My Birthday Gift to Me: On Becoming 44 and Closing the Door on a Ghost

As I sit here today, I have been ready to say and do what I am about to for many, many years. 
I have turned this day over and over in my mind growing up, and in adult life and never truly could figure out the exact way that would make this easier... or more tactful.... or kinder. I have recently (almost 2 months ago) lost my beloved Baba. She was the last link chaining me to my personal prison.
But I have to be kind to myself now. 
This is a gift I am giving myself, on my 44th birthday, and it is time. 
It is time to to tell MY truth.

For anyone who doesn't "know" me - a short, Reader's Digest Condensed version of my story goes like this: 
I am the product of a marriage between 2 people that ended radically as a young (2year old) child. I was adopted and raised by a stepfather who married my mom and loved me unconditionally regardless of the fact that the blood flowing through me was not his. I had a loving mother, and younger siblings, and we all grew up equal.  My "dad"  really was MY dad. 
And yet - I am different. 

I didn't know at first, that there was a whole other world I was connected to. It wasn't until my maternal grandparents took me away on a summer vacation when I was about 11 that a door was opened and my life's reality was discovered. (This was all a surprise to my poor mom, by the way - she was blindsided and did not realize they were in fact taking me to meet strangers who suddenly were to be accepted as family. It wasn't until the deed was done that she knew they had dropped this bombshell into my lap while I looked out a window driving across the Saskatchewan prairies.  Why her own parents made this decision on her behalf, I will never know.)
It went something like this:

I am sitting in the backseat of a giant Crown Victoria as we sail across the flat landscape of Saskatchewan. Alot of time to talk with grandparents who had basically loved and raised me just as my mother did - and suddenly, as we drive, the conversation turns. 
"Where are we going now?" I ask. Excited about going ANYWHERE without my pesky younger siblings.
"We are taking you to meet someone." My grandmother said. 
"Who is it?" 
She turned her head across the back of that big bench seat in the front of the car and replied, "Your grandparents." Quite matter-of-fact. Like she just told me we were stopping for gas. And she turned back to stare at the wheat fields. 
My grandfather was silent.
So confusion set in... after all.... here I am... doing the math... somewhere on a rural Saskatchewan highway. I have 2 grandparents in the car. I have 2 other grandparents back at home - who like my  dad... had never a day in my life treated me any different than my sibs. That was my life. As I knew it until that very second.   
The next 30 minutes of that drive were spent educating me on a new reality: quite simply, Amber - you have other grandparents, and a totally different father. 
A different dad. 
It was like being told we were going to Disneyland and Walt was waiting to meet you. 
At that moment, anyway.
 Little did my little 11 year old heart know, it was the beginning of a life of tears, and happiness, and sadness, and heartbreak and disappointment and then happiness rolled back again, repeatedly. All in a rollercoaster that became my story. 

I grew up in those years having almost the best of both worlds - in fact my sister and brothers often lamented to my mom as I would get to leave for summer holidays on the farm "Mom... Amber is SO lucky! She gets THREE grammas and grampas and THREE Christmases and holidays!"
If I was indeed "lucky" it came at a cost. 

One of my earliest memories of forging ahead in the new relationship with my biological father was the weekends I would go to spend with him an hour away from  my home. I was shipped on a bus on a Friday evening to be delivered to him and his wife, and it was those weekends that became the foundation of uncertainty that our relationship was based on. I never quite knew if I was intruding or welcome - not by him, of course... after all - he WAS the one who had claimed my mother had ripped me from him (although...there is a much longer and more truthful side to that). But the best way I can describe these visits is this: it's like being in a beautiful glass house... but not being allowed to touch anything, or sit on the furniture. 
There were alot of times as a child the jealousy of his wife of this new relationship was far from hidden - at times she almost tried too hard - from taking me shopping and doing "girl things" ... only to come back to then punishing me for being "ungrateful". "I am so nice to you and you are so spoiled". 
That was a term I came to be referred to as a lot. 
It was those weekends where I only wanted to be surrounded by  the man who I was part of... and she detested every second of this new intrusion in their marriage. 
Many times, during the school week as  I grew up, my calls were intercepted by her, only to tell me that "We are busy doing things this weekend and it's not a good time". Or not even forwarding my messages to him altogether. Eventually, as most teenage girls do - we begin to find interests in friends, and boys - and my requests to go for those visits began to decline. 
When that would happen, he would then try to "buy" me... with lavish gifts of electronics, and any gadget ... only to be accused of (again) being spoiled, and reminded I was such an undeserving recipient of such things. The cycle continued, and the relationship began to be a burden on my emotions, rather than a reward.
Through all of it though, the love of my paternal grandparents, and their love for me, remained. In fact, it burned stronger each passing year. Every waking minute of my summers were there... riding on a tractor and shadowing my aging grandfather, to being dragged off to bingo halls and late night card games with my dear Baba. It was a sweet sweet salvation from my normality at home: by the time those years rolled around, my mom and dad's marriage was dissolving, and this was a holiday from reality. It was a dream I never wanted to wake from, come September. 

With the passing of time, my months' long summer visits ended once boyfriends were on the scene and I began to get older. But the bond was unbreakable. My grandparents, tried very hard to keep their son interested in maintaining a relationship with me - but his interest was lukewarm, at best. In his own world, and world his wife was keeping for him, I was called on at convenience - not hearing from him for months at a time, only to have him swoop in like a  knight on a horse - bearing gifts and breaking my lonely heart once he would leave, knowing it would be months before he would recall I existed again. 

It wasn't until the announcement of my pregnancy with my first child that I saw a possibility of consistency within him - he suddenly took an interest in both me and the fact that he would soon be a grandfather. I remember my mom calling discussing it at length with me as a nursery was being readied in the months leading up to the big day. 
"Amber he really seems excited about this, maybe this time he will really want to stick around." Instead, I likened it to all of those mid-week phone calls as a pre-teen: "Let's just see how things go for next weekend". 
Or the  next weekend. Or maybe, next month. 
I began to not get my hopes up, as many times, it was only disappointment that came to visit me. And, as I had suspected - the interest in this new role was fleeting. He would come and go from our lives like seasons. 

The years have flew by and in that time, another baby was born and my life took me in farther directions - but my grandparents were my constant. 
But the gap between my birth father and I was growing larger. Alcohol was a huge factor in his life, and alot of those weekend visits as a child were spent watching him pour his homemade booze into shot glasses and consume it - likely to drown out the constant bickering between him and his wife. It was nothing to have them swearing and nattering at each other for the majority of the weekend. Growing older, I saw his problem growing worse, and as a young adult - I became the target at times for some of his rants. It wouldn't be out of the ordinary for him to call me, out of the blue wanting to pick a fight...goading me and going for my throat to make me react. You could pick a topic, from my mother to my own parenting, it was open season on me, many times ending in me hanging up. Only to not hear from him again for months, and calling as though the previous exchange never happened. 
I began to guard myself, and vowed my children were not going to be put through the emotional revolving door that he had put me through as a kid. They would be protected from being dumped over and over like I was. 

When life moved forward and my grandfather passed away, it devastated me - I was wounded for many years. Through that time, I saw a different side to my father - actual feeling. This was new - up until then, I didn't know he felt ANYTHING - other than trying to make me hurt. But losing his father I think changed him, and he knew I loved my grandfather and ached for my own loss. 
Again, a brief flicker of hope for a relationship was quickly extinguished after not hearing from him for longer and longer stretches of time. One step forward, three steps back.

With every stretch of silence, followed by brief interludes of amicable communication there was always one factor that seemed to dictate whether he was "with me or against me". Quite simply - it was whether he and his wife were getting along. If they were - I was the enemy to be kept away from him, but there were moments where they must have hit a wall in their marriage.  Even though I knew I was being temporarily  used emotionally by him, even hearing "I will give you the sun and the moon and the stars if you just talk to me", I wanted to believe it like a religious person looks for proof of the 2nd coming. Again, my 11 year old heart ached for it. 

When another life change brought me the opportunity to come and live in the same community as my Baba, it brought things full circle for me: the woman who looked after me for all those hot summer days was now the one needing the care and I felt it was right where I needed to be. Even after the relationship that brought me here ended, I chose to stay, making my life in a small community with nothing much more to offer me personally but the bond I had with her. In some ways, I often think I owe some sort of twisted gratitude to my former spouse - by bringing me here, he knew it meant more to me than any feeling he ever may have had for me himself. He knew nothing of how to love me, but he knew how much she meant to me.
 I recreated myself, found happiness with someone who understood me and what made me tick, and I planted myself.

For every way the bond grew with my Baba however, the relationship between my biological father and I grew further apart. It was a cruel thing, to hear at times their distaste for me being thrown on my Baba's shoulders - looking at it now I almost feel it made her love me "harder". Their constant fear that somehow I was taking advantage was exhausting. She would almost do things in spite of their feelings. My Baba was generous at times - however, there was never extravagance: it was the simple things - "Come here because I made borscht and buns and I want you you to take it", in her thick Ukrainian accent. The last few years when her care was increasing the viciousness was also becoming more personal towards me. I timed my visits around their very sporadic trips to see her - in fact, she would warn me when they would be coming in order to protect me from the battery I would receive should our paths cross. As infrequent as it was, I began to carry my phone with me at those times, to record the mental cruelty his wife (and sometimes he himself) wouldn't hesitate to inflict - even with my Baba present. Being told I should've never been born. Horrible things about my mother.  A dig about my parenting. All of it.

I know it hurt my Baba. It must've been painful - to love someone who was that hateful towards his own offspring. She often told me she hated his wife for being like that to me. But she also told me that I couldn't cry - I shouldn't cry, whenever  would get soft and talk about it. That was one thing about her. She was stoic, and emotion was weakness. So to let him see my emotion was to let him know he rattled me - that I was weak. She forged on in her determination to not love me any less regardless of his feelings for me. It only made her love me harder.

I looked after her right up until the very day she took her last breath. Every day was scheduled around trips to the nursing home - sometimes twice a day, if nothing more than to check in only to see her sleeping.
 The very fact that her last words to me on that morning were "Comb your hair, and go to work," tells of how even until that last minute she wanted to shield me. Protect me.

 Regardless of her son's hate for me. The last face to face encounter before seeing him for the last time at her funeral, he had accused me of the lowest - in her last clear lucid months before going into the nursing home - she knew what was coming, and had given me a gift and signed the cheque, saying "It's my money and I do what I want with it."  It was no windfall, but it was still large. I knew no matter the amount my throat would be cut for it.  The day he realized that she had done it he was furious and the accusations of stealing from her came. It was all too much for me. I knew the time was coming - I recorded that entire 30 minute tirade to remind me of what needed to happen once there was no longer any connection to him.

As I sat at her funeral, I knew it was also another funeral of sorts - it was the time for me to say goodbye to my connection to him. After all - the only connection we had was now gone. I wouldn't have to worry about any more uncomfortable face-to-face meetings... or awkward conversations trying to fake interest when his name would come up. All of that can disappear. All along, I realize that each insult and cutting word were gifts. They taught me to be even more kind in the face of bitterness and jealousy. It taught me unconditional love is the most powerful love. That I am enough, and worthy of love and happiness. It doesn't matter if someone else thinks I am not meant to be here - I am here, and I have a good heart, and a fierce spirit.  Having to protect myself taught me that guarding my heart was important.

  My Baba's unconditional love was all I ever needed, and with nothing left but her memory, today marks another gift I am giving myself. The gift of freedom. On this birthday, the first one without my Baba, I realize the greatest gift she could've given me - the gift of forgiveness. And strength.  And resilience.
Thank you, Baba.
I am going to comb my hair and go to work.


  1. Amber, this is beautiful and you are lovely and kind.

  2. Amber, as I read your truth, initially my heart was breaking, but then it was uplifted. THIS was so moving and powerful. I truly admire your courage and strength in sharing your story. As I read this I could feel your pain and then your strength in how you rose above it all. I wish I were there to give you a big hug for your bravery. Everyone needs a Baba. Your grandparents were a Godsend. It is apparent that they were beautiful people and always had your best interest at heart. Amber, I just want to say, "You done good girl." You are amazing. You are beautiful, brilliant, witty, loving, kind, and so very brave. So very strong, so very courageous. I hope one day we can meet. You have a captivating soul. I mean all of this from the bottom of my heart. Hugs


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