The phone rang and I clicked off the TV sound, wondering who could be calling so late on a Sunday night. "It's your favorite daughter," said the voice in my ear.
This is our private joke; Laura is my only child.
"Watching a re-run," I replied. "It'll be over soon."
"Should I call back?"
"I know how it turns out. Something wrong, kiddo?" I asked.
"Everything's fine. Pops, I want to ask you something."
"When I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen -- was I really a lot of trouble? A big jerk?"
I suppressed a sigh. Laura came into my life when she was a year old. When she was five, my wife and I divorced, and Laura moved to another state with her mother. At 13, however, she returned to live with me, and stayed past her 25th birthday, when she took her own apartment. This is all of a mile away -- close enough to check the efficiency of my clothes washer or to sample my leftovers, privileges she invokes frequently.
"Big jerk doesn't begin to cover it," I replied, expecting a laugh, then thinking through her silence. Even before the divorce, I'd wanted to tell my daughter that she was adopted, but my ex-wife, wary about this, had put me off, and I didn't feel right doing it unilaterally. Then, during an ugly mother-daughter argument, it had slipped out. From then on, relations between them grew tense; if her mother rebuked her, Laura countered, "You're not even my real mom!" One day she phoned, begging to move in with me.
Become a father again? After so many years alone? What would this do to my lifestyle? My privacy? Could I afford to support a teenager? How would I find time to do all the things that good parents do for their kids? A first I found even the idea overwhelming. Then I started to think. Had I become her father in the usual way, even accidentally, I would be bound to parenthood for life. Instead, I had gone to great lengths to adopt her. I'd sworn an oath to two governments to support her, to parent her. When I began to think of it that way, my duty was clear: I had made a commitment even stronger than that of a natural father.
"You were quite a stinker," I said. "A few times, I almost wanted to throttle you."
Laura tested me from the moment I picked her up at the airport. She arrived in white pancake makeup with black lipstick and nail polish. Out of my sight, she smoked cigarettes, drank beer, ditched school and hung out with a mangy flock of ill-mannered delinquents, some of whom abused drugs. She secretly dated a twenty-something until his arrest for burglary, then ran up huge phone bills accepting his collect calls from jail. Tossed out of high school, she enrolled in continuation school, but didn't mend her ways. After ditching whole days, she was soon down to her last warning: The next step was an institution with barred windows -- reform school.
"You mean the time I disappeared?" she asked.
"Among others." One day Laura hadn't returned from school. I phoned her friends, cruised the neighborhood, checked with hospitals, finally called police. After two sleepless night, she turned up at 6:00 a.m., refusing to say where she'd been, or even to discuss the matter. "I want to go to sleep," was all she said. I lost it. For the first and only time, I hit her. Then, realizing that I was wrong, I apologized.
"How did you ever put up with me?" she asked.
I hadn't thought about this in years. After I called to say that my daughter had returned safely, a pair of detectives came to interview her. I think this was Laura's first inkling of how much her disappearance had frightened me, of how much I cared.
"Because no matter how badly you behaved," I said, "you're my daughter. I didn't bring you into the world, but I chose to take responsibility for your upbringing. So even when you make me mad as hell, I love you. That's what parents do. They love their children."
"Did I ever thank you for that?" she asked, and I heard her voice catch.
After her disappearance, I made some changes. We went house hunting in a city 50 miles distant, and bought the home that Laura preferred; she understood that this was to be our house. She enrolled in a school where only the guidance counselor knew of her previous difficulties. I changed professions, from photographer to writer, so that I no longer traveled. Little by little, almost miraculously, Laura pulled herself together. She made up her failed classes, and as a senior was elected to the student council.
"You thanked me by earning a high school diploma," I replied.
"That's not enough," she said. "Thank you, Pops. Thank you for loving me unconditionally. Thank you for my life."
I felt my eyes grow moist. "What brought this on?" I asked, and learned that a co-worker, a single mom struggling to raise a 17-year-old, "gave up on her."
"What do you mean, gave up?" I asked.
"Kicked her out of the house," explained Laura.
"That's pretty drastic," I said.
"My friend comes to work every day crying over her daughter."
"Do you want me to talk to her?" I asked.
"Better if I do it," replied my daughter.
After a few days, that conversation began to fade. Then one morning I returned from shopping to find Laura doing her laundry. We went out to lunch, and while waiting for a table, I wondered aloud about her friend's daughter.
"I fibbed to you," said Laura. "I was really talking about Mom and my sister."
Laura's sister is my ex-wife's daughter from another marriage.
"What's going on?"
"She's moving in with me," she said. "She needs another chance, and I'm going to give it to her. Will you help me with the paperwork, getting her enrolled in school?"
"Of course. But that's a big responsibility you're taking on," I replied. "It's going to really change your lifestyle. And can you afford to feed her, buy her clothes?"
"I know all the problems," she said. "But if you love someone, and they're in trouble, you do whatever it takes to save them. You taught me that."
Funny thing about this love stuff. It's contagious.
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Copyright © 1999, 2020 Marvin J. Wolf
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FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.