My parents ended their marriage in 2014. I immigrated to the United States in 2018. This means that I not only had to leave behind my culture, home and favorite foods, but also my father.
I am lucky that my father has a lovely degree of fluency in English. Though he may occasionally stumble over English words when conveying his Polish thoughts, he’s never had an issue appreciating my writing or musings on life. He, however, will never be a native speaker of English, and my grasp of my mother tongue has begun to slip away. The fault lies on neither and both of our ends: our choices of language just aren’t compatible the longer I stay in the U.S. and he stays in Poland. His world is in Polish, and mine is in English; there are whole chapters of each other’s lives we will never fully understand. That is a truth we must accept.
Since I left, he has had a son, and is getting married this August. I have seen his home, but not his life. I’ve never met my brother, Edward, but he knows my name and can point me out in old pictures. He calls me “moja Marysia,” translating to “my Marysia,” a nickname no one has used, but him and my father, since 2018.
Since he stayed in Poland and I left, I have changed from a shy 14-year-old to an adult. I no longer straighten my hair, frying it to pieces to uphold my middle school emo identity. I have a Linkedin now. I’ve had my first job and my first serious boyfriend. I finished the TV show we used to watch together. There is no direct way to convey all these changes I have undergone to my father over a phone call, with all its nuance and personhood; it is the age-old “show, don’t tell.”
Herein lies my qualm with languages: there is no way to translate an identity. There are no words to cover the expanse of time that has been lost. No dictionary can fill in the interpersonal gaps between us.
My father had a diverse array of flaws that he keenly showcased to me throughout my childhood. As many Slavic fathers are, he could sometimes be cruel, and didn’t always see me as an impressionable child. That, combined with how much effort it took to schedule calls with him, led me to stop reaching out. With time, so did he.
Saudade. The Portuguese word that describes “the feeling of longing for an absent something or someone that you love but might never return.” How fitting that this word contains “dad” in it. My father, of course, is not dead. Rather, he is squished into the velvet fabric of the loveseat in his study, just down the hall, past the kitchen, out the front door, and 5997.474 miles from my room. The longing for the “absent someone” I feel is not for him as a physical entity (I know he is a call away), but rather for my dad as an idea: the concept of someone who witnessed me grow up, gave me advice on my first love and watched me walk across the stage at graduation with a prideful gaze. As someone who cheered me on at my improv matches and was there to hug me as I cried. That dad, no matter what it is I do, will never return.
I think that is a mistake we often make, to believe “parents” exist as a unified concept. That their unconditional love isn’t divorced from the very bodies that crafted you. But how can they love you unconditionally, taking into account all your flaws and attributes, if they no longer know who you are? There’s “mother” and “father,” and there’s “mum” and “dad.”
I can pinpoint the exact moment I said goodbye to my dad. It was right before the first move, in 2015. Then, we were merely moving to a city 3 hours away, not an entirely new country, so my 11-year-old self didn’t overthink it. My mum had just neatly packed the last cardboard moving box into the van, and I was frantically running around our old home to find my favorite teddy bear. My dad went to see me off, and brought Tadziek (the bear), whom I had left in my room in his apartment. He motions to hug me, but it is tense and awkward, as we both know we are saying goodbye, but not what we are saying goodbye to.
Here is a secret: sometimes, I find fragile moments when I am out in the world, and the scent of my dad’s old cologne hits me. Even if someone had taken every other aspect of my identity from me, I could recognize its soft notes. It smells of peace, and as I step back, close my eyes, suddenly, I am seven years old again, and he is helping me put on my sparkly sneakers.
In another life – perhaps a better one, I would’ve grown up with you, and you with me.