The first time I saw my father’s face was when my mom showed me his picture in an issue of Jet. She turned to a section that featured wedding announcements, pointed to a beautiful, happy couple, and told me that the man in the photo was my father and the woman was his wife.
I was young—only about seven at the time—and confused. I didn’t understand that the couple had likely submitted the photo themselves. As far as I knew, this man was rich, famous, and living a fabulous life that I didn’t fit into.
Before this moment, I don’t remember spending much time even aware of the fact that I didn’t have an active father in my life. Love was never something I had to look far for. The trio of strong, devoted women who raised me — my mom, grandmother, and aunt — surrounded me with it, as did our extended family and friends.
But I didn’t know how deeply I craved the presence of a father figure until I got the chance to have one — five years later, when I would meet my father for the first time.
In the summer of 2004, I had just turned 12 years old. As a sheltered only child, my life consisted of going to school, running errands on the weekends, and running up the cellphone bill by constantly messaging my friends before unlimited texting was a thing.
One Saturday afternoon, after spending the entire morning being dragged from one store to the next, I was watching TV when my mom called me into her room. This usually meant she wanted me to do some kind of chore around the house, so I took my time getting up. But when I took those few, slow steps across the hall, I saw her sitting on her bed, in the same spot where she showed me that magazine. This time, though, she had tears in her eyes.
She asked me to sit down and told me that she had just gotten off a phone call with my father. A mutual friend of theirs had given her his number and encouraged her to make the meeting happen.
This was difficult for her, to say the least. She had always been protective of me, and the idea of exposing me — and herself — to rejection by someone who amounted to a stranger was overwhelming.
Yet I couldn’t help but feel a little excited. In the five years since finding out about my father, I had built up questions in my mind about this other half of me and where it came from. Did I have any siblings? Where did my family come from? I was finally going to get answers.
The next day, when the doorbell rang, it felt like my stomach leaped into my chest. I heard loud, unfamiliar footsteps come up the hallway stairs, through the front door, and into the living room. This was him. My father. He was taller than I expected and had a contagious smile. His normal speaking voice was strong enough to hear from three rooms away. Despite wearing sweats, he was immaculately put together. And he looked almost exactly like me, just older.
This first conversation didn’t last long. He asked me how I was doing, introduced himself by his first name, and said it was a pleasure to meet me. I didn’t talk much, because I was generally shy and because the weight of the moment wouldn’t let me get out more than a few words at a time.
As soon as he left, though, the words came back. I instantly ran to my room to call my best friend and shout, “I just met my dad!”
For the next couple weekends, he would come over, and we’d catch up on the couch for a few minutes. We still kept each other at arm’s length, sticking to the safe topics: how I was doing in school, if I liked sports, what I did for fun. Then we started going to get food together and finding out what we had in common — like growing up on Chicago’s South Side and our shared appreciation of mild sauce.
Slowly, the image I had created of him in my mind began to morph into who he actually was: not some A-list celebrity who was a regular fixture in magazines, but a man who was able to turn a football scholarship and college degree into a successful career in pharmaceutical sales and a strong marriage to a confident, charming, and poised woman who had even more accomplishments to her name.
After the results of a paternity test came back, confirming what was obvious to everyone involved, it was official. I finally had a dad. And a stepmother who couldn’t wait to meet me and welcome me into her home and family. And a baby sister I couldn’t wait to meet. A few months later, I was able to stop calling him by his first name and just call him Dad — and it didn’t even feel forced.
I wish I could say my life became a fairy tale after this, that I’d finally filled this giant void in my life and would live happily ever after. But that’s far from the truth.
When my mother first showed me that photo of my father in Jet, it triggered a reaction I didn’t expect: If my father was able to be this happy without me, I thought somewhere deep down, maybe I was the problem.
At first, that manifested in resentment — fantasies in which I tracked down my father, scaled the wrought-iron gate surrounding his mansion, and rang the doorbell. “Hey, I’m Keith, your son,” I’d say to him when he opened the door. “Just wanted you to know I made it without you.” (Yes, that’s my version of the moment in Drumline when Devon brings his father tickets to his high school graduation after the ceremony.)
But those feelings of inadequacy and rejection grew into something darker. I struggled with trusting and listening to male authority figures, so I started distancing myself from the same coaches and teachers with whom I previously had strong relationships. (To be honest, this is something I still have to keep an eye on.)
Competing impulses warred in my mind. I was proud that my dad was a successful businessman and adored by those who knew him, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was a stain on his stellar reputation. I felt torn between trying to make him proud — like playing football in school despite being horrible at it — and figuring out who I was. And even though I stayed at his house every other weekend by that point, I still couldn’t get a satisfying answer to simplest but most important question: Where were you?
My father had a very different approach to communicating than I was used to. He was loud, and he was direct, bushwhacking through tact and feelings on his way to make a point. This came to a head when my grades started to slip as a teenager — and he spent half an hour in the car telling me how ungrateful and unappreciative I was. Three years into our relationship, he hadn’t quite transitioned from friend to disciplinarian. I had it far better than he had at my age, he said; if I was going to waste this opportunity, he’d rather save the money he and my mom spent on tuition and send me to public school.
The truth is that I was depressed. I was still trying to process my own feelings about him, as well as myself, all while navigating adolescence — but I didn’t have the emotional vocabulary to express any of that. I didn’t know how to tell myself, let alone him, how hard this all was. So I just sat in the passenger seat outside my mom’s house and let him yell at me until he finally told me to get out of the car.
For the first time in my entire life — and, to this day, the only time — I felt rage, bone-deep. So deep that I went into the house, punched a hole in my bedroom wall, and stormed outside to cry in the backyard. I was letting out all the angry, hurtful things I wanted to say back to him in the moment but knew I would regret later on.
In hindsight, as difficult as those first few years were for me, they were likely difficult for him, too. He was learning how to be a dad. My younger sister had just been born a few months before we met. He went from devoting years to bolstering an impressive career and having no kids to having two in a few weeks’ time — the twins would come a couple years later. I can only imagine how much of a whirlwind that must’ve been.
I remember the exact moment when I forgave my dad. I was 21, back home from college for Thanksgiving. Our relationship had actually improved a lot — I’d even added his last name to mine — but there was always a wall I couldn’t break through.
We were sitting at the kitchen table and talking about trauma and emotional baggage. It was the holiday season, and he was reflecting on how close he is, or isn’t, with some of our extended family members who would rather not stay in touch. He shared some revealing information about his own traumatic upbringing for the first time. I was amazed at how he’d managed to find his way to happiness despite practically growing up in his own Lifetime special, filled with instances of abuse, abandonment, and neglect that no one should have to endure.
That was when I realized that as far as dads go, I was still pretty lucky. While mistakes were surely made along the way, he was a good man. He took care of his family as best he could and was always there when I needed him. In time, that family changed my life for the better. It gave me a loving stepmother whom I gravitated to first and consider to be one of my parents, as well as siblings who aren’t old enough to remember a time when I wasn’t around and just view me as their doting, goofy big brother — nothing “half” about it.
But most importantly, I realized that holding onto these feelings of anger and disdain wasn’t helping anyone, especially me. Even if my dad hadn’t grown into such a presence in my life, holding onto resentment wasn’t going to bring me peace.
To this day, I still don’t know the whole truth about why my father wasn’t around. Both of my parents tell very different stories about their time together and apart — including if they tried to contact each other after I was born. I’ve done my best to find the truth, but I’ve had to come to peace with the fact that I may never actually know.
And I don’t think I need to. Many of us are forced to live without the positive influence of one of the people whose love and support are supposed to always be there. Whether that’s due to tragedy or simply poor decisions, the children are often left to carry the burden. I’m now around the age my dad was when I was born, and at this point, he’s been in my life for longer than he hasn’t. I know that makes me one of the lucky ones; I also know that someday my own children might well simply know him as Grandpa, effectively restoring the chain that nearly broke during my childhood. Repairing our relationship took time, and trust, and forgiving each other and ourselves. But the result has repaid that work many times over.
Just before the holidays, my dad and stepmom came over to have dinner with my girlfriend and me at my apartment. It was my first time having them over, and wanting to make them proud made me more nervous than I’d like to admit; I spent the entire day cleaning and picking up food and new dishes. But the second he walked in, my dad was the same as he’d been when I was 12 and he first walked down the hallway: well-dressed with a contagious smile and a presence — and voice — that could fill a room.