It’s been a long time since I’ve done one of these. I’ve been meaning to write to you. But as soon as I write down “Dear Shania,” that’s as far as I get. Not because I don’t have anything to say to you. Believe me, I have everything and more to say. But it’s everything, the memories and the regrets, that come to haunt me.
Today is so painfully, incredibly bittersweet. You are 4 years old now. Amazing how the years seem to pass by. Unfortunately, it also means another year and another birthday I’ve had to miss. When you’re older, I hope you’ll understand. Just a few months after you were born, I was at a crossroads: stay and take care of you, or leave for college and try to give you a better life, the life you deserve. Needless to say, I haven’t been happy with the decision I made at the airport that day. Ironic, isn’t it? Even as I’m here now in the throes of finals, that’s not even what’s keeping me up at night. No. It’s the overwhelming guilt that torments me in my sleep. I am no Peter Pan. Not a hero, let alone a father. I came here to give you a better life. But I didn’t realize it would mean leaving my place in yours.
The day you were born, I was afraid of the kind of parent I’d become. But now I have faced something far more terrifying: never having existed in your life. I’ve caught glimpses of it. I’m afraid that as you play with grandma and grandpa, you’ll ask about me, and, when they remind you why I’m gone, you’ll search the house for me anyway. Grandma tells me these things. How you climb the mountain of stairs to my room and knock on my door, asking if I’d like to build a snowman. I do, Shania. I really do. And it breaks my heart knowing that I can’t be there to tell you. Hearing such stories makes me truly wish I was Peter Pan, so that I could fly to your window and wake us both up from this nightmare.
I miss you so much. I may not say it to you every time we’re on the phone. I mean to. I just seem to forget once you begin your stories about your lovely adventures. How you and grandma went to the store and she allowed you to pick out your favorite candy, and later, how you went home and watched Frozen for the umpteenth time. Or about how grandpa was watering the front lawn and you asked to help and he let you take charge of the nozzle, spraying wildly and getting the two of you soaking wet. For those few minutes, I forget that there’s a body of ocean between us. Phone in hand, I feel as though I’m right there with you.
When I don’t have the luxury of talking to you, I listen to the countless voicemails you’ve left me. I never deleted a single one. I continue to keep and cherish them, even when my inbox advises me otherwise. I just listen. I hear you running away with grandma’s phone, her shrieking in the background asking who you’re calling. You tell her it’s me. “Dad?” you say over and over with such blind hope that I’ll answer. And it hurts because once again I’m not there to answer the door. At the same time, I’ve never been so happy to check my voicemail because by some miracle, you remember who I am. You never forgot about me, even when I’ve given you so many reasons why you should.
I’m graduating this week, and though I know you can’t make it, it doesn’t sadden me one bit. Because in a few months’ time, I’ll finally be coming home. I’ve just got a few more things to take care of on my own, the first being that I have to work my way back to you. I’m sure grandma and grandpa can attest to the sheer pile of debt that I’ve dug them both in. Five years ago, they made a deal with me. They’d help me with any major expense so long as I’m enrolled in school. Food, textbooks, a plane ticket home. This weekend being my commencement, that deal no longer applies, which means I have to earn my ticket home. It’s the final among the last few hurdles I’ll be facing. I never thought I’d see this day after so many months gone, so many tears shed. This is my odyssey.
When I’d come home over the summer, I’d often remind you that I’m nothing more than a friend. Your partner in crime. Because I can’t call myself a father to you after being there for only a few months out of the year. My parents have gladly taken over that mantle in my absence, and they are far better parents than I could ever be, for which I am eternally grateful. Despite all this, you still call me dad. I don’t know how or why, but you just seem to remember. You’ve never given up on me, not once, even when I gave up on myself. That alone is enough to guide me through this home stretch. It’s what I’ve been dreaming of ever since I got on that plane four years ago. It’s been a long, agonizing road, but I am almost there. Slowly but surely, I am making my way back to Neverland. I just have one more adventure to finish, and I promise it’ll make for one hell of story to tell.
I love you, Shania. Happy birthday.