A twist of the knob, a click of the door, the quiet but heavy footsteps trying not to wake
any of the home’s supposedly sleeping occupants. I, of course, could never sleep on nights like
this. The anticipation and excitement of knowing my dad would be coming home way past my
bedtime was all consuming. Knowing that meant I could sneak downstairs, eat as much junk as I
wanted, and watch shows my mom would never let me see so young was pretty cool. But what
really got me excited, what really planted that seed of joy, was my choice in company. He treated
me like a kid, I mean I was four at the time so there’s no shocker there, but he also talked to me
like a normal human being. He asked about my day, made sure mom wasn’t giving me too hard
of a time, and constantly made me laugh. Anytime I saw him, I was greeted with a big smile and
an even bigger hug, and to this day I’m not sure anyone has ever been so consistently excited to
see me just because.
— — —
One pill, two pill, white pill, blue pill.
— — —
Between first and sixth grade, the amount of times he would show up to my school, pull
me out of class, and hit me with a “wanna play hooky?” were endless. The second we got into
the car he would pull out a plastic 7-11 bag filled with our favorite candies, ask which one I
wanted, take the other for himself, put the car in drive, and go. Sometimes we went to the park.
Sometimes we went to the movies. Sometimes we went home and watched all our favorite
shows. It didn’t matter what we were doing, it didn’t matter what I had been learning in class,
and it didn’t matter if my mom was going to be royally pissed once I got home.
— — —
Growing up, everything was always so black and white for me. My mom was the parent
parent and my dad was the fun parent. I thought my mom was mean because she constantly
raised her voice, while my dad was kind because he never did. Spending time with my dad was
so much more valuable because before I even turned five, he had moved out. Spending time with
my mom was an obligation that never got fulfilled outside of necessary daily life activities. My
mom was my mom and my dad was my friend. My dad was awesome. My dad was the father
everyone wanted. My dad couldn’t do any wrong.
— — —
In seventh grade, I was sitting in my chorus class half paying attention when I felt my
phone buzz. I opened Instagram and saw that one of my friends (bordering on acquaintances) had
messaged me asking what my dad’s first name was because she had seen someone on the news
with the last name Wanzelak. Immediately I was confused, anxious, and embarrassed and had no
idea what to say because truthfully, I had no idea what was happening. I denied, denied, denied,
but seventh graders are stubborn, and my last name is pretty rare, so that didn’t get me very far. I
went straight to Google and there it was, an article and video of my dad, talking about his past
opioid addiction and how he knew it was bad when his three year old daughter gave him a
Father’s Day card with $20 in it, and he automatically knew where it would be going. He spoke
about how he was now helping others work past the same issues he once had, but had now
He took me to Starbucks a day later in hopes of telling me his story himself, not knowing
I had already heard it. Honestly, this whole thing wasn’t an earth shattering revelation. I guess I
always kind of had my suspicions about my parents, who seemed to become less and less
worried about watching what they said around me as I got older: perpetual talks of yellows and
blues, the constant question of “how much”, and the whispers of “yeah, I got some”. It’s
something that’s never really made much sense to me seeing as how as I’ve gotten older, I’ve not
only gotten smarter, but (more importantly) nosier. While I never actually confronted them, my
ear was glued to the door more times than I would care to admit. Eventually, the whispers
became normal conversation and more than anything, I felt offended. Did they think I was
dumb? Deaf? Did they think I just couldn’t care less about anything they said? No matter the
reason, I had been stuck in some state between acceptance and miserable ignorance for as long as
I could remember. So in some ways, the confirmation was relieving. The lie reassurance that it
was a thing of the past, on the other hand? Not as appreciated. To this day, I’m not entirely sure I
believe it’s something he’s actually managed to put behind him.
I put it all to the back of mind and continued on. It’s not as though our relationship
changed overnight; we still went and saw every new Marvel movie on opening weekend, we still
blasted Taylor Swift in the car and sang “Mean” as loud as we could. He still asked about my
day, and he still tried to make sure my house wasn’t too much of a warzone. At the same time, as
my high school years went on, we didn’t seem to click as well as we used to, and while of course
there wasn't just one factor that played into this, there was a main one: I grew up. It was like as I
became more mature, not only was I seeing things I hadn’t before, but he was simultaneously
regressing. Spontaneity became unreliability, fun conversations became arguments, and my best
friend became my father. I started to see how hard my mom had to work to take care of me while
being the one to put her foot down, and I started to realize that my dad wasn’t actually as there
for me as I thought. He forgot important things, he was constantly late picking me up and taking
me places, and he refused to try and understand where my frustrations were coming from.
There was one day in particular that really flipped things on its head for me, a day I don’t think I’ll ever
manage to forget. I had been a volunteer at the One Act competition my school was hosting, and
all day I was forced to watch depressing and borderline inappropriate shows to perform in a high
school. By the end of it, I was emotionally drained, exhausted, and in a rush to make it to my
best friend’s birthday party. Unfortunately, I was still young enough that I didn’t have a car, or a
license for that matter, and had to wait to be picked up. The drive from my high school to my
dad’s house is 15 minutes. Over the course of two hours, I watched as everyone else left, one by
one, until it was just me and my teacher left in the building. He had his “reasons,” of course. The
first call was that he left a little late but was on his way now. The second one was that he had
been trying to get there so fast he got a speeding ticket, but was on his way now. The third call
was that somehow he managed to lightly rear end someone, so he had to stop and talk to them,
but again, he was on his way. It got to the point that my teacher repeatedly asked me if I wanted
or needed a ride, both out of kindness and the fact that she obviously wanted to get home just as
badly as I did. I refused at first, claiming my dad was on his way and would be there soon, so we
waited in her car for his arrival. Spoiler alert: it never came.
My teacher ended up driving me home and once I met my dad we proceeded to get into a screaming match that just couldn’t seem
to resolve itself. I didn’t know it then, but this would end up being the first of many.
— — —
Around this time it became more and more apparent there was something else going on;
something more than him maybe using drugs. He stopped sleeping and it was like I watched him
completely change in front of my eyes. Weirdly, severe lack of sleep is one of those things you
think you understand the consequences of until you’re actually forced face to face with them. It
was as though he was constantly bordering on either hallucinating or passing out, and even if his
eyes were closed and it seemed like he was napping, I could guarantee that he wasn’t. There was
one time we stopped for gas and he had been outside for at least 15 minutes before I decided to
see what was taking so long. He was leaning on his side of the truck with his eyes closed, barely
coherent, and shaking out his hand like it was asleep.
Farther into sophomore year I found out he had been diagnosed with a brain aneurysm.
About a year and a half later I learned he had cancer.
Grief has always been an incredibly odd thing for me, it’s always felt too far away.
Obviously he’s still here so there isn’t actually anything to grieve, but I’m sure most people
would feel a certain kind of sadness when receiving this kind of news. I didn’t really feel much
of anything at all. He told me and I felt a pang of sorrow somewhere deep down. Sorrow for him,
for the fact that he has to go through this, but not sorrow for me as his daughter who has to watch
him go through it. Maybe I haven’t processed it yet, maybe I won’t be able to until he’s actually
gone, or maybe I never will.
For the sake of being wholly transparent, I’ll admit that most of the time it was a mix of
frustration and annoyance that bubbled at the pit of my stomach anytime I had to remember why
he was acting the way he was. It wasn’t just the forgetting things or being late, it was like I now
had two dads and never knew which one I would get. Sometimes I would be lucky enough to get
my best friend back for a couple hours, but more often than not it was something else entirely.
Sometimes he would be so out of it that I had to ignore what he was saying because it just didn’t
make any sense. Sometimes he would be in such a good mood that it pissed me off, because I
was a teenage girl filled with nothing but negative emotions and what the hell did he have to be
so happy about? Sometimes he would be so irritable I couldn’t get a word out without starting a
fight. It would make me so mad that I essentially had to make excuses for him in my head, that I
had to tell myself that it wasn’t actually him, but a sick version of him. It would make me so mad
because the things he would say hurt. Being told that I “really shouldn’t be so depressed” and
that I “need to talk to someone about whatever’s going on in my life because it’s not good” hurt.
Having him jokingly call my mentally ill ex-girlfriend crazy even after I told him not to hurt.
Having him tell me I’m going to be “locked up” if I “act like that in the real world” after I yelled
back at him really hurt. Of course, he didn’t know this, because all he saw was his disrespectful
teen daughter who couldn’t be bothered to care.
— — —
He picked out my name. He bought me my first car. He gave me my love of film. He was
the first adult I ever came out to. He encouraged me to get out of Virginia. He supported my
dreams. He believed in me.
— — —
Naturally, the second I left for college in a completely different state, things changed.
Putting a twelve hour drive in between us actually seemed to help, seeing as how it alleviated a
lot of the tension that usually couldn’t help but rear its ugly head. Pretty quickly into being here
though, things changed again. October rolled around and all of a sudden I started hearing from
him less. I tried to find out what was going on from the rest of my family, but all I got was vague
responses and flakiness. At first I didn’t think much of it, but then I realized it felt a lot like a
previous period of my life I had almost forgotten: one where my dad had been in jail. My
intuition ended up being right and I got the news a few days later. Again, I didn't really feel much
of anything at all.
Anytime I see 757-716 pop up on my phone I just sit and stare. Sometimes I even wait
until the very last ring to hit the green button. I sit through the same grating electronic message:
“This call is from a Virginia Beach correctional facility, to accept the call press- *beep*”. I’ve
gotten into the habit of trying to click zero before it has the chance to tell me to; as if I don’t
know what button to press to accept the call. Calls last ten minutes, and they can call right back
but it’ll cost you. Every. Time. He reminds me to put his order in before midnight, because god
forbid he go a week without his E-cigarettes, and I’m always left wondering if this grown man
truly believes money grows on trees. Rinse and repeat three or four times over and you’ve got
yourself a normal week of college life.
I wish he wasn’t there, it would be terrible if I said otherwise, but it’s also given me the
opportunity to relearn how to appreciate his conversation. When you are legitimately restricted
from contacting someone, no matter the time or day, you realize how much it is you actually
want to talk to them. I catch myself wanting to tell him about my day, wanting to tell him about
the girl I like, wanting to rant to him about the new movie I just watched, and wanting to
complain to him about how cold it is outside.
— — —
I still hold resentment, I still hold anger and frustration, and I’m still hurt by his past
words. Yet, in allowing myself to feel these things and see his faults, I was able to do something
I desperately needed to do all along: take him off the pedestal I had put him on at such a young
age, while also dragging him away from the deepest, darkest parts of my teenage years. This has
left him floating around in the middle somewhere, where he belongs. Because while he’s not my
best friend anymore, he’s also something more than a father who’s made mistakes. He’s human.
Kyleigh Wanzelak was born and raised in Virginia Beach, VA, and lived in her childhood
home her entire life before moving to Boston for college. She is currently a student at Emerson
College where she studies film in hopes of becoming a screenwriter/director.