The day things fell apart for us is a scar on my mind. Kathy and I were both quiet in my cousin’s car on the ride down to the Greyhound station. I sat in the back so I could be closer to our daughter. Her one-year-old face was shined with Vaseline and baby lotion and she giggled every time I said peekaboo. When we finally arrived at the station, Kathy lifted Krystasia out of the car seat while I grabbed my bags out of my cousin’s trunk. She was still in Kathy’s arms when the loading doors to the bus were closing and the driver said it was time to board.
“Say bye to your daddy, munchkin.”
We still weren’t sure when we would see each other again. I had accepted a basketball scholarship to a university in western New York called Saint Bonaventure. As a Canadian, not only would it take me away, to another country, but it would take me away from my family. Even at 19 years old, that word meant something to me. It meant something to us. Family.
Krystasia jumped into my arms one last time. I held her as long as I could until I heard the Greyhound engine growl through the station. By the time I stepped on the bus, I had to hustle to my window seat to catch a glimpse of Kathy and Krystasia waving goodbye. I waved until the bus made its first turn out of the station and fought not to let tears slip down my cheeks. If I could’ve read the stories in those tears, I wouldn’t have fought them back at all. I would’ve let them flow freely because that was the moment—as the Greyhound headed toward the highway—that tore my relationship with Kathy apart.
We didn’t know it at the time, though. How could we? Just a couple of weeks earlier, we had celebrated Krystasia’s first birthday. We had a barbecue at the park and bought her a cake with her face on it. Actually, it wasn’t just her face; it was her whole body. The picture was taken when Krystasia was only six months old, dressed in a blue and white striped, armless shirt. All of our friends came to her party, dressed in basketball jerseys and jean shorts. We drank and smoked and bumped; our music way too loud. We had the best time.
Sitting on that bus, though, I realized that my tears were selfish. I worried about Krystasia forgetting me. I worried about not feeling like a father. What I didn’t consider was what my leaving did to Kathy. She lived with a freedom and confidence that made me fall in love and I didn’t think for a minute, not one minute, that me leaving would be a problem for her.
I ignored the reality that Kathy was only 18. Her brashness made me forget that she was a foot shorter than me and was now alone in the city with no mother and a rocky relationship with her father who years ago had thrown her out of his house.
It wasn’t until recently that I reflected on how she must have felt. Years later, I finally considered all the thoughts that must’ve been swirling through her mind as she smiled and waved goodbye to that bus. Sometimes I wonder—what was the first thing Kathy did when she left the station? Did she shed any tears? Hop back in my cousin’s car and have him drive her straight home? Did she think about her future? About our future?
Krystasia was probably fussy on the way back. Kathy probably sat with her in the backseat and gave her a bottle because she hadn’t eaten much that morning. While that bus was carrying me away to follow my dreams, Kathy’s fate was already written. There was no time for her to close her eyes and imagine what her life could be. She was a teenage mother. A mother without a partner physically present to give her the space she needed to let her mind wander, to dream her own dreams. Our daughter needed her.
I get it now. After all these years, I finally get it. I abandoned her. And I can reason that it was for a good cause—that I wanted to give my daughter a better life. That I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to play Division 1 college basketball and travel across America doing what I loved to do. I graduated with a degree in the f ield that’s now my career so all of it made sense, and it all worked out as planned. But it was my plan. My life. My dreams. Not hers.
It didn’t take long for things to fall apart.
In my absence, Kathy and I unraveled as quickly as we’d become infatuated. Krystasia was our only connection and even she couldn’t save us. We were together by title only. Any real affection we had for each other had evaporated, replaced with the weight of a crushing reality: we were just kids. We were also two different people trying to make a relationship work through conditions that would have strained even the most committed of mature couples. The odds were against us from the first time I touched Kathy’s stomach with Krystasia inside. It just took me leaving for us to finally concede.
I didn’t understand any of this back then. I couldn’t see past my growing resentment towards Kathy. She made me feel small and insignificant in my daughter’s life. As I write those words, I realize I felt all those emotions without her ever actually berating me. There were days in that dorm room I wish I told Kathy no. No, I don’t want you to have that baby. No, I won’t stay with you through all of this. No, I’m not ready to be a father.
I’d lay on my back and let my mind wander thinking about what my life could’ve been if I didn’t have a child. If I was a “normal” student with “normal” responsibilities, just enjoying being a teenager.
As much as I regret those thoughts today, they were real. Kathy hates me now and that’s okay. Sometimes I hate her, too. But I know that her initial sacrifice helped shape my life just like my sacrifice helped define hers. And now we’re here.
It’s years later and we’re separated by something far greater than distance. I’m not sure how Kathy actually feels about me. Sometimes I think she’s never gotten over me getting on that Greyhound, and that resentment has grown so wide it’s engulfed our daughter.
I was supposed to be Kathy’s rock. It was supposed to be my job to stay with her through everything we knew we’d go through once we agreed to not abort our child. All those promises, broken the moment I stepped on that bus. Kathy may not have been able to articulate it then but I know she felt abandoned. How could she have not?
But all I can do is assume. We haven’t exchanged words since that day at my daughter’s schoolyard five years ago. Haven’t exchanged glances since we sat in court and she agreed to give me full custody. We’ll probably never speak again.
And I’m okay with that, but what does it do to a child to lose her mother? And lose is a kind word. My daughter had been abandoned by her mother. It’s been her mother’s choice not to call, not to set up any time to visit, not to be part of her daughter’s life after helping to raise her for 13 years. And I don’t know why Kathy chose that moment to walk away. Why she chose to turn her back just as our daughter was beginning her transition into becoming a young woman. Maybe the universe has a tragic sense of humor.
For weeks after her abandonment, I watched how my daughter behaved. I tried to analyze her moods, gauge her actions, process every word that came out of her mouth to figure out how she was coping. Weeks turned to months, then months turned into years. I still checked in every so often to let my daughter know it was okay not to be okay. That being abandoned by her mother was a traumatic experience even though it may not feel like it in the moment.
But Krystasia is okay. Another assumption but it’s what I believe. It’s what she tells herself and has also made herself believe. In my heart, I think the day will come when she will acknowledge her emotions and face them head-on. I’ll be there that day, though it won’t be my battle.
My fight has been long—as long as those trips on the Greyhound. But there are many more miles to go. So many more…
Kern Carter is an author living in Toronto. Excerpted with permission from the short story series, My Failures as a Father. To read other stories, sign up to receive the writer’s Love and Literature newsletter at kerncarter.substack.com.