From age 5 to age 20, I did not see my dad and had almost no contact with him. He later told me that he often thought of us (me and my younger brother, Nathan) but he never once worried about our safety or upbringing because he knew my mother would raise us well.
During those years growing up the name “Mike Loyd” took on a mythical presence in our lives. It was a name as big as Texas itself. When we were very young, my brother got mad at me for telling him we had another dad somewhere in Texas. He thought I was crazy or mean, or both. To me, Texas seemed so far way – like a place in the past. To my brother, it was not even real.
As we grew older, into teenagers, my mother mentioned “Mike Loyd” more often and my brother accepted that we had a dad we didn't know. My mother told us stories about when they were kids – she and my father had grown up together, been high school sweethearts. And as my brother and I grew older, she would say that she saw much of Mike in Nathan, physically, but also his sense of humor, and wit. “You sound just like Mike Loyd,” my mother would say, laughing and exasperated at my brother’s antics. We always knew it was a compliment. She only told us good things about Mike Loyd, which made his absence from her life even more bewildering.
I had a good childhood without him, though. Mike was right – my mother was dedicated to us. We moved to Southern California because my stepfather was in the Navy and he was kind and dependable and worked hard to support us. Mike Loyd thought he wasn't needed.
But I still wondered who this funny Texas dad was. I wondered if we looked enough like him if he would recognize us if he passed us on the street. Yes, I knew Texas was nowhere near California, but what if came to San Diego on a vacation or a business trip? (I had no idea what business he was in.) Or what if he came to look for us? Maybe we’d bump into him. I made eye contact with strangers, so that he wouldn't miss us.
I had to depend on him finding us, though, because I had no idea what he looked like, other than maybe an older version of my brother. And he might be wearing striped pants. On the top shelf of my mother’s bedroom closet there was a cardboard box filled with all of our family photos. In every baby, toddler, birthday photo of me, there’s a man without a face. My mother cut his head out of all the photos. A headless guy in 1970s style striped pants with a wide white belt standing next to my mother in a mini-skirt. A tall thin man with strong arms wrapped around a squirming toddler. Why had she cut him out of the photos? And then taken us to California? Why wasn’t he trying to find us? I didn't understand my parents' choices.
After I turned 18 – and then got married at 20 – we reestablished contact with the Loyd family – my aunt and my grandmother first, then Mike. It took years for me to understand and open my heart to the real Mike Loyd. He was kind and gentle, he was wickedly funny and, yes, my brother looked a lot like him.
But he still lived in Texas and I still lived in California and, worse, he had his own personal problems he was still working on. I had perfected thinking about my own loss for many years by then, of not having my biological father in my life. Even after we reconnected, I held so much anger toward him and felt that he was a very selfish person who had skipped out while my mother and stepfather did all the physical, emotional, and financial work of parenthood. It wasn’t until after my own son was born, however, that I realized what my dad had lost by not raising us. I felt sorry for him for the first time, instead of just feeling sorry for me and Nathan.
Mike tried harder and wanted to know his grandkids and be in their lives. My brother and I called him “Mike Loyd,” but he wanted his grandkids to call him “Captain Mike” (he had been a charter boat captain in the Gulf of Mexico for most of his career). He came to visit us in California, twice. He played with Miles and Lillian and laughed that they were “silly and annoying.” I couldn’t take pure joy in his visits, though, taking his every word and interaction with my young children and spinning it back on my childhood: He never knew how silly and annoying Nathan and I were together. We were pretty great kids, too, but he never knew that. He never played with us on the floor or took a nap with us on the couch. He never bought us gifts or sent us birthday cards, like he did for my children now. Why did they mean so much to him now but he had let my brother and I go? Why weren’t we enough for him?
The last time I saw Mike in person was 2005. He came to California. He came to my book party when my first book was published. I took him around to the kids’ schools and activities. He got to know my husband a bit and bought our fishing boat and had it hauled back to Texas.
Most importantly, he started telling me as many stories as he could. I didn’t ask or interview him – he just needed to talk. He wanted me to know him, but he also wanted to account for the time, for the missing years.
We even talked about writing a book together. I was an author and he had some crazy stories to tell about life on the Gulf of Mexico. He also had an incredible way with words and storytelling – my mother always said that Mike Loyd was one of the most intelligent people she had known and she thought Nathan and I (both of us grew up to be writers and teachers) got our “smarts” from him.
After that 2005 visit, he got himself into more troubles – both health-related and legal – because of his past, his addictions, his choices. He wrote me long letters about regret and recovery. He wanted forgiveness, maybe, but there was nothing to forgive. By now he was more disappointed in himself than I was in him. Mostly, I think, he just wanted to be honest with me. To come clean. I never gave him much back. I listened, but I didn’t respond or agree or ask questions. Or forgive.
Or maybe I did, just by being there and by letting him know his grandkids.
He regularly called to talk on the telephone. We had long conversations at least once or twice a month and wanted to know what books projects I was working on. He also wanted to talk to the kids, to listen to their stories. He thought they were brilliant and funny and creative. To them, he was never a mythical, mysterious, bigger than Texas man from the past. He was just Captain Mike – their grandpa. He’d always been there. It wasn’t complicated at all.
I hope that was finally enough for him.