the results. The day I first felt the morning sickness, at seven weeks along, and vomited in the smoke-filled girls' bathroom. The day I'd walked down our neighborhood street, as if in a bubble, and watched kids playing, people mulching their flower beds. I'd sat down on the curb and squeezed my eyes shut, wishing myself out of my own body.

I searched for words to bridge the gap between Dad's disappointment and my desperation, but in the end, I didn't need to.

"I love you," Dad said, his voice cracking. "And we're going home." He pulled off the next exit and headed back the way we'd come. I started to shake and cry, and he reached an arm over to comfort me. Finally.

In the hours that led us back home, he told me about Debbie's miscarriages. If I lived with them, she would be tormented by my pregnancy. She already was. Against her wishes, he was taking me back so that I could weigh my choices. This was the first time he'd spoken to me like an adult, so I answered in kind. I talked about Mom's alcoholism, a secret I'd buried for so long, and described how hard it had been to leave her. I couldn't bear going back.

The decision was an excruciating one.

After the abortion, my conversations with my father eventually trickled back to one-word grunts and perfunctory report card lectures. It would be years before we'd speak openly again. But in twenty years, I've never had a conversation with him matter more.


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