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When My Father Walked Out
Juana Campos
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When I was 7, my father taught me how to ride a horse. It was the most beautiful experience of my entire life.

My family still lived in the Dominican Republic then, and one day my father took a day off from work to go with me to my uncle’s farm. The horse he chose for me to ride was dark brown and her name was Susanne, but I couldn’t pronounce that, so I called her chucale, which later became my nickname.

It was a beautiful sunny, breezy day, and the green field was full of flowers. The wind was moving my curly hair and all I could hear were the birds singing. I rode Susanne while my father guided me.

“Gather the rope around her neck,” he said.

“OK, Daddy.”

I accidentally grabbed Susanne’s mane instead of the rope and she reared up. I was going to scream for help but then I realized I was pulling her hair so I let it go and she stopped. I was worried that I might fall, but I had fun, too, as though I was going up and down on a roller coaster.

“Are you having fun with Susanne?” my father asked me. He was really excited that I didn’t fall off the horse and he seemed happy.

“Her name is Chucale,” I yelled at him, rolling my eyes.

“Fine, however you want to call her. Just don’t hit her so she won’t get angry.”

I kept going in circles with Susanne until it started raining. We got wet and then my father took me inside so I wouldn’t catch a cold. My dad had taken a picture of me riding Susanne, and he wanted to give it to me but I refused to accept it.

“It’s OK, Daddy, you keep it. After all, I had a great time with Chucale and I don’t need a photo to remember this moment.”

Two years later, my father left our home and I haven’t seen him since. But I’m pretty sure he remembers that day as much as I do.

A Desert Inside

The day I went from living with both of my parents to live with only my mother, I felt like a desert, empty and like everyone had abandoned me. I was 9, and I’d arrived home early from school. The front door was open so I entered the house unnoticed. I heard my mom and dad talking in their bedroom. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but my mother sounded as if she was about to cry so I got closer and listened.

“Why did you do this to me?” my mother asked.

“I don’t know. It was an impulse,” my father replied.

“What impulse? What are you talking about? How many times have you cheated on me?” she yelled at my father.

“Is this how much you ‘love’ me?” she asked. Mom started crying.

“Don’t cry,” Dad said.

“How am I supposed to tell the kids about this?” she said with a sad voice.

They stopped talking for a second but then my father said that they should divorce because he wanted to marry the other woman. He told her he was sorry for her and the kids, and that he was sorry for not telling her before.

“I’ll leave next week and when the kids ask you where am I, just tell them that Daddy found a new job and had to move to the city for a few months.”

I felt a lump rising in my throat, but if I cried, my parents would notice I was listening.

The next few days were agony. When mom told me and my siblings that our dad was leaving for a few months because he found a new “job” in the city, my siblings believed what my mother was saying. But I knew the truth, and later I told my mom that I’d overheard their conversation.

He Never Came Back

She hugged me. She tried to deny it, but then she realized she had to be honest with me. “Oh honey, I wish you hadn’t heard that, but things aren’t going well between Mommy and Daddy so we have to divorce,” she said in a quiet, comforting voice. She gave me a kiss on my forehead.

I felt angry but tears flooded my eyes. I rolled my eyes and they disappeared. I didn’t want to look weak in front of Mom. I wanted her to see I was a brave girl. I promised never to tell my siblings the real reason my father left.

After that, I saw my father twice and then he never came back. The last time I saw him, he took me to a park in the city of Santiago and bought me ice cream. I understood that I wasn’t going to see him frequently after that, but I never thought that was going to be the last time.

At first, my brother and sister believed what Mom said about him and his new “job,” but soon they noticed that he didn’t keep in touch with us. They were sad but they weren’t so close to my father, so I don’t think it affected them as much as it affected me.

My sister and I talked a lot about how we felt. My sister said that she was sad that our dad had left but she said she understood that he’d found someone else and maybe that person made him happier than my mom had. She was 14 so maybe it was easier for her to take that in.

Counting the Birthdays

It took me a long time to figure out how to live without him. Every year on my birthday, I would wait outside my house for him to come and wish me a happy birthday. Tenth, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th…. Every one of my birthdays I waited for him, but he didn’t show up.

image by YC-Art Dept

On my 14th birthday I even screamed at the sky, asking why he didn’t come and what I had done to deserve that punishment. He didn’t seem to care about his little girl anymore.

Each year I told myself I didn’t really care if he forgot about my past birthdays, but I swore to God that I wouldn’t forgive him if he missed my 15th birthday—my quinceañera. Every girl dreams of that day and although I hadn’t been in touch with him since he left, I really convinced myself that he missed my other birthdays because he was saving the best for last, my quinceañera night.

That night, I wore a huge light orange dress with golden accessories that my mother bought me. The tradition is that your father changes the little flat shoes you wear with the dress at the beginning of the party and replaces them with high heels, which represents you changing from a little girl to a teenager, or señorita. But since he hadn’t shown up, one of my uncles did it.

Late into the night, still wearing my orange dress for my father to see, I continued checking my mom’s phone every five minutes to see if he had called. Finally, I changed my beautiful orange dress to a simple purple one with the black flat shoes I was wearing before.

“I’m sorry, honey, but I don’t think he’s going to call,” Mom finally said.

I was quiet for a few moments.

“Mom, would you ever replace me for a boyfriend or husband?” I asked.

“Well, you were nine months inside of my womb so I don’t think anyone can replace that.”

After that, I realized that my mother wouldn’t put anyone before us like my dad had. I didn’t want to tell her how much that meant to me, but I guess she knew it because she came to me and said, “I know you want to cry and I’m not going to stop you. Go ahead and have fun. Celebrate the quinceañera I never had.”

I had resented my mother after my parents divorced, but after my 15th birthday party, I noticed that my mother was trying her hardest to be mom and dad at the same time. I appreciated the fact that she was trying to make her kids happy in whatever way she could.

I said to myself, “What are you thinking? It was your dad’s fault, not hers, so stop it.” I apologized to her not long after the party and told her I’d been too immature and childish to see that my father had made that mistake, not her. She said it was OK and that she understood how I was feeling. She means the world to me.

How I Cope

Four months after I turned 15, we moved to the United States. When I found out I was moving to another country, I was worried I might lose the chance of seeing my father again. But when I really thought about it, I realized I could handle it because I had survived without him for six years.

A couple of things have helped me cope with my father’s absence. Writing was one of them. It has helped me find inner peace, especially since moving to a new country. I didn’t speak English, which meant it took a while to make friends. So I took a notebook and I started to express myself through writing.

I treated writing as my personal friend who I could talk to about everything. I wrote about anger, love, resentment, care, family, kids who grew up happily with both of their parents, how I felt when my father left, the good memories, how upset I was and how I had hated my mother because I thought it was her fault that my parents divorced.

I also wrote letters for my father. I remember the first letter I wrote him, two weeks after I got to this country. It said something like:

Dear Father,

I know that I haven’t seen you in a long time and that you’re not actually going to read this letter. Also, that this is not the best way of communicating because I don’t know where you live, but I just want you to know that I hate you as much as I love you and that even though you left us, I forgive you and I cry remembering the moments we lived together. I don’t have any resentment toward you for not coming to my 15th birthday party and I understand that you have your own life also. But wherever you are, I know you still remember me as your daughter and I remember you as my father.

Sincerely, Your Daughter

After I finished with that letter, I broke it into tiny pieces and put them into the recycling bin.

My Second Notebook

Another thing that helped me cope was my older half-sister Rocio, from my dad’s side, who lives in the Dominican Republic. We began talking when I was still in the D.R. She is 11 years older than me. After I moved to the U.S., we started talking more through MySpace and later Facebook. She helped me by saying that she understood how I felt—our father had done the same thing to her mother when he met my mother. But she said that he had come back from time to time and took her and her two older brothers out for dinner.

After she told me that, I started thinking that my father was the meanest person on earth because he continued visiting her and not us. I had a lot of questions. Did he ever care about us? Was he lying every time he’d said he loved us?

But then I thought he wasn’t that bad because he had helped raised me and my siblings, and even if he was the meanest person on earth, he was still my blood. My mother’s favorite phrase is, “You must love both your parents every day of your life equally.” I’m alive because of him and my mother.

Although I was hurt to know that my father had continued a relationship with my sister and not with me, Rocio became like my second notebook. She helped me find peace and made me realize that I wasn’t the only person in the world whose father abandoned her.

Finding Forgiveness

I believe that when we lose something, we tend to appreciate it more than when we had it. I’ve never completely overcome missing my father, though I am often ambivalent, swinging back and forth between loving and hating him. I miss him, but at the same time I don’t want him close to me. I want to give him a hug, yet I want him to stay away.

I don’t know how long I can keep this difficult combination of feelings inside of me without hurting myself or my loved ones. I worry I might end up turning into a mean person, and start hating and hurting myself and the people who love me because I won’t be able to control my emotions.

It’s been almost nine years since I’ve seen my father. If I ever have the chance for a very honest conversation with him, I would want him to know that the way he left traumatized me. I never thought that he would leave his kids for a woman.

I would also tell him that this time away from him let me realize that I like being independent. Now I believe we need to have a distance between ourselves and the people we love in order to realize we can achieve our goals without their help. No one we love is going to be around forever.

But I also want him to know I’ve missed him ever since he left and I cried for him every night when I was a kid. I would forgive him, but I hope he learns from his mistake.

I know he still remembers me in the bottom of his heart because I am his daughter. I feel stronger now because I learned how to live without someone I love. I think about it now and I just say, “I hope he’s fine.”

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(NYC-2013-01-21)

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