A letter to the dad who left me, and the dad who loved me.
To the Dad Who Left Me,
It’s amazing how memories fade at different paces. It has been 25 years since I’ve seen your face, but I remember it so clearly. It’s the face that built my dreams and broke my heart.
I can’t remember where I put my car keys yesterday, but I can remember your strong arms. I can still see the way you wore your plaid work shirts with the sleeves rolled up to your elbows. I can almost feel the wind on my face as you spun me around and around. Those arms were stronger than anything else in the whole world– except for maybe my doubts.
I can’t remember to take the trash out, but I can remember the sound of your laughter. It took up the whole room. I remember the way you slipped your arm around Mom’s waist, and you two laughed together. Your laugh was powerful that way. It made all of us come alive.
But it had the power to leave us feeling empty, too. Slowly, laughter morphed into yelling. You started going away for evenings that turned into days, and then days turned into weeks. The yelling ended and it was replaced with silence. That was the hardest part.
I forget so many things in my day-to-day life, but I will never forget watching you drive away for the last time…
Years have passed since I’ve seen you, but you never really left. Your shadow has stayed with me. Your absence burned a hole in me—one that hasn’t fully closed, even after all this time. I see you sometimes; when my son smiles, I see your dimples. When my daughter cries, I see your frown. You hide in the shadows, and I catch glimpses of you when I least expect it.
When you left, you set into motion a domino effect. You made 10,000 decisions on the day you drove away. You decided I would never go to a daddy-daughter dance. You decided I would never see a husband serve his wife. You decided that I should have to fill your shoes when Mom needed someone to lean on.
You tied my hands in countless ways. You set my feet on a path, and I was forced to walk it. There were thousands of things I could not decide, but there is one thing I can choose: forgiveness.
I choose to forgive you because doing so empowers me. I choose to forgive you because you took so much away from me, and I’m reclaiming my voice. I choose to forgive you because the alternative is bitterness, and we all know that bitterness is poison.
I forgive you, Dad. And I’m releasing you.
To the Dad Who Loved Me,
You weren’t the first man I called by that name. But you were the first one to earn it.
I remember the night when we first met. Mom invited you over for dinner. You cracked jokes at the dinner table and put a phone book beneath me when I couldn’t reach my plate. You played horsey on the floor with my little brother. You lit the spark in my mom’s eyes.
You came to our house for dinners weekly after that. Each time you pushed me on the swings or built Lego towers—each time you showed me that I was worth your time—I felt a piece of myself come back to life. My first dad erased me when he left, but I reappeared every time you walked through the door.
You were different from my first dad. Your arms were not as strong, but they hugged me longer. Your laughter didn’t lift us quite so high, but neither did your anger crush us. You were gentle when my first dad had been intense. And I never had to wonder if you would be home when I woke up in the morning.
One night when I was 7, I couldn’t sleep. You came into my room and sat on my bed. Rubbing my back, you asked what was wrong.
“Daddy, do I get to keep you?” I asked. You laughed and said, “No, do I get to keep YOU?”
It has taken me years to understand why those little acts of kindness meant so much to me. Here’s what I’ve realized: Children crave their parents’ attention because it makes them feel known—deeply and intrinsically. When a parent abandons a child, it communicates that the child isn’t worth knowing.
You didn’t just know me—you delighted in me. Your attention communicated that I wasn’t broken. In your eyes, I was dazzling. You freely gave of your time and energy, and that restored my dignity.
Over the years, we struggled to bond. I wanted a father, but had no idea how to be a daughter. I pushed and pulled. I stretched your love thin. You remained steady, but sometimes I could see that you were tired.
People talk about the virtues of adoption, but they rarely talk about the hardships. You never hear about the difficulties that step-parents and children face on a daily basis. You lived with my first dad’s decisions, too. Even after years of being my parent, you had to fight away his shadow.
When I was little, I thought God sent you to be my knight in shining armor. But the truth is, there were times when you let me down. And I’m so glad that you did, because you used those times as opportunities to point me to my heavenly Father. You knew how important it would be for me to encounter the One who will never leave me nor forsake me.
And that’s the greatest gift you could have given me. It’s more precious than having my biological father in the picture. It’s more valuable than having a perfect step-father. And I can never thank you enough for that.
I love you, Dad. And I’m going to keep you.