Finding ‘family,’ through the good and the bad

By Ryan Buffa |
Photo by Stephany Kaye

I’ve always wondered what was going through my mother’s mind that day. My biological father stepped into the cab headed for the airport, and it would be five years before she would see him again.

She was knee-deep in clutter in our upturned apartment, a wreck he created when he couldn’t find his passport. I was about three months old, and she held me in her arms while he left.

What must she have been thinking?

He was sick and needed to go home to London to save himself.

My mother, 21 years old at the time, had no idea that he was addicted to cocaine. He was working long hours at a nearby hospital, doing his internship to become a doctor. My mom worked 12 hours a day at a gas station about a block from the apartment.

She started to understand his situation when he ran into the apartment and told her, “Someone is going to knock on the door in a few minutes, and I need you to tell him or her that I’m not here.” Moments later loud knocking was heard from the door. When my mother answered, the apartment manager was standing there, angry. She asked, “Is your boyfriend home?” My mother told the white lie she was asked to tell. The manager told her, “Well, he just broke off the antenna from a car in the parking lot, and the other tenants saw him do it. They saw him run back in here.”

My mother stared at her blankly, shocked and confused at what this woman was saying. “What? He would never do something like that. There is no way and he is not here,” my mother told him and closed the door. When she turned around to tell my father what the apartment manager said, she said he responded with wide, rebellious eyes.

“I did it so I could use it to smoke cocaine,” he told her.

She got a good look at him for the first time. Suddenly she saw what she had been too distracted by work and taking care of me to see. He looked like he had lost 30 pounds, gaunt and yellow skinned, with his pale blue eyes darting across the room. He was high, and finally began to tell the truth.

While my mother thought he was working at the hospital, he was actually dealing cocaine to support his addiction. He had recently been fired from the hospital for testing positive for narcotics. When he was done confessing, he left and she called his parents in London. She realized that there was no way she could live with a drug addict, or have drugs in the house. She couldn’t risk losing her child. Her friend, a 21-year-old woman and mother of three, had recently lost her children because her husband had also been dealing drugs without her knowledge.

When he came back to the apartment to leave, he began looking for his passport, tearing out drawers and throwing around clutter as he frantically searched. When he found it, he packed a bag and called a cab, leaving my mother standing in the mess of their short life together as she held me, the only tie of truth between them.

Twenty years after leaving for rehab in London, he came to visit me in St. Augustine. I hadn’t seen him in six years. Our relationship had always been very surface, consisting of a mini-series of failed attempts to create a relationship with me. He checked up on me once every six months or so, like a responsible adult does with a dentist appointment.

He wanted to see where I go to college and the life I was living. I didn’t want him to visit, but I was also too afraid to hurt his feelings with blunt honesty. He booked a hotel for himself and his parents before I could turn him down. I felt a strange obligation to oblige.

It was a typical sunny day in St. Augustine as we sat alone at a restaurant downtown. We had just finished lunch with his parents, whom I had just met for the first time. He wanted to stay and talk, and I was forced to stay and listen. The only thing I was afraid to say “no” to at that time in my life was when it involved hurting someone’s feelings.

“I’m sorry that I left you and your mom,” he said. “I needed to leave because I had problems with drinking and such.”

I was in awe at his bluff. My mother had always been honest with me about everything. She had always told me the truth when I asked. I knew he was trying to lie. I didn’t understand why he would lie. If he was an alcoholic, would that be a better excuse for being absent from my life?

“No, you were addicted to cocaine,” I said.

“Yes, that too,” he replied. I felt a sudden urge of confidence and blurted out, “You know, it’s because of you that I have never done coke in my life.”

“Really?!” he said. He had suddenly perked up. I couldn’t tell whether he was making fun of me, amused or impressed.

Although I couldn’t read his expression, the look on his face took me back six years earlier, when he came to visit my family and me in Georgia. We were alone again, sitting outside on the porch on the same kind of warm, sunny day. He was looking around at my family’s three-story house in the suburbs of Atlanta, where I lived with my mother, my step-father and two siblings.

“It’s great to see how well you and your mother are doing,” he said. “All this time I thought you were living in a trailer park in Houston.”

It is strange to look at a person whose blood is running through my veins — who gave me my blonde hair and the cowlick in my bangs that flips to the left and is impossible to tame, who gave me my pale British skin — and know he is a stranger. He had donated genes and cells to my being, but nothing of my personality and heart.

When he said, “I love you,” there was nothing I could say. How can you love a stranger? There are bonds stronger than blood. My family is filled with my two half-siblings and a man I call my father. I was lucky enough to already have him in my life — my mother’s high school sweetheart. He had raised me since I was a year old. I’ve never felt a fatherless void in my life. Although I don’t have his dark Italian skin or black curly hair, he gave me my love for music, my dorky personality and all the opportunities to become who I want to be.

It’s made me realize what family really is: the people in my life who helped make me who I am today. Helped me go out and become part of this world. Supported and stuck around when things were good or bad.

My mother exemplifies this: selfless and loving at any cost. She never tried to keep my father out of my life, and was welcoming whenever he decided to come visit me. However, there was a feeling she projected whenever he was around. I felt an aura of protection. And that feeling is palpable today. Whenever I feel like my life is spinning out of control, I feel her support and love, just like the day she was left standing alone in a cluttered apartment with nothing to hold onto but me.

In a way, I still feel her arms around me — that protection and that motherly love that helps get me through.

Finally I’m realizing what my mother was thinking that day so many years ago, or rather what she must of felt, because I can still feel it in her love today.



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