In an exclusive memoir for Red, Andi reflects on how her father's absence affected her view of romantic relationships, moulding her memory of him into something no other man could live up to...
My mum and auntie whispering in the room next door, mainly in Yoruba with the odd untranslated English word – that’s how I discovered my dad wasn’t coming home. I was seven yet it didn’t feel like an earth-shattering moment – that would come later.
My dad was often away working for Nigeria Airways, so I had only fragmented memories of him before he left, and many of those weren't exactly glowing examples of parenthood. The odd birthday in our tower block flat, that Christmas he gave me a glass of champagne and I collapsed on the sofa aged about six, the time he accidentally shut my fingers in the car door as we were leaving for a day out at Kew Gardens, or when he dropped my brother at school by driving right into the playground – no doubt sending kids yelping for cover. But then he was gone for good.
In the vacuum of his absence and with only disjointed recollections, my dad took on a mythical status, someone I longed for, who would, one day, return. Because despite his calamitous parenting I elevated him onto a pedestal. However, his departure had also set something in motion within me, a tempest brewing.
Quickly, family life settled into a groove. My school years unfolded largely as one would expect for a bespectacled geek who loved maths and being in the choir and who’d had zero interactions with boys. However, once I reached college, I started to find my voice, becoming opinionated, strong and fiercely independent. I began to cultivate a narrative that I was self-made and autonomous, sharing it with anyone who would listen. This, of course, was my response to a deep sense of abandonment I was still unaware of, a belief I was alone in this world. It was also, probably an early sign the tempest was amassing power.
Slowly, these traits began to mutate. My independence turned into stubbornness and my strength became aggression coated in a brittle exterior that saw me quick to anger. My intimate relationships were drama-filled and volatile. When I wasn’t angry, I was crying because beneath my armour-plated shell I was in immense pain. I would sob, sometimes for hours, over my dad, asking how he could do this to us, how he could abandon his daughter?
By my late twenties I was waking up every morning in a depression that I exhausted myself trying to mask. I was a wreck. The tempest had, at last, consumed me.
After some encouragement from my then boyfriend, I finally found a therapist, Adele, and began the work I should have started years earlier. On our first meeting, Adele said very little, simply gesturing for me to speak. I immediately began to weep but this time my tears felt like a release of pain over my father rather than an indulgence of it.
Through our sessions, the aftermath of my dad’s departure became apparent. I saw how, with my tough exterior, I’d been making a toxic attempt to father myself – to be my own warrior battling all and every perceived threat – often pre-emptively. I was in constant fight-mode.
Eventually Adele proposed reconnecting with my dad. My heart raced at the suggestion because by this point, we’d been out of touch for many years. But I decided to go for it. Tracking him down was a comically protracted affair but eventually I found him. And when, at last, we spoke on the phone I instantly felt a circuit complete within me. Once again, I had a mother and a father.
I excitedly shared this development with my family and was surprised by their muted responses. It was only after speaking with my mum that I became aware of the pedestal I had put my father on. Due to my tender years at the time he left, my view of him was completely distorted. However, mum knew the truth. That although he appeared to be a charming if haphazard chancer, he was in fact, violent, manipulative and abusive.
Knowing this, it was impossible to continue a relationship with him and eventually I severed ties, an ironic turn of events that saw me disappeared from his life as quickly as he had from mine. But I didn’t feel I owed him anything and as time has gone on, I’m convinced Adele encouraged me to reach out to him not for reconnection but completion. The experience provided a huge breakthrough but it would not be the last insight I’d have about the impact of his absence.
Last year, I found myself sifting through the detritus of yet another failed relationship and as I compared it to previous ones a pattern emerged like the detail in a magic eye print. Though the faces changed, with each man, I’d created the same dynamic, time and time again. I would fall in love, plant them on a pedestal only to sink into an inevitable disillusionment when they failed to meet my sky-high expectations. These weren’t even relationships. They were fairy tales and in an instant, I realised, that this ‘Once Upon A Time’ model had begun with my dad.
Fathers are the archetype for their daughter’s future partner – but in my dad’s absence I’d created my own archetype that was unachievable and idealised – as I had idealised him. From there, how could any man relate to me when I was relating to them through the lens of how near or far from my fantasy they were? After years of longing for my happy-ever-after, rooted in my relationship with my father, or more accurately, his absence, the fiction was finally exposed… and it was liberating.
It freed me from my personal and socialised ideals of romance, allowing me to define it on my terms. This meant it was possible to be with someone without the previously felt urgency to turn what we had into anything other than a chance to spend time together. There was no insatiable quest for the happy-ever-after, just the happy today. And that’s how I was able to meet Dean. With him I'm in no rush. We’re simply taking things one date at a time. This approach may seem ridiculously obvious, but for someone who’s been chasing a fantasy for decades, it’s a joy and near-revolutionary act.
It continues to amaze me how much my father’s absence has affected me. Even though I made peace with his choices, the impact of a person or situation can reside within us and shape our lives long after we’ve released them from blame or responsibility.
Out of my father’s decision, I began to tell a story, one where the protagonist had to be strong, battle everyone in a world in which she was alone, just to shield a broken heart – or at least the perception of one. It’s taken years and much self-inquiry to understand my relationship with my dad’s absence and that, in fact, it’s an ongoing journey. There is no destination called ‘healed’ but simply a continual odyssey into ourselves as we peel back layer after layer of the protective story we envelope ourselves in. A story I’m re-writing with each new insight, so I can live more freely and get to know who I really am and what I really want.
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