20 Steps

Toward forgiveness. Letting go of deep hurt is a process.  Not one action but many over and over, which get easier as those muscles get stronger and more practiced.

I have written before about my mother, who had me very young, but sacrificed and overcame and made the best of her life and mine.  I am so grateful.  When I was six my mother remarried and my little brother and I were blessed with a new and devoted father who raised and cared for us completely as his own and still does now.  But before that there was another man, another father, and that relationship is unique, though my experience, unfortunately, is too often the norm. Here’s that story:

My biological father (henceforward referring to him as father but for clarity remember that I have two) was still a teenager and just out of high school when I was born. Very quickly he was pushed into a role and family that he could not understand or relate to. He loved me, and he loved my mother.  That I believe, for he is a loving man that is really bad at showing it and living it. Imagining it now, I wonder if he hoped this new life would be his ticket out of the much harsher home he came from. A child placed onto an adult path with work and money worries, with a disappointed father-in-law, with his potential cut off by circumstance of my birth, and being completely emotionally unprepared for the caring home of my grandparents who scolded gently, never teased, provided amply, and forgave easily. He was just a boy who was not loved enough. That’s how I see him anyway.

So my experience was that I loved him, and he was cool.  He played guitar, and he was handsome and wore bell bottom jeans.  He drove a cool car and taught me to love good music. He sang to me and helped me do flips in the yard and held me when I cried. He was not a great dad, but he was my dad.  Then he left.

I don’t really know if this is a real memory or one I made up, but I have this remembrance of him standing at the front door and my mother in the kitchen doorway– the two of them yelling and him walking out. Later I have a memory that I know is real of walking behind him up some stairs (I can feel and see the socks and shoes on my feet and feel my jacket and bag and hair) to a place that I knew I shouldn’t go, because I was not to tell my mother about it, and we met a woman there who had long black hair and who raved over me and flattered me and made me like her.

After that, things were difficult.  I saw him, but it was sporadic. He was irresponsible. He forgot. He couldn’t take the baby along. He had to work. I didn’t like to sleep at his house. I felt anxious and uncomfortable. I was afraid to not like it, but I didn’t. I didn’t feel safe. Phone calls and visits were farther and farther apart. I think the longer he waited the harder it got to call because he knew his excuses wouldn’t hold up. He always had one. But they were seldom true.

After my mother remarried, my life got more normal. He, my new dad, adopted my brother and I, and we soon moved away. My new father had a good job, we ate dinner together and played with neighborhood friends till dark. We had a swing set in the backyard and went to church and drove home in a beat-up van for Christmas visits at my grandparent’s house.

Those perfect Christmas visits home were only marred by one thing.  That my brother and I would be picked up in the afternoon to have Christmas with our father’s family for a few hours.  We wanted to like it, but we didn’t. We didn’t feel at home there and could feel that we should. Everything was different there. Harder, stronger, less predictable. Lots of teasing and disinterest. A year not seeing us and no one would be waiting with open arms. A year not talking to us and no one would have questions.

This awkwardness was not the real problem though. For me, it was the lying. I found that I couldn’t always trust that the things he told me were completely true. Lies were everywhere mixed with the truth and to question them guaranteed more awkwardness. Things were exaggerated. Things were left out. Things were added in. No pattern at all. Every few months I would have a bout of crying over it. My mom would comfort me through it, and those episodes over the years got more and more spread out.

As a teenager we moved back to my hometown, so visits with my father were more often but even less predictable.  He married and divorced many times. He was constantly moving to a new place, always with someone new. Always with a new story to tell.

I began to be resentful in high school and college, realizing what a shitty father he was for sure, not on purpose really but just naturally bad at it. I worked on making him pay a little by asking him for favors. Out of guilt he would comply, but of course he was unreliable. So it didn’t always pan out. Certainly not productive.

In the intervening years I began to accept and forgive my father for everything. It was a choice I made over and over again. I would think of him and think, forgive him. I would see someone who reminded me of him and I would say, forgive him. I would see a guy sitting alone in a doctor’s office or a diner and I would say, forgive him. I would ride in an elevator with some man or connect with a stranger at the gas pump and think, he might have a daughter he doesn’t see, forgive him. It started to work.

Fast forward and I have graduated, married, and have a new precious baby girl. We made our first big visit home to show off the new baby, and I brought her to meet them. He wants to make it up to me, he says. He wants to do something nice for the baby. What do we need? Can he get her something? Okay, I say, well, she needs a dresser. We are moving in a few months, you could get her a dresser for the nursery. Perfect! he says. I know exactly which one I will give her! Okay. Here’s my number. That would be great.

Well you can guess. But of course it was a test, and he failed. And in that small little thing I realized that I couldn’t protect her from it. It wasn’t going to stop. It would keep happening, and she would feel all that awkwardness and insecurity and doubt. And I also realized in loving my perfect baby that I could never do to her what he had done to me. That if my girl needed me, I would do anything to help her. And that is not what had happened for me. And it just kind of hit me hard what I had missed all those years.

So, I stopped it. I cut it off completely. No more calls. No more visits. Not even to my completely innocent brother and sister who did nothing wrong.

I wasn’t angry. But I was sure. It was over. My kids would not know him at all. I would tell them when they were old enough to understand.

Over the intervening years I saw him a few times. I was always polite and friendly, but distant. He would look at me in the eyes and see that I had let him go. His first child, the first person who ever really loved him completely, had let him go. And it broke him.

At my brother’s wedding, my brother is handsome and tall and strong, absolutely no credit to his father for any of it. And I come in with two beautiful little girls in matching flower girl dresses and a brand newly born Evan in my arms, just two weeks old. He couldn’t take it. It was his family, but he didn’t have any connection to any of it. His wife at the time came and politely asked if I would come outside to speak with him before they left. He was too upset to stay at the wedding, weeping and guilt-ridden. I went out with her and saw my handsome, strong father bent like a child over the steering wheel sobbing uncontrollably. Loudly. His newest little boy in the backseat puzzled. Leaning through the window, I tried to comfort him. It’s okay, I said. I’m okay. I’m not mad. I’m happy. Everything’s okay. He opened the door and clung to me. Can I just see you sometimes? he asked. Can I just know you a little? Yes, I said. But you can’t lie to me. And you can’t promise something and not show up. Okay, okay he said. I can do that. You know how much I love you, Sara. Yes dad, I know. I really do. I tell you what, I will give you my phone number and you call me. And if you can just talk on the phone for a little while, we will see about a visit. Okay, okay, thank you.

We did have one phone call. But that was all for many years. He’s just not good at it. And I didn’t want to try either. Years later my younger brother got married in Indianapolis. I drove over with just my two girls because my son had an important football game (which seems ridiculous now). We sat at a table in the lovely room, and I prepped the girls for smiles and hugs to they would give to people they did not know. We sat a table over from my dad and family. They were nice, but it was weird. We sat alone, and they sat together for awhile, and then they asked us to join them. All through the dinner my father stared at me while I was friendly and polite, but not real. He wanted in. The dancing began and a song came on that broke my reserve. With a pretend and sweet smile on my face and polite questions coming out of my mouth, tears just leaked out of my eyes. I think it was “Sara Smile” which is one of my favorites ever. After all this time, he could still get to me. All my work at distancing and fortification were an illusion. I was a hurt little girl.

That attempt and many after it at establishing a healthy reconciliation have failed. There is no anger, no bitterness between us. We decided through an email discussion that what is okay for us is just going to be okay. No expectations. We have talked from time to time, and he has even visited a couple of times. But he cannot be my father. He just cannot do it. And it seems that I just cannot be his daughter either. I have to be his something else.

Last fall, I got a call from my brother that our father was gravely ill. Many heart attacks and this might be the one. My brother said my father hadn’t told anyone. My brother had found out through our aunt. Our father would have major heart surgery, and he may not live. He had checked himself out of the hospital to get his affairs in order before the surgery. I waited for a call. For days I stewed and worried and kept my phone close by. Days went by, and I was sitting in my bathroom getting ready and my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number. My heart started to beat, and I took a big breath thinking this might be the last time I ever talk to my dad. I answered Hello? And it wasn’t him. I hung up the phone from whoever it was and cried. Stayed close to tears for days. Listened to music that made me sadder. Sara Smile and Sara Maria and Van Morrison. He never called. He had the surgery, and he survived. But he never called to say goodbye to me when he could have.

So that’s my story. And what I’ve learned is that I can have all the right attitudes and habits of forgiveness. I can have boundaries, and I can have a plan. But the truth is, when your parent doesn’t treat you the way a parent should, it hurts. A lot. No matter how old you are. No matter how prepared or fortified you are, it hurts. And forgiveness is work; it’s a choice you keep making over and over for yourself. And it’s worth it.

Only 20 steps from the storm drain
There’s a path to the water
Where the wings of the culvert
Slows all that’s rushing down
The rocks and the leaves rest lightly
The light flows through trees slightly
And the creek flows around

There is stillness in between
The passing cars
The waves of sound
There is stillness in between
The passing lines
When I look down at the water
You look up at the trees

Only 20 steps to the bridge
There’s a car crossing over
Where 2 pairs of tires roll by
One after the other
You stand uneven by the creek bed
I sit not hearing all that you said
Hands sweep away what rolls around

There is stillness in between
The passing cars
The waves of sound
There is stillness in between
The passing lines
When I look down at the water
You look up at the trees

Only 20 steps to the car
There’s a storm passing over

Sara Quah- 20 Steps (Order the album here)


Read my other Taking Me Back posts:

For You, Dear: Pre-Order Taking Me Back on Pledge Music



What I Heard


How I’m Feeling


A Little Bit

Take Me Away




Published by

Sara Quah

Writer, singer, songwriter. Find me @SaraBQuah. Listen to my music at saraquah.com.

11 thoughts on “20 Steps”

  1. Wow! This is a very powerful, thoughtful post. It is kind of you to share such a complicated part of your life. I am impressed how you have been able to resolve the issues with your biological father.


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