I Was Told My Father Was A 'Deadbeat.' After He Died, I Found Out Everything I Knew About Him Was Wrong.

"In the foster care system, being a fatherless daughter was the status quo."
The author (left) with her half sister and half brother.
Photo Courtesy of TJ Butler
The author (left) with her half sister and half brother.

Growing up, all I knew about my father was that he was a “deadbeat.” My parents divorced when I was 4. He was a musician, playing bass in rock and country bands ― the only job he’d ever had ― and child support payments were always contentious. I remember Mom complaining that Dad would show up to the court hearings wearing torn jeans and T-shirts. In one hearing in the ’80s, she was awarded less than $70 for two children, based on his income.

When I was a few years older, my younger sister and I spent an occasional weekend with him. I have little recollection of the infrequent visits, but I have colourful memories of his apartment. Framed Beatles albums covered the walls, sharing space with antique Civil War memorabilia and his many bass guitars. My stepmother, who I thought of only as “my father’s new wife,” was beautiful; the coolest adult I’d ever met. When I got my first period at 10, she was the one who explained how to use tampons.

My father had a son named Cody when I was in fifth grade, and they moved to Nashville to be closer to the country music scene. With many states and a time zone now between us, and the perpetual child support issue, I can speculate that my mother wasn’t eager to maintain the relationship.

Like my father, my mother entered a new relationship shortly after my parents divorced. But her boyfriend was an alcoholic, prone to verbal abuse and physical violence. At 13, I ended up in foster care, living in group homes and residential children’s centres. There was little talk of family reunification during those years; the night I left my mother’s house at 13 turned out to be the last time I ever slept there.

I visited my father and his new family once when I was 14. Cody was 5 and my new half sister, Courtney, was a baby. My father tried hard to be a cool dad, allowing me to smoke cigarettes and showing me how to pick out the bassline in music. “You don’t notice it until it’s missing,” he said, referring to the bass chords that he tapped out on his thigh as we listened to rock songs. This interaction is my most vivid memory of him. When I hear those songs today, sometimes the bass is all I can hear.

The group homes and children’s residential centres where I lived during my teens focused on independent living. As I neared 18, I learned about adulting: grocery lists, budgeting money for rent and utilities, and how to write a resume. In the system, communication with family members is regulated. Since I didn’t grow up with him and he didn’t seem interested, none of my counsellors or my social worker encouraged me to have a relationship with my father. Being fatherless was just another box to check when I filled out questionnaires for therapy.

I knew plenty of kids with divorced parents as a child. Later in the foster care system, being a fatherless daughter was the status quo. Because my parents divorced when I was so young, I had few memories of them living together. It never occurred to me to wonder how things could have been different if my father was around.

When I aged out of foster care, I was angry, but it was directed inward. Rather than hurting others, I hurt myself. There were drugs and alcohol, body piercings and tattoos, and years of nude modelling. A decade later, I had an epiphany that I couldn’t continue the way I was living and quit the adult business. I took out my piercings and had my most visible tattoos removed. I finished a BA in management, secured a corporate job with good benefits, and married my wonderfully supportive husband.

As an adult, I rarely thought about my father. Years ago, I connected with my half siblings on MySpace, but only just. They were part of someone else’s family. I still believed my father was a deadbeat, and I wasn’t very interested in developing relationships with them. When my father died in 2011 of Parkinson’s with Lewy body dementia, I didn’t go to his funeral. My feelings were confusing. Why was I sad that a man I hardly knew passed away? It took some time to realise that I wasn’t crying over the loss of a father. Instead, it was the realisation that now he’d never be able to change his mind and become my dad.

Since I didn’t have much in the way of family relationships, my husband, our dog and I have formed a tight, loving family unit. Our childhoods share a few similarities, but our communication and understanding of each other are far from the dysfunctions we grew up with. Despite the strength of our relationship, I’ve always had a tiny niggling wish for an extended family. I’ve often thought about how few family connections I have.

Last year, I finally decided to take action. I reached out to Cody, who was more active on social media than Courtney. I didn’t go into it with clear expectations because there were so many things I didn’t know. The only thing I was certain about was my need to connect with family. Without knowing much about Cody’s personality or what we’d bond over, I chose to make it about our father. Cody would have many stories to tell, and through them, I believed we’d find some common ground.

After a conversation over instant messenger, I wanted to meet him in person. Rather than admit that I planned to drive 700 miles to see him out of the blue, I told him I had “a writing thing” near him and asked if he wanted to meet for coffee while I was in town. He agreed. I was excited and nervous, and eager to learn about what life was like growing up with our father.

We connected over both being the black sheep of our families, and similar experiences in our teens and 20s. I quickly admitted that there was no “writing thing.” He told stories about growing up in a family with a musician Dad ― I learned our father had been part of Reba McEntyre’s band during one tour, and played the bassist in a movie that featured a scene of Garth Brooks performing. In almost every shot of Garth, you can see my father standing near him.

Cody began to fill in the blanks about our father. The person I’d known little about transformed from a deadbeat into a man. I learned how good-natured he was before he got sick and about how their house had been the magnet for kids in the neighbourhood to hang out in (and maybe get into a little bit of trouble). Cody said he could see a lot of our father in my face. Since I don’t resemble the people on my mother’s side, I was thrilled to finally look like someone I was related to.

When I had thought about my father previously, he’d existed primarily in his absence. The longer I listened, the more clearly I saw my father as a man. Cody told stories about our father at home being a dad, as well as interacting with the various bands my father was in when the bands would come over to their house. He shared stories about going to shows and practices to see our father playing, and about how our father brought home trinkets and gifts when he’d return from touring. The more I got to know him through stories, the more I could imagine that we would have been friends if he wasn’t my parent. Afterward, Cody and I stayed in touch by phone, and I asked for “dad stories” during almost every call.

Prior to learning about Cody’s childhood, my father had been a one-dimensional entity classified by a single word: deadbeat. I never imagined him doing mundane human things like drinking morning coffee, opening presents on Christmas morning or checking the mail. Cody’s stories helped me to see him existing on this plane.

Shortly after meeting Cody, I began seeing a therapist to work out some issues with my mother. Although it wasn’t family therapy and we didn’t connect, my perspective changed dramatically. I saw her as a flawed human, rather than simply a bad mother. This new way of thinking answered many questions about why I ended up in foster care and why she chose not to let me come home. This clarity has brought me some closure.

Forming a new perspective about my mother opened the door for me to do the same for my father. I could begin to imagine him as a father and a friend, a musician, and a person with flaws.

After connecting with Cody, it was natural to meet Courtney, 14 years my junior. I was nervous and uncertain of what to expect since we’d had so few interactions, but when we got together seven months after my meeting with Cody, it felt like we’d known each other all our lives. We talked until I was hoarse and kept going. We had things in common that I didn’t expect, and we found that we have a lot of similarities. Before I met Courtney, I intended the visit to help me get to know my father better. But after meeting her, I finally understand what it means to be sisters.

Getting to know Courtney and Cody brought my dad to life as a man I’d love to know. However, our interactions became about something that had nothing to do with our father. Instead, meeting them was about connecting with a family who welcomed me with open arms. Spending time with them gave me something that wasn’t even on my radar to wish for. For the first time in my life, it felt like I belonged somewhere.

TJ Butler lives on Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay with her husband where she writes and photographs her surroundings. She is the author of the short story collection “Dating Silky Maxwell.” Preorder the collection and connect with her here.