I learned this morning that my dad passed away. Last week, I was put on warning via many message requests from lots of people that I have never met and others from my childhood past, who tracked me down, letting me know he was in the hospital, on life support. I didn’t respond to many of them because I simply didn’t know what to say. I mean, what do you say to people you’ve never even heard of in regards to your father, who you haven’t seen since you were 8 years old?
I went back and forth on what to do and settled on writing him a letter. I sent this to his brother, who then read it to him.
“Hey, I just wanted you to get this and hear this from me.
It was never easy growing up and, as you know, my mom and mi Abuelita took over and made me who I am. They were my parents, BUT I haven’t forgotten the memories of driving the truck in the desert, or riding on the back of a dirt bike, or doing donuts in the parking lot of 7-11 with you. There were a few good times that I do remember and thought you should know that.
The walls that are built around my heart are only to protect myself and I am sorry if you haven’t gotten from me what you hoped, but I had to build a healthier path than the one that was paved for me at a young age.
As I said to my mom during her last hours and what I say to you now, I hope you can let go and fly free. Let go knowing you are surrounded by people who do love you, who know about all the good things you’ve done and the depths of your heart and soul. It doesn’t matter what happens at the end, but the relationship that came before, so rest knowing what came before is the reason you are surrounded by people who love you. Just know that I’ll hold in my heart the memories and every second whether it was filled with joy or sadness, it has made me who I am and I can say that I turned out pretty rad. I hope you get to ride all the dirt bikes you want and drink all the Big Gulps up there. If I ever do donuts in a 7-11 parking lot again, rest easy knowing I’ll think of you. With much love, Tara”
I wrote that knowing those would be the last words he would hear from me and I feel like it was the right decision. No, I didn’t rush to his side, but I also wasn’t someone who was in his life for the past 25 years. We were basically strangers who shared some DNA. Now, my decision may seem cold to most, to just write a letter, but most do not know what led me to that choice. My dad wasn’t all bad, but he grappled with demons as many do. Sometimes those demons can be tempered and sometimes those demons destroy. I had a dad whose demons, destroyed.
So, here’s my story, for better or worse. If there’s anyone else out there who may have a tangled past and some hard choices ahead that you may not know how to battle, maybe my story will help you combat your own.
When I was 6, my mom and I ran away from my dad, in the middle of the night to the sweet safety of The Excalibur Hotel and Casino. My dad knew where our usual hiding spot was, in the comfort of Mi Abuelita’s home. I assume the exhaustion from the thought of having to call the cops again when he showed up, then throw me over the fence to the safety of the neighbors, and then calm my grandpa into not actually using his shotgun, was all too much. He was a threat to my mom, the nerdy, smart, civil engineer, who would no longer stand for an environment that was unworthy of the life she was trying to build.
There were times in between that were fun, like motocross races and trips to Disneyland, but they were also mixed in with darker times, which came often and far outweighed the good.
I remember being taken to a couple Vegas parties as a youngster and being left to my own devices. Thankfully there would always be a woman who would take me under her wing, while my dad disappeared to do whatever he did. There was also a trip to The Aladdin Hotel and Casino parking lot that I’ll never forget. We sat and waited in the parking lot, for his new girlfriend to come out, so he could get my 5 year old opinion on whether or not I thought she was pretty. She seemed shocked to see him, as she walked out in her cocktail waitress uniform, looking tired from the weight of serving Sin City. He said, “Isn’t she pretty?” as she simultaneously asked, “What are you doing here?”
Just because he took breaks from stalking my mom, didn’t mean that those unchecked demons, feelings, whatever you want to call them, just flew away. They were simply replaced with stalking the next quick fix, to fill the void. I don’t know what caused that void, but I know that it followed him around like a dark shadow. A shadow that would eventually take him to jail, for reasons that are still unbeknownst to me.
I was left as the only child and only protection between my fragile mom and my hot tempered dad. There were so many fights that happened when I was a toddler and I don’t remember much, but I do remember, one time, screaming “STOP” with the most guttural power I could muster. Their immediate look of pure shock is what I’ll never get out of my head. That was the moment I think my dad realized that this little Tara was filled with so much fear and buried anger from the violence, that from here on out, he would need to find ways to keep it out of sight. Luckily, the violence was never towards me, but that didn’t mean the scarring was any less.
As I said, we ran away when I was 6, but let’s skip ahead for a moment to 12 years old. Being 12 is already odd, but it’s especially odd when you receive birthday cards from the local penitentiary. I remember writing my last card to him saying that I forgave him and I hoped he’d find God. You see, things had gotten so bad in public school that I was sent to a Christian private school, where I found Jesus. Honestly, it was the best thing that could have happened to me as a kid. Although, as an adult, I don’t share the same beliefs, it was still the change I needed back then, in order to become who I am today. I was able to set boundaries, realize I wasn’t defined by a crap past and found a healthier path.
After that last letter, Mi Abuelita would always notify me and ask me if I wanted to read a Christmas or birthday card from him and I would say “No”. I simply reached a point where I was done. I was done addressing cards to jail. I was done trying to make someone feel better for their mistakes. I was done having a dad, because I had my mom and Mi Abuelita and they were the wonderful, smart and kind foundation that raised me up and out of the crap that came before.
There was a reason, when I was just 6 years old, that my mom ran like a bat out of hell, even while knowing she would be a single mother, who had been recently diagnosed with MS, who would eventually lose her ability to walk. A mother who would not be able to live life, with her only daughter, in the way she had imagined. She would be back living in her high school home, re-learning how to walk with a cane, all whilst trying to show her daughter, that even with everything against her she would always find a way to keep her safe. Even if it meant running or restraining orders, or staying on the Vegas strip for days at a time, after pawning most of what we owned. My safety would never be compromised. While she couldn’t physically defend herself, she would defend her honor. She would not allow her bumpy past to define hers or her daughter’s future.
Even with a handicap, she became one of the first female lead civil engineers at the Las Vegas Valley Water District, by the time I was 9. She was able to buy a home, send her daughter to a college preparatory school and rewrite her own story. The beginning would no longer begin with a happy relationship that turned sour, but an only daughter and her mother defying the odds. A duo, that even when she was bed ridden, would still be grateful for having time on this earth. A team that would only look forward knowing each day we were given was a gift and should be treated as such. Of course, we would forget, especially when it would take 3 hours just to get my mom out of bed and dressed. She’d be cursing her legs, while I’d be cursing at how cold the house had to be to keep her tremors at bay. But even then, there was always a moment where we would stop and remember… we were still here, which meant we were still #winning.
I think in the end, my dad found his winning side of life, got sober and found good people to surround himself with. I’d like to think that the strongest of demons can be pulverized and I believe the man whose DNA I share, is a man that was able to do just that, right in the nick of time. I believe he also knew that my mom overcame everything, with the help of her mom and raised his only daughter in a home without demons, but in a home with love.
I’m sure he smiled at the thought of us doing donuts in the parking lot of a 7-11 and I can smile knowing that there were times with him that were simple, joyous and will forever be ingrained in my mind. I can rest easy knowing those memories are the ones I’ll choose to keep with me.
Rest in peace Dad and maybe when you run into my mom and Mi Abuelita up there you can give them a nod to let them know that even after everything, you turned it around.
I know that I will never forget my past, but I also will not dwell in it or close off my heart so that there’s zero risk of me ever feeling pain again. I’ll simply remember that life is full of broken pieces, but when looked at in the light, can shine rainbows. Most days, I go without seeing the rainbows or actively choosing a better outlook, but when that happens I remember it’s one day at a time. Just put one foot in front of the other and be thankful you’re here, because even if it’s painful, there will be rainbows around the bend.
Amidst a shadowed past and a lot of loss, I’m still choosing to see life as a wonderful adventure. I hope whoever is out there, grappling with demons or a bumpy past, can see the same. Should you ever lose sight of it, you know where to find me.