It was practically a miracle I graduated from college. My last year at Georgia Tech in Atlanta was a blur of my taking impossible Mechanical Engineering exams, isolating myself in quiet corners of the library, and walking around campus like a zombie (sleep eluded me for most of that last year, and I vowed that if I ever got out of Tech alive, I would never pull an all-nighter ever, ever again).
But something else was going on in my life that year. I carried a dark passenger with me—lugged the passenger around with me to class every day as if I was Atlas carrying the world on my shoulders, dragged the passenger home with me in the evenings like a dead body, and begged the passenger for a few hours of sweet-dream sleep each and every night. Though I didn’t talk about it much, there were big problems 100 miles away at my home in Bonaire that year.
For lack of better words, my father experienced some type of out-of-the-blue midlife crisis that year which led him to leave my mother and me.
He grew distant from us. He showed immeasurable apathy and anger toward us. And then he just stopped coming home. Instead, he chose to spend his nights sleeping underneath the stars at a nearby hunting club or in the company of another woman.
Yes, he stated a reason for leaving, but it was a lame and illogical reason.
My older brother and sister were married and busy with their own lives when the proverbial shit hit the fan. And so, Mom and I tried to handle the situation ourselves, but we failed miserably.
Consumed by the situation, I called home often that year to check on my mother. She needed a friend, but as a young adult, I didn’t know how to offer the kind of support she needed. I tried, though. On the weekends, I drove home to Bonaire and experienced the loneliness of our home with her. Sometimes my father would make a brief appearance—Mom and I both begging him to stay—and then he would leave again.
His leaving crushed us. It’s a wound that healed years ago but left really ugly scars on our psyches.
My father returned home later that year, and my parents started the work of rebuilding their relationship. To my knowledge, he never apologized to Mom, and no, he never told me he was sorry. The three of us focused on moving forward.
In the midst of our family’s situation that year, my grades plummeted to an all time low. My parents joined forces and voiced a lot of disappointment, dissatisfaction, and irritation with me, and I understood their frustration. I, too, was disappointed, dissatisfied, and irritated with myself, but I lacked the energy to pull myself up from the depths. The three of us argued a lot. Some of the arguments were heated and still haunt me. I felt so lost and hollow. For the first time in my life, I felt unloved.
But some how, some way, I graduated. They all came to witness me walk—my brother and his first wife, my sister and her first husband, Grandmother Lanier, Aunt Colleen, Mom, and Daddy. After the commencement ceremony, we dined—as a family—at Red Lobster on Cobb Parkway. My parents beamed with happiness, relief, and pride. But still, I knew I had caused a lot of pain and distress, and so the shame of letting them down still plagued me, even as we sat at the restaurant that day pretending that all was fine.
Mom slid a little wrapped box across the table to me—a graduation gift from her and my dad. The gesture threw me a bit, because it had not occurred to me that they would give me a graduation gift. They had dished out thousands of dollars for me to go to college and that was more than enough. Plus, I had been a constant source of aggravation to them in the months leading up to my graduation. I felt unworthy of their gift.
The box contained a gold serpentine chain holding a small pendant—twenty-five sparkling diamonds in the shape of a heart. It was the most beautiful piece of jewelry I had ever seen, and the symbolism of the heart wasn’t lost on me.
“You’ll always be in our hearts,” Mom said. “We want you to know that no matter where you go in life or what you do, we will always love you.”
I put the necklace around my neck that day, and I felt my parents’ unconditional love once again—as bright, warm, and penetrating as summer sunshine on my bare shoulders. At that moment, I realized their love had been with me all along. It had been temporarily hidden—eclipsed by the sadness and weight of our family’s problems—but it had been there.
The diamond-encrusted heart pendant became a keepsake, and I wore it often in the years that followed my graduation.
Life unfolded for me. I joined the workforce. I got married. My father died. Mom remarried a few years later. Our family experienced divorces, marriages, births, and funerals. I reinvented myself and launched a new career.
Mom and I don’t talk about the year of my dad’s midlife crisis very often. We still don’t really understand what happened that year, or why. But it came up last week after I mentioned a recurring dream to her on the phone. In my dream, I was in college again and it was finals week and I realized that there was a course on my schedule that I hadn’t attended all quarter and I freaked out.
“Sometimes when I dream that dream, I wake up in a cold sweat, realize that it was just a dream, and thank God that I am out of school,” I laughed.
“Dreams are funny, aren’t they?” Mom remarked. “I’d love to really study why we dream the things we dream.”
“Do you have a recurring dream, Mom?” I asked.
She paused then said, “Yes, I dream that your father is walking out of the house and I am running behind him begging him to stay, but he won’t stop. He just keeps walking away from me. Sometimes the dream is so real that it scares me. I wake up so upset that I can’t go back to sleep. I dream it two or three times each month."
“We actually lived through that,” I said. “That was a really tough time for us.”
We both fell silent on the phone recalling the events. It was as if I relived the entire year in a single moment, and then for the first time in a very long time, I got mad at my father.
"You know what you should do?” I said to my mother. “The next time you have that dream, you should seize control of it and shout, ‘Fine! Just go!’ Turn around and go back inside the house and never look back. Don’t chase him out the door any more. Just let him leave.”
My anger seemed to come out of nowhere and it made my heart race and my face flush. I got off the phone.
Shaken by the surge of sudden, unexpected emotion, I paced back and forth on my front porch for a few minutes trying to calm down, but I couldn’t. I took several deep breaths trying to let the feelings go, but they wouldn’t dissipate.
I walked into the house, plucked the diamond pendant from the safety of my jewelry box, and kissed it. I forced myself to focus on the happier memories of my father—and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of happy memories stored in the dark caverns of my mind. I reminded myself of his love—sometimes hidden, eclipsed, broken, and imperfect, but ALWAYS THERE, ALWAYS THERE, ALWAYS THERE—as real to me as the little heart I clutched in my fingertips. I found it hard to put the pendant back in its hiding place that day, but I did. I let it go, and twenty-six years later, I finally let it go.