My parents were separated before I was born and divorced shortly after. It wasn't long before my father re-married and produced two additional children: my half-brother and half-sister. I never lived with my dad, and as I got older the already infrequent visits dwindled to nothing. As a kid, I couldn't help feeling like my mom, sister, and I were a mistake, and that he left us to start his "real" family. I have such mixed feelings, but there are certain things I want to say to my father's "other" family.
By the time I was 20, I had safely tucked my biological father, his wife, my half-siblings, and the rest of my Vietnamese family in a psychological box which I rarely opened. Then, shortly after the birth of my daughter in 2015, my cousin sent me a friend request on Facebook. It was the beginning of a reconnection with that side of my family, including emails from my brother and, eventually, dinner with my siblings. In January, my daughter and I flew home to celebrate Tet (Lunar New Year). It was the first time I'd seen my dad in almost two decades.
My feelings about this family are complicated. In some ways, it feels like no time has passed at all, but there's an undercurrent of pain. For my child and for myself, I remain cautiously optimistic, but there's so much I wish I could say, including the following:
"I Don't Know How To Act"
I'm not trying to be weird, I just really don't know how to reconcile my feelings and behavior. At Tet, I put my hand out to my dad and he enveloped me in an embrace. I can't pretend I wasn't intensely uncomfortable. Likewise, I met the wife I was always told hated us. Imagine shaking the hand of the stepmom you should have met over 30 years ago?
I definitely feel more at ease with my siblings, but there's an elephant in the room. My brother understands that this isn't easy for us, but my sister was very young when this all happened. The first time the four of us were together, she casually asked, "Does Dad know you're here?" The rest of us shifted uncomfortably in our seats because of course we hadn't told him.
"He Did Some Sh*tty Stuff"
My father always kept my sister and me at arm's length from our Vietnamese family and culture. No effort was made to teach us the language, but the fact that we didn't speak Vietnamese was later seen as a failing on our part. We were never allowed into his home, and we only saw our siblings once a year for an amusement park trip.
For me, the irreparable damage came when I was 9 or 10 years old. My beloved cousin was getting married. My sister and I were measured for ao dai, the traditional tunic and flowing pants worn by Vietnamese women. Before the wedding, my dad sat us down to tell us we were no longer invited. His wife didn't want us there.
"My Real Dad Is Someone Else"
My biological father will never get the honorarium of "dad." That title belongs to the man who has been a constant positive presence in my life since he married my mom when I was 7. I don't think it even occurs to my stepdad that my daughter (or me, for that matter) isn't biologically related to him. We are his, through and through.
"I Don't Blame You"
OK, that's not totally true. I do place blame on my stepmother. She's the one who couldn't handle having us around. When we were little girls, my mom explained that this woman thought that love was a pie; that pieces for my sister and me meant smaller pieces for her and her children. As a result, I think she pressured my father to shut us out. But the fact is, the buck stops with my dad. At the end of the day, he made the call not to have relationships with his daughters.
I don't really blame the rest of the family, though, because I don't think my dad was honest with them about why we were suddenly gone, and I certainly don't blame my siblings. They were just children. I also don't resent them for the fact that he treated them better. They turned out amazing and by all accounts seem to have happy, fulfilling lives. I could never begrudge them that.
"I'm Not Ready To Forgive Him"
My painful history with my dad cannot be erased by a hurried apology in the hallway. That's why when he asked for my forgiveness, I answered honestly, "I don't know." I really hope this doesn't affect my relationship with my family, especially my siblings. I just want them to understand that the cuts are deep and as much as I might like to Hakuna Matata this situation, that's just not going to happen.
"I Don't Want To Call"
My dad's health is failing. Some of my family members have been encouraging my sister and me to pick up the phone because they feel like this would help him heal. I just can't bring myself to do it, and honestly, I don't think it's fair to ask me to.
"I See You Trying"
I remember my brother as the kid who pierced the individual cream cup and made it look like his eye was leaking, I don't know, eye juice. Today, he's the guy who sends me recommendations for kid-friendly activities in Nashville and makes sure my daughter has a gift (always Minnie Mouse) from him and his wife on holidays. I'm trying to do the same for the niece and nephew I just met.
I have to give my father's wife credit, too. She initiated a conversation with me about my daughter and even had a gift for her, including a sweet outfit for pictures. Maybe becoming a grandmother has softened her, but then again, she didn't say a word to my sister.
"We Can Have A Do-Over"
I don't think were bound in any way by or doomed to repeat the mistakes of our parents. Even my dad said to my sister that whatever happens with him and us, he wants his grandchildren to have their cousins, aunts, and uncles. All of them. I agree.
I live on the other side of the country, but I'd hate to let this momentum fade into annual Christmas cards and "likes" on photos. We have an opportunity here, so let's keep up the correspondence, go camping, take the kids to Disneyland; whatever we have to do to nurture this relationship. I think we owe it to ourselves to be in each other's lives. They might be the "other" family, but they're my family, too.