For Cabot O’Callaghan, art flows from the pain of growing up with an absent father.
My writing is the ironic act of bending my demons into service of my salvation. It is the seed of my art. I think the same is true for most artists.
It’s my father’s birthday as I write this and he’s been dead for years now. We never had a relationship. Symbolic dates like today evoke painful feelings. In these moments, when I feel disconnected, alone and lonely, the desire for a woman to love is achingly strong. I want comfort. I want to be wanted.
This is when bad choices are made.
It was Jennifer, my dad’s recognized first born with another woman long after my illegitimate birth, who introduced me to my paternal side of the family. I’d met my dad about six months prior after seeking him out of curiosity and a need to tie off this loose strand of my life. I was 29. I gave him a clean slate. He never bridged the chasm between us.
It was surreal to suddenly have family that I’d been denied—family I’d wondered about growing up without any information whatsoever. There was bonding, but it was superficial. I was more a novelty or semi-secret legend revealed. This was no fault of their own. Strong family bonds don’t manifest in a 30 year-old vacuum. And simply meeting them couldn’t heal my deep emotional wounds.
It would require, at least in part, the recognition by all that I had been wronged, that despite however anyone felt about my birth, I was a shameful incident to my dad’s side of the family. No one wanted to claim the responsibility that I was something better deferred to blame and buried by pride than acknowledged as a human being that shared their bloodline. This was my dad’s responsibility before anyone else’s. “I wasn’t hiding,” he said.
He was too much of a coward to apologize and face his shame. He took it all with him to the grave.
The obituary said that his love was unconditional. This love hadn’t included me. I told myself it was trivial that my name appeared at the end of the list of his children even though I was his first born. But the slights hurt enough to see past my denial to the ugly truth revealed in my paternal aunt’s words. I am not family. I am an addendum. I’m my mother’s fault, someone else’s problem.
There is no clean slate. There never will be.
After my birth, judgments were made. Values upheld. Responsibility weighed. Loyalties chosen. And in this way the gods of my existence failed me.
My mother said she didn’t bother to tell my father that she was pregnant. She said he wasn’t much of a man and described her decision as one of protection. She wanted me to grow up free of his corruption. So I became a casualty to her issues with men right from the start.
My father says he knew nothing until court documents were mailed to his parents house. My mother had filed for welfare and the state came after him. The news created what I can only imagine as some sort of shameful scandal in their Italian Catholic home. So I became a casualty to his ego driven justifications.
After blood tests left no doubt of paternity, my mother visited my father’s parent’s house and my grandmother answered the door. She offered my grandmother the chance to know her grandchild. My grandmother refused. So I became a casualty to my grandmother’s cold pride.
I’m sure it’s possible that some of my father’s side have no knowledge this event took place. Some surely do and choose to be silent in their disbelief because this would mean accusing my mother of lying. It would mean my mother was a money-hunting whore.
The sad irony is, I don’t believe anyone entirely. The scent of betrayal is everywhere.
My paternal grandfather died before I could meet him and get his side of the story. I assume he bent to his wife’s dominate rule. By the time I met my paternal grandmother, she was old and frail, far down the slide into dementia. This was her out to avoid explanation and ultimately, accountability.
I denied my need for all parties to acknowledge responsibility, to admit the fact that they all failed to account that I was human being before making their selfish choices. I was so desperate for acceptance, I was willing to sacrifice myself for their sins. So I became a casualty to myself, something I was well versed at already.
Shame beat everyone.
Those who could do the most to help heal my wounds got a free pass and I was gifted a burden I’ve carried since birth.
This is not something to rise above. This is not something that can be discarded.
Absence has stained me. I’m plagued with internal conflict and play out tragic paradoxes. It makes me acutely vulnerable to rejection. I hide my heart. I avoid intimacy, the very thing I desperately want and loneliness haunts my thoughts. I find it hard to ask for help because the demons of abandonment whisper in my ears. I constantly question my worth and doubt dogs me. I’ve absorbed the damaging actions of others and warped them inward, tearing myself apart in the process.
Marginalization has transformed me into an emotional castaway.
The wounds of absence are profound. Those who claim to be immune don’t respect its insidious nature and remain pawns to its affect. Whether due to war or career or pride or shame or accident or addiction or indifference or malice, absent fathers send children on lifelong trajectories filled with suffering and struggle. The abandoned can’t erase it. They can leave it in the past no more than they can a garish scar of the flesh. It is a burden they must face, carry and tend lest it undo them from within the dark shadow of denial.
Bleeding in public is the only remedy.
Here it is, my life pooling before you. My pain. Look at it.