The House of My Father
I was born to the parents of James Stewart and my mother, Louise, in 1982. They already had two children, Jeremy, age 4, and Nicholas, age 1.5. Now boy number three was here and ready to fix everything again. The marriage was always partially a sham. Think of having a child as a bandaid applied to a bullet wound. If that bandaid got too old and the injury started bleeding again, it was time for a new bandaid. In 1979, my oldest brother Jeremy was born as a reaction to my parents getting back together. I learned this much later, but my parents split up after the first few years of marriage. They had gone their separate ways and began to see other people, but for whatever reason, they got back together, Mom ended up pregnant, and they welcomed their first son into the world. By 1981, the problems had come back, so onto bandaid, I mean son, number 2, Nicholas. However, it didn't take long for the issues to seep back in, so on October 27th, 1982, I, the newest bandaid, came to the rescue. It's not that we were just bandaids, of course. They wanted children for all the right reasons too. But nothing covers up a failing marriage like a cute baby in the house.
But the joke was really on them. You see, I was born with a disability in my legs called Upper Proximal Femoral Defeienncy or just upper PFFD for short. It means short thy bones. If you've ever watched King of the Hill and saw Hank's father, who was just all upper body, that's similar to how I look. My disability caused a few new wrinkles to emerge in the marriage. Doctor appointments, trips, new facilities, new doctors, more trips, speech therapy, physical therapy, and the list went on and on. As for my father, since his home life was full of stress and children, he might as well make the best of his work life.
James worked at our local church as a glorified handyman. He would build cabinets and doors, repair walls, and install appliances. I've always wondered why my father was there. He wasn't a great ideological thinker, and I don't believe I ever had a conversation with him about God, but he stayed because they paid him enough. I remember going to work with him, setting up in his office, and watching movies all day. When I was older, I would be allowed to roam the church. I wouldn't call it a mega church by today's standards, but it wasn't small either-multiple buildings, two stories, and a sanctuary that held 1000+ people in three different tiers. There were musical instruments on stage that I was allowed to play, and it's how I started to learn Piano and Drums. The acoustics in that place was excellent!
What we didn't know, however, was that door hinges weren't the only thing he was screwing at the church. Several affairs occurred during those years. I remember walking around the church looking for him and not finding him sometimes. As I stated, it was a big church, but sometimes I wondered exactly where he had gone. Looking back, I have to ask myself, was he with another woman, or was he somewhere I couldn't find? I'll never know for sure, and that is frustrating. I'll always second guess my memories and if they were naive child thoughts or if I knew the truth of the situation.
By my teenage years, everyone else thought my father was great, but my brothers and I started to see that something wasn't right. Kids talk to each other at school, and during my school days, the topic of parents fighting would come up. I can't remember who, but a friend once said their parents fought now and again. I stated that my parents fought every day. They looked at me and said, "Really? Wow, are they getting a divorce?" So I thought to myself, well, now I'm not sure. It had always been like this. Do you mean to tell me that no one else's parents did this and stayed married? The fights were loud enough to be heard outside the house. Usually, I would go to my room and turn on my music. Eventually, I learned not to notice the yelling. I didn't know the term then, but 'verbal abuse' perfectly describes the household where my Mom lived. I never saw or heard any physical abuse, but my Mom would tell it differently. I won't describe those out of respect for her, but you should know they occurred too.
My father's parenting style was mixed. On the one hand, he wanted to be a remarkable father, but on the other hand, he had to conform to my mother's more strict parenting style. Perhaps my Mom's strictness caused us to connect deeply with her. We knew that she was in control and that if anything happened, she could fix it. My father was a little all over the place. Occasionally, my father spanked us for swearing, but other times he would swear. He used to talk about drinking when he was younger but gave it up for Mom. Sometimes he knew what to do, and sometimes he just drew a blank. He loved classic rock but didn't want to appreciate 90s rock. So he just was kind of there most of the time.
By the time high school came around, things had taken a turn for the worse. Our landlords had forced my family to move out of our childhood home because they wanted to give it to their daughter as a wedding gift. So when I was 16, we moved about a mile down the road. Jeremy had already left for college two years prior, and Nicholas was gone to college now too. That left just the three of us. I could sense something was coming. They never talked to each other anymore unless it was about me. I was involved in anything I could be in at school to stay out of the house. The band, Jazz Band, Theater, and anything else came along. One day though, around my senior year, when both my brothers were home for the weekend, she called the three of us together and stated it was over suddenly. I wasn't sure what had happened besides another fight, just like every other fight from the last 18 years. Broken. my brothers and I went to IHOP at 11 pm, and I drank my first cup of coffee. We talked about our parents and how we always thought our family was different, but now we weren't. We were just another statistic, as Nicholas said.
A sense of depression set over us. In silence, we sat there. We were mixing in cream and sugar and pouring our sadness away-one cup after another. When we eventually returned home, it was past 1 am, and we just wanted to sleep. I didn't know it then, but nights like that wouldn't come again. Not because we wouldn't be sad in the future but because it would be one of the few times we would ever have to be brothers without parents, wives, or kids.
To my surprise, even though she announced the separation, her marriage wasn't over quite yet. The actual break wouldn't appear for another two years. I had moved away to the University of North Texas and came home with a girlfriend early in my second year. Her name was Desiree. Despite several years of crushes, girls, and heartbreak, my father never gave me any dating advice. Interestingly, he was great at finding women to sleep with but never had any advice to share about women.
If anyone ever had a problem, we went to Mom. I remember being in my dorm room, and if I needed to call home and my father answered the phone, I would either ask to speak with Mom directly or have very little to say to him. Having me always ask for Mom was hurtful to him as a father, which would hurt me too, but my father didn't work very hard on our relationship. I was 18 years old and trying to find my path, so I pushed him away. I assume that had my father and I had a closer relationship, I would have actually learned to reconnect as I did with my mother over the years, but sadly, he wouldn't give me a chance. We never talked about music which I loved, or cars and tools, which he loved. Sex was just not a topic I could ever speak to either parent about, and dating seemed to slip both of my parent's minds for some reason. I rarely discussed dating with either parent before or after the breaking point, which was coming sooner than I thought.
Returning from Christmas vacation in 2003, Desiree broke up with me on Sunday. By Thursday of the same week, I received my life's most important phone call. Mom had finally kicked my father out, and they were getting a divorce. This separation would be better for them. I can get to know my father better in his new life, and Mom can be happier elsewhere. However, things were only going to get worse. Much worse.
Since my father didn't live in the house anymore, he didn't feel the need to support us financially. Since we were over 18, we couldn't file for child support either. Rent, utilities, and any other bills were none of his concern. Food became scarce as past-due balances began to pile. Eventually, Nicholas flunked out of school, moved home, got a job, and started to pitch in. Jeremy was forced to drop out of college at Baylor and move home to get a job and help out with bills. By the summer of 2003, the four of us were in a failing house with insufficient food or money. So we began life on food stamps and tried different churches that would support us. I specifically remember eating a block of cheese for dinner one night as it was the only thing left in the house. Nicholas had come home from work as a waiter, and we cut up that block of cheddar while talking about our day.
I couldn't get a car because they needed to be specially modified for me to drive them. To do that, we had to get my driver's license, but before I could earn a driver's license, I needed to find a teacher, which we couldn't afford. So, without a car and a driver's license, I could not work. Online jobs didn't exist back then, and my physical disability kept me from taking jobs like a server or janitor. With not enough money and bills piling up, Mom eventually declared bankruptcy. Our house was too big for two servers and a secretary's salary to afford. In bankruptcy, the place went into foreclosure. My Mom moved into a small two-bedroom townhome in North Dallas, but my brothers and I stayed in the house we had moved into four years earlier. I was left home alone all day as we waited for the final eviction notice to come. I began playing video games, practicing piano, and staying up late. With no goal in life besides making it back to the dorm in August, my days tended to drift together. So what was my father doing as my house came down around us? Nothing.
He had moved into a small apartment but came over to the house early one morning, a few days after my Mom had kicked him out, to get clothes and a few other things like his tools. I had woken up early and fell asleep on Mom's bed watching TV, only to be woken by him ruffling through the closet for his clothes. He said he was sorry for waking me up. I remember rolling back over, and when I woke up, he was gone again. A few months later, after bankruptcy proceedings and my brothers dropping out of school, he needed to come over one final time for some final items. So the lawyers agreed on a date and time; after 20 years of life with my father, it would be the last time I saw him.
When the day he arrived, my brothers and I prepared. My Mom, too emotionally broken to face him, left the house, and the rest of us sat in the living room of the house we would soon lose. We were already angry when he walked in and ordered him to sit down. I wish I could remember more of what we yelled at him that afternoon, but speeches of religion, family, and love lost were all there. He blamed my mother for lying and us for not being old enough to understand, but he never apologized. He never said he was sorry for forcing us out of our house because he wouldn't help pay for anything or for forcing Jeremy to drop out of college. He wasn't sorry for the bankruptcy, which we could have avoided if he had helped with bills until we got on our feet. After about 30 minutes of yelling, he was done. He walked around the house, took pictures from some of the frames on the wall, and grabbed his tools from the garage. Jeremy followed him the entire time, taunting him and demanding an apology. Nicholas and I headed upstairs to sit on my balcony overlooking the driveway. Nicholas lit a cigarette, and we waited for him to leave the house.
Within a few minutes, my father, now being chased by Jeremy in tears, put everything in his truck, backed up, and drove out of my life. Due to the screaming, the neighbors came out of their houses. Jeremy screamed, "Take a good last look because he is abandoning his family!" I've never seen Jeremy that mad before or after. Still, on the balcony, Nicholas and I watched it play out below. "Fuck him," Nicholas said under his breath.
That day on the balcony wouldn't be the last we heard of my father. Eight years had passed, and during that time, my father became a poltergeist; always appearing when you would least expect him. Eventually, I returned to school the following year, but barely. My student loans came in just in time. After another year, Jeremy also returned to college. Mom stayed in Dallas for a year, moved to Frisco, met a new man, and eventually remarried. Jeremy and I ultimately married too and began families of our own. And while we struggled to move on with our lives and put the harsh reality of what had happened behind us, my father continued to haunt us. He had become a poltergeist; we never knew when he would appear or by what method that appearance would come. So my brothers and I each had a final time we heard from him, although only one of us had seen his face. Each story is weirder than the last; even my wife and mother-in-law had a sighting.
I'll start with the last he tried to contact me. About seven years after that 2003 summer day, I received a letter at my job. I worked at a retail store for Apple Inc. My manager, who seemed very confused that I would receive a personal note at work, handed it to me. I opened it, began to read, and after the first line of Dear Son, I tore it up and threw it away. My manager asked who it was from, and I started it was from my father, whom I hadn't spoken to in six years. Eyes wide, he stated, "Oh. OK," and awkwardly walked off.
To say I was shocked would be an understatement. I hadn't owned a cell phone when he left, so he had no method to call me. Without a home address to find, he found the next best thing, my work address. Maybe I should have read it, but after losing my home and the pain and suffering he brought to my family, I couldn't even look at the rest of the letter. I spent the next several weeks searching parking lots with my eyes when entering or leaving the building. I would lock my doors at home and wonder if the person knocking was my father. Had he found where I lived too? How did he find where I worked and what I did for a living? Would he show up at my job in front of my friends and colleagues? It was anxiety and stress-inducing to a new level. If you thought that his suddenly appearing at my job would be out of the question, then his next appearance to my brother Nicholas should surprise you.
My father, probably through Facebook, had discovered that Nicholas worked at a department store and just showed up one day. Nicholas had not heard from him for eight years, but he decided to appear at Nicholas' job regardless. This time, they traded phone numbers and talked casually. Nicholas was always the calmer of the three of us.
But it wasn't just that one meeting, and it wasn't just my father. Eventually, my Aunt Janet also began to appear in the store, and so did Uncle Bobby, my father's brother and sister. Nicholas, now swamped with family members randomly appearing every other week, decided to put his foot down and asked all of them never to come back to the store. He couldn't stand the constant phone calls and texts. The store wasn't a place to hang out; it was a place of business. Now a manager, Nicholas could not have his estranged family constantly appear, and waiting outside the store for his break was unacceptable. Nicholas demanded a stop during a final heated discussion behind the building with my father. No more phone calls, texts, or appearances at his store. My father, again, attempted to blame everyone but himself for his actions. Eventually, my father relented and promised never to return to the store and to stop the calls. True to his word, that was the last Nicholas saw of him. Another dramatic argument and another angry discussion, and a lack of acceptance. It had been eight years, and despite everyone moving on and allowing our lives to rebuild around new families, my father smothered Nicholas into pushing him away again. Not done appearing at our places of business; his next appearance would be for my wife and mother-in-law.
Both women worked together at a church-run daycare center. My wife, Jessica, was the front desk receptionist, and my mother-in-law, Jennifer, was the assistant director. To enter the building, you had to ring the buzzer, speak to the front office, Jessica, and she would unlock the door for you. This process was typical since many people had questions regarding the daycare before they would enroll their children. So, she let him in when he randomly showed up at the daycare one day, not knowing who he was.
While walking to greet him, she stopped as he approached. "Mrs. Stewart?" he asked. Shocked, she answered, "Yes?" He introduced himself as my father and said he wanted to meet her. Then he turned around and left. My mother-in-law, whose office door was close by and open, overheard this and came into the hallway just in time to see him leave. Stunned, they looked at each other, went to the door, and made sure he had left. My wife was scared and worried. Our oldest daughter, then 4, attended the same daycare and was present in his class that day. Luckily, he never saw her. Jessica now had to look around the parking lot every time she left. Would her estranged father-in-law appear again? What did he want with her? Did he know where she lived now? Would he appear at her house? It was stressful and anxiety-inducing, especially considering both of her children were close by. Did he want to meet them too? Would he show up at elementary school one day and ask for them? He had managed to pass the same trauma my brothers, and I shared to my wife and mother-in-law.
When I got home, Jessica told me about the incident. How crazy he must be nowadays to suddenly show up at my spouse's place of business since I didn't respond to his letter. Who would do that after not seeing your son in nearly 11 years? As weird as that appearance was, my father had one more haunting to make. With my wife and Nicholas taken care of, he turned his sights to Jeremy.
Back in east Texas, three days after he appeared at the daycare, he visited my final brother. Jeremy had become a girl's volleyball coach, married, and just had his first child. One night, after a volleyball game, Jeremy had taken his team off the court to review the game, give his "good game" speech and send them home with their parents. Waiting for him, my sister-in-law stood outside the gym with their infant daughter, my niece, in the baby carrier. A man approached her and asked. "Are you Mrs. Stewart?" "Yes," she replied. "I'm James Stewart, Jeremy's father. I just wanted to say hi and introduce myself." She didn't know what to say, so the word, OK, came out. He quickly turned and walked out the double doors of the school. Moments later, Jeremy returned to find his wife incredibly spooked and scared. "Your father was just here, introduced himself, and left." Jeremy, who hadn't seen or heard from my father since the day in the driveway over 11 years ago, ran for the parking lot in a rage. Throwing open the double doors, he frantically searched the remaining cars for him, but my father had already left or was well hidden in the mix of children, parents, and moving cars to be noticed. Angry and hurt, Jeremy returned to his family. My brother would recall years later that, had he managed to find my father in the parking lot, a fight certainly would have occurred. Jeremy is 6'4" and weighs 230 lbs, so it would not have gone in my father's favor.
Out of all the appearances and letters, he never did the one thing we always wanted. He never approached my Mom with an apology. He never took responsibility for his part in what happened during the marriage or what he caused during the divorce. That may be why my brothers and I are so apathetic to introducing him back into our lives. So in his head, I'm curious as to what he thinks happened.
Four hauntings. Three in person and one by mail. Eventually, all the letters, phone calls to my brother, and randomly showing up at work stopped. Another nine years have passed, and the anger has faded. I only see his name or think about him when I receive spam mail in my physical mailbox. I'm curious how it continues to follow me from house to house, but the advertisers must know I'm his son and, therefore, send me his mail.
Since he appeared at the daycare, Jessica has given birth to one more child, and my children are 9, 11, and 14. They have never met him. Jeremy's wife also gave birth to one additional child. Neither of his children has ever met my father either. I tell my kids stories, and they have seen pictures found in boxes or old photo albums. They don't know much about this story due to their age and maturity levels. Now that it's written, perhaps I can hand them this story one day. But even still, there are so many more minor details and extra emotions that I could write about forever. My mother once said she would have rather him die than abandon us the way he did.
Looking back at their marriage, their divorce was bound to come. But my father didn't have to make us lose our home, school, friends, or hometown. Watching my mother work through multiple nervous breakdowns over the years was traumatic for all of us. Wondering if he would appear at every new job or if he was tracking us all online again was torture. I would say it's likely the start of my anxiety diagnosis, but it would take several years for me to see a doctor about it. Nicholas and Mom would also end up with anxiety and depression diagnoses.
There is a saying that we all pay for the sins of our fathers, and to an extent, I think that's true. I see the similarities in my marriage, my daily life, and how the events of the past affect both myself and my brothers. I've held lengthy discussions with my remaining family, trying to piece together the puzzle of our lives and connect the dots going backward. I've seen traits and traditions passed between father and son of other families, which ruined them. My generation seems very prone to anxiety and depression. Perhaps that's why I've seen one family member drink herself to death, another friend of the family commits suicide, and finally, my cousin accidentally overdoses. So it's easy to look at all the anger and hate that has come through my life and pass it on to my kids. So why should my children have a relationship with a man who didn't want us? Do I want to pass that hate down to the next generation, or does it end with me?
My kids wonder why I don't care about seeing my father anymore. Even if I see him again, I won't exchange phone numbers. I was talking to Jeremy the other day and reminded him that the man who did those things to my Mom doesn't exist anymore. Just like we weren't the same young adults when he left. Despite the strange hauntings through the years, we have had over 7000 days to grow into different people. I'm not angry anymore, nor am I sad. I'm just a 40-year-old man with three kids, a wife, and a promising career that takes care of them. My children don't need another grandparent, and I don't need my father. But they don't need to be angry because I was angry. They don't need to feel deep hatred for a man they have never met and likely never will. My kids will get to choose their life just as I decided mine, including whom they want to keep in their lives. I made my choice 20 years ago. That's my responsibility now. I'm not the sad, immature college student I was when he left. I'm proud of the man I've become and the family I've created. And I did learn something from him after all. Nicholas pointed it out to me years ago.
"Learn from Dad by doing the opposite of what he did. Ask yourself, what would Dad do, and then don't do that." That's good advice.
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