I was 21 when I got a phone call that changed my life. I was in a restaurant with a group of people and got up to take the call. I remember to this day how the wind was knocked out of my lungs without anyone laying a finger on me. It was a phone call I never expected to receive.
“Our dad is dying and he is asking for you.”
“Huh? Dad is dying?”
“Don. He’s in the hospital and he only has a few days to live. He wants to see you.”
Now I was raised by Ben Cannon, who adopted me when I was about five years old. I remember the ceremony in a dark wood paneled room where the judge asked me a few questions about being adopted and I said all of the right responses for someone getting adopted. Everyone signed some papers, and then my life went on as Savannah Cannon, not Savannah Sims.
Don Sims was my biological father, my mom’s first husband. I used to ask her what he was like, begging for crumbs of information to understand the half of me that I didn’t remember. I never knew if my actions and mannerisms and thoughts were from my mom, of my own creation, or from a man I didn’t know. I couldn’t bring forth a memory of his face that wasn’t from the pictures I found in boxes hidden in the closet in our den. There was only one picture of me and him. He is sleeping on his back, and my sleeping body is laying on his chest, a baby with hair the color of red wine wrapped in a yellow blanket. I don’t know where this picture is now.
I was just over three years old when he went to jail for the first time. I think that’s when my mom left him. Growing up, I was told he was a bad man, and I remember being warned in elementary school to never leave school with anyone who wasn’t my mom or my grandparents and to be careful of what I let the public know about me in case this man ever came looking for me. What a strange warning to give to a child when the big bad man never made a single attempt to be in my life after I was three. At least there was never an attempt to communicate with me that I knew of…until this deathbed phone call.
I hear that drugs ruin lives. In Don’s case I know the main drug was cocaine, simply based upon the jail records I can find. There are 18 separate arrests from the time I was three to the time I was nineteen. All arrests align pretty well with a cocaine addiction: everything from burglary to forging checks to stealing cars to multiple possessions…but then it gets really dicey with a car chase and tampering of evidence.
Everything I know about my biological father outside of the arrest records can be summarized into a few sentences. He owned How Swede It Is, the only Swedish car repair shop in Atlanta, Georgia in the 80’s and early 90’s. He was making loads of money, and my sister and I had decent college funds started. We lived in the “M” house where the wooden beams on the outside of the house were in the shape of an “M”. It was the perfect American family: business owner, a stay-at-home mom, and two children. And then somehow, he got into drugs and everything collapsed. Our college funds were snorted and most likely used to buy hookers. It was the early 90’s after all. My mom left him…and that’s that? I never knew his side of the family either. There were aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents who I didn’t know existed until I was an adult and started researching.
There was a fight I had with my mom as a teenager. She said to me, “Looking at you is like looking into Don’s eyes. He had such hateful eyes.” After years of not hearing about him, this statement hurt. My badness was tied to him. I was told my charm came from him too…but it was always packaged as a manipulative charm. He could get whatever he wanted. But it was never a good charm. It was a charm dripped with evil. Any part of me that came from him was bad.
Rumors came back to us when I was thirteen that he took my sister’s high school graduation picture (that he got from ???) and was showing people on the street how proud he was of his daughter…a daughter he raised for eight years and then left. Never me though.
Eighteen years. It was eighteen years from the time my mom left him to the time I received the phone call from my sister. And what was my response? Born out of shock, or resentment, or self-righteousness, or indifference?
“I don’t have it in me. I have too much on my plate right now.”
I had just gotten back from Afghanistan, where my life had fallen apart. I was in the middle of a divorce. I had started a new position in the Marine Corps. And my grandfather (adopted dad’s dad) had just died. Asking a Marine who was suppressing all emotions to empathize with a man who had left her as a baby was a long shot.
So I told my sister that I had no desire to speak with a man who had many years to be there for me and chose not to be. He didn’t even brag to his street friends that I graduated or became a Marine. Even after my sister begged me to reconsider, I stood firm. He was dying from a heart issue exacerbated by years of drug abuse. If he wanted absolution, he wasn’t going to get it from me. He had nineteen years.
I hung up the phone, walked back into the restaurant, and continued my lunch.
He died two days later.
Over the years I imagine what the reunion would have looked like. He had gone from a burly 210 pound man to a wasting 160 pounds before he succumbed to his disease. Would I have touched his hand? Would I have stood and looked at him? What would he have said? What answers would I have gotten? Or worse, what questions would have been created? Would he have felt better? Would his guilt have transferred to me? I don’t know where he is buried. I don’t even know what he sounded like.
Reminders of this ongoing problem for me come up randomly, like when I realized I would never have the paternal haplogroup portion or parental breakdown of my 23 and Me results. Don had no sons and he is very much dead himself. Only one aunt speaks to me from that side of the family. I see pictures on Facebook of the family reunions.
Rectifying half of me that was abandoned for drugs, that was not chosen, that was not loved by the man who brought me into the world and then left when I was three has been an ongoing battle. We have multiple breaths a day that can be used to create bonds and connections. You cannot claim to love someone if you leave them. You cannot claim to care in the last moments of your life. The edge of death does not make you worthy of forgiveness for a lifetime of wrongdoings.