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He Wanted a Son

The moments that shaped how I view my father (and myself)

By Rosie Ford Published 10 months ago 18 min read
1

2006

The airplane with the long tail and longer wings turns toward the runway and soon it will be my turn to occupy the right seat. I’m shaking, walking in circles with my arms folded over my chest. Daddy loves to fly but I’m not so sure. I’m only six, after all. I’m not even sure I know all the days of the week yet.

I’m sure about other things. I’m sure my red shirt looks good with my pink pants and pinker shoes. I’m sure that Sunset Shimmer is my favorite pony (my mom saved up an absurd amount of Hasbro rewards points to get her). I’m sure that I like the airplane-themed coloring books they give me at Daddy’s flight school. But flying itself?

The airplane taxis back to the yellow brick building where my grandpa and I are waiting. The building contains only an office and two bathrooms, the men’s and the women’s, which the men often use. The airplane’s canopy opens and my mom gets out. It looks like a crossbreed between a glider and a spaceship and even though it’s very, very small, I still can’t see over the instrument panel. My dad gets me a cushion to sit on and off we go. He doesn’t do anything crazy and we aren’t in the air for very long but I hold onto the metal arm that supports the canopy the whole time.

When we’re safely on the ground I’m still not sure about flying.

My dad has always loved airplanes and always wanted to be a pilot. He’s a devout Mormon, a perfect Mormon, in my eyes. He always wears his garments and always takes the sacrament. He prays all the time. When he prayed about joining the Air Force, God told him no so he became a police officer instead.

He also feels the spirit a lot, meaning he cries a lot. But when I start crying at church he takes me into the hall and says we’re not going home any time soon so I can just stop throwing a fit.

I am sure that I don’t like church.

One night, at bedtime, I ask why boys get to have the priesthood and girls don’t. The priesthood is the power of God on Earth, which is why I’m so mad about it even at six years old. I don’t know a lot but I know I’m not equal.

“Women don’t have the priesthood because they get to have babies,” Daddy says. “And that’s more important the priesthood.”

Somehow he convinces me that’s true. For a while. Not forever.

I’m also sure I computer games, specifically Barbie: Horse Adventures and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmaron. Mommy is very supportive of my horse girl phase and buys me all sorts of horse-related toys and clothes. Daddy wants to change one of my ponies to be a boy because they can’t all be girls. I guard them from him because I know he means it. When my mom asked him to fix the broken legs on my model horses (I was making them gallop) he sent them to “horsey heaven” instead.

Daddy likes video games like Halo. I like watching him play with his friends during LAN parties and I decide to become a double agent, telling each where the other is on the map. For some reason Daddy decides that, at six years old, I am definitely old enough to play a first-person shooter and teaches me how to murder aliens.

Understandably, my mom isn’t happy and bans me from playing the game. I go back to playing Barbie and Spirit but Halo sticks in my mind, though I find it a little scary. I get chills whenever I think about the raptor-like alien I killed lying in a pool of his own blood. But I’m so happy to have these things in common with Daddy: Halo and flying.

2009

By this point I’m pretty sure I don’t like flying. I get shaky just sitting in an airplane. My dad is working on becoming a flight instructor and this whole time I’ve been pretending that I like flying so I actually get to spend time with somebody who doesn’t seem to enjoy having a family all that much.

Becoming a flight instructor means completing spin training. My dad being neurotic means practicing things he doesn’t need to practice, like spins. Spins mean stalling the airplane and tumbling around and around for a couple hundred feet. They do not sound like fun to me but I’m nine so I don’t say I don’t want to do one.

He doesn’t warn me when the maneuver starts. I scream, “No, no, no!” as the ground seems to rotate over our heads. Today he loses his flying buddy and I lose any love I have for aviation.

I definitely do not like flying.

When Daddy’s best friend, Dale, dies in a car accident, he’s the second person from the same church mission to die. They were companions during their time in the field and hit it off so well that we stay over at Dale’s parents’ house whenever we visit California.

Dale bought me My Little Pony as a gift when I got baptized. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body. I guess that’s why he died so young.

For Thanksgiving Daddy takes me and my mom down to Arizona in the Diamond Star, which is a lot like the airplanes he learned to fly, except it has two more seats and a little extra horsepower. We fly past the Grand Canyon, a deep, black chasm in the middle of the desert. I’m a ball of nerves. We land in Arizona to see Daddy’s deadbeat family instead of Dale’s awesome family for some reason. My grandma asks me basic questions because she doesn’t know anything about me. We go home. I’m still a ball of nerves, my hands wet with sweat.

The Diamond Star

This year my dad gets me my first gun, a little bolt-action .22 made “for kids.” I learn about gun safety and it’s always kept locked up, except when we take it out to the shooting range. Shooting is fun and not scary and I’m pretty good. I can hit a golfball with the iron sights from a few yards away.

2011

For a couple of years I decide ships are my thing. I know everything about the Titanic and her much cooler sister ships, Olympic and Britannic. Daddy listens to me when I talk about them, but it’s obvious he wishes I would take some interest in aviation again.

He gets his wish when he and my mom introduce me to Star Trek: The Next Generation. I’m only twelve but as soon as I see him, I have a thing for Captain Picard. I also like the Enterprise because it’s mostly a ship but also kind of like an airplane.

After years of being terrified to fly, my dad asks me if I want to come along with him on a flight to Moab. I agree because we’re going to Arches National Park and I like his flight student, Max. We drop Max off and fly home in the sunset and as the golden sun glows between the mountains and glints off our wingtips, I realize something.

I like flying. I actually really like flying.

We get Chinese food from our favorite restaurant and go home. Daddy is so proud of me for flying the airplane as long as I did. I love the Diamond Star. It feels safe.

Daddy meets rich friends at the airport and starts to lose interest in his day job. The rich friends hire him to ferry an airplane back from Tennessee and I go along. We fly their fancy Cirrus from the West to the South and I’m so excited because I get to sit next to a guy who owns a Maserati. I’m dazzled, actually. How am I good enough to know these people? How am I lucky enough to have such a cool dad?

On this flight, I decide I’m going to be a pilot, just like my dad. This is the dream. I’m not bothered by the incessant turbulence all the way from Tennessee to Utah in a tiny Cessna. I’m not bothered that I left my sunglasses at the steakhouse last night and now I have to duck below the instrument panel to stay out of the sunshine. No, nothing can ruin this. This is the dream.

2012

I’m twelve, standing in line at the Subway on the Air Force Academy campus when I realize it won’t be my alma mater. Not that I can tell the future, but it doesn’t feel like it. I can’t picture myself here but my dad is so excited and a couple years before this I got foot surgery to correct my flat feet so I could join the military and I do my best to run three miles and I’m even in the Civil Air Patrol color guard.

But this isn’t my future. I want it to be. Maybe. Would I fit in if I joined the military?

My dad gets mad at me a lot. He says I’m “bent out of shape” over playing Halo when I ask one night. I thought I asked nicely, but maybe I did something wrong.

When I ask to drive the car around the school parking lot he’s mad about that too, or maybe it’s something else. Who knows. He spends less and less time at home. My mom is there for me. They fight when he does come home and eventually he moves out. Two weeks later, he’s back. Then he makes my mom cry again. We have a conversation about what’s wrong and he lies to me, tells me she’s just tired. I want to believe him, so I do. But I can see the fatigue is soul-deep.

When my dad gets mad at me, I play Xbox with my friends. It’s more fun with them, usually. My dad plays the campaign missions the same way every time because it’s the “right” way. My friends don’t do that.

2013

Daddy makes my mom cry so much that I ignore him most of the time. He’s been taken off patrol and moved to the courthouse to manage the security detail. It doesn’t take long for him to get bored. I’m so fed up with him that I run to my room when his police car pulls into the driveway.

He tries to talk to me, but I don’t want to talk. Lately he’s been sleeping downstairs in the guest bedroom, which is across from mine.

One morning he wakes me up at 6:36 AM to get ready for school. I call back, “Oh, crap!” knowing I’ll probably be late today.

I do a full face of makeup every day because I feel like I have to—I rip out my eyelashes and my eyebrows when I’m stressed and now I don’t have any. While I’m putting on my blue eyeshadow, he leaves for work. Or something. One of his projects. He doesn’t spend much time at the courthouse anymore; he has years of vacation time saved up and is using it to take opportunities around the airport. Sometimes he flies a Cessna full of oil-field workers to North Dakota. Sometimes he ferries airplanes from one part of the country to the other. And sometimes he just doesn’t know what he’s getting himself into.

It’s around 9:00 AM when my mom shows up to my history class. Her eyes are red from crying. We walk in silence as I go to get my viola from the orchestra room, and then we leave school. As we walk down the hallway, I ask, “Is Daddy dead?”

Everybody is addicted to something. Some people are addicted to drugs. Some people are addicted to food. My dad was addicted to flying, and it killed him. He got into an uncertified single-seat aircraft that barely qualified as an airplane, lost control, and crashed. We don’t know exactly what happened. We do know that nobody knows where the cameras are and that the NTSB has very little interest in investigating the accident.

I’m thirteen, and now I’m the girl with the dead dad. Whenever something bad happens at school, all the students dress up to show respect and support. My “best friend” doesn’t bother, which I wouldn’t have known except he tells me later that he didn’t. Because he felt bad and wanted reassurance.

Daddy’s rich friends promise to take me flying, but they never do. The only one who does is one of his coworkers from the police department. I’ve always liked him. He has a calming presence. Daddy had a lot of bad friends, but he also had a lot of good ones.

2017

At seventeen, I’m a pilot. Around the airport, I’m still known as the girl with the dead dad. People talk about him right in front of me, not realizing who I am. I don’t care because I love flying, but it won’t be my career. I’m going to be an accountant.

My dad introduced me to guns because he liked them. Grandpa takes me shooting because he knows I like it. He buys me white-hots for my muzzle-loader because the black powder makes it too dirty to fire. When I get a shotgun, which bruises the hell out of my shoulder, we shoot clay pigeons. Neither of us has any interest in killing things.

Grandpa likes flying. Once upon a time he was a flight student too, back when it only cost $9 to rent an airplane. When we fly, we don’t go anywhere in particular. He’s an old farmer so he just likes to look around. He’s my hero.

My first boyfriend is a musician. I meet him in jazz band. He plays piano and I play the bass. He’s a lot of work for very little return. I even get harassed because I’m dating him. He loves God more than he loves me, which is how it’s supposed to be. I don’t care—I’ll go along with anything he wants. Until I break out in a stress rash from the whiplash he’s giving me. He says I don’t talk about Jesus or my testimony enough and our conversations haven’t been pleasant in a long time. Everyone thinks I have a bad attitude.

I break up with him over text. He doesn’t deserve anything more. Then I decide I’m going to be a good Mormon from now on. I’ll go to seminary at 6:00 in the morning. I’ll read my scriptures and pray every night. I’ll go to the singles ward and meet my future partner. I will change. I will be better because I’m not doing my best—he says so.

My second boyfriend is my best friend. I invite him to one of my orchestra concerts and he actually bothers to show up, unlike the last one. We go on a lot of dates. He tells me he loves me. That’s two in one year. He’s a good Mormon too.

He’s such a good Mormon that, after he talks to his parents one night, he decides he’s going to break up with me after prom because he’s preparing to go on a mission for the church. They’ve always acted like I’m a slut and they don’t trust me to be alone with their son. He’s the one they shouldn’t trust.

The thing is, this boy isn’t a good liar so I find out what’s happening pretty quickly. We decide to break up before prom, but still plan on going. I have a conversation with my friends in my favorite class—aviation. They make me realize I shouldn’t go with someone who was planning on dumping me, and I tell him I don’t want to go anymore. But it’s senior year; I’ve never been to prom. I get asked to all the dances early in the year but when the boys figure out my personality isn’t as pretty as my face, they stop asking by spring. This is my last chance. I tell him I’ve changed my mind and I still want to go, but I’ve already been replaced. Damn Mormons. He told me he loved me.

NOW

I still can’t really see over the instrument panel, but the nose is pointed downward when I’m landing so I make do. I’m not the pilot my father was. I never take unnecessary risks and I have an unfettered hatred for a lot of the men, especially the rich ones, at the airport. I’m probably more interested in memorizing the infinite digits of Pi than I am with “making connections” at the airport.

Flying exactly the same airplane my dad used to fly during his flight training.

Because the thing is, I have made connections, all on my own. I got an internship at the international airport, where nobody had any idea who I was. I’m not a huge believer in work families, but I doubt if I’ll ever find a place like that again.

Driving around on the taxiways on the last day of my internship.

My dad wasn’t there for my high school graduation. He wasn’t there to teach me how to drive, to teach me to fly, or to see me graduate from university with a bachelor’s degree. He missed my wedding too.

I didn’t become an accountant. I haven’t really become anything. The problem isn’t that I can’t—the problem is that I don’t want anything.

After seeing my dad destroy his relationships for a taste of adrenaline, I don’t really believe in ambition. A job is what you have so you can live life. If I do end up in a prestigious career, my relationships will still come first. I’m twenty-three now and the burnout is suffocating. I haven’t picked up my bass since high school and playing the violin doesn’t bring me much joy anymore. I applied to become an air traffic controller, but the process is months, sometimes years long. In the meantime I’m slowly, on my own time, working on getting my commercial pilot’s license. I’m almost there, but there’s no rush. I have a lot of thinking to do because I never got a chance to do it when I was younger.

My husband is the most amazing man in the world and nothing like my dad. He does nothing he doesn’t want to do. He doesn’t subscribe to any religious beliefs; he just does what makes him happy, and best of all, he accepts me as I am. Mormons are always striving for an impossible standard, and the men in particular are always dissatisfied with the “imperfect” women in their vicinity.

Funny that the first man I dated outside the church is my forever and always. I guess I have to thank my dad for my interest in aviation, because otherwise I don’t think I would have met my husband, who’s a pilot. Our first date was in the plane my dad and I took to Moab on that fateful flight. It’s gone too.

I should mention that my dad didn’t have a good childhood. When he found the church and decided to go on a mission, his family kicked him out. Mormons follow a plan of happiness: go on a mission, have kids, get married in the temple. I don’t think my dad was ever happy, so it probably sounded like the perfect solution. My mom and I were just part of the plan.

I still think Jesus is awesome, but I also think He’s the only thing about the Bible that’s awesome. I don’t go to church. In the wise words of Marie Kondo, it does not spark joy.

As far as flying goes, I do still love it . . . most of the time. Because of my trauma I go through long stretches of feeling negatively toward aviation, but every once in a while I’m reminded why I loved it in the first place. It’s freedom. It’s seeing our beautiful planet from the best seat in the house. What it isn’t is an excuse to abandon your loved ones. And it sure as hell doesn’t make me better than anybody else.

I buy myself Barbies because I’m a girl and I shouldn’t be ashamed of liking “girly”things. (By the way, makeup and dolls are for everyone.) Makeup is one of my favorite hobbies now, but I also love airplanes and cars. Halo? Not so much. My husband introduced me to Destiny and you can bet I make my character as pretty as I possibly can.

My dad has been gone almost half my life, and I hate to say it, but I think things would have been worse if he were still around. I don’t think I would have found myself and he probably wouldn’t have liked my husband. My mom and I wouldn’t have been able to travel. I might even still be a republican. Ew.

I don’t miss my dad all that much. I still cry sometimes, but usually because I wish I’d gotten a better one. Positive father figures are so rare in this world. I’m grateful for all the men who stepped forward after his death: friends, neighbors, my amazing grandpa. Father figures don’t have to share your DNA.

Fatherhood
1

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Rosie Ford

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  • Laura Lann10 months ago

    I found you after your top story. This is heartful, painful, and so relatable to my own relationship with my father. I am so glad I found your work!

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