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  • Writer's pictureCary Martin Shelby

Piecing Together a Father's Love

Updated: Feb 27, 2022

Cary Martin Shelby and her Father

“We are so sorry. Your father passed away early this morning.” Even though I knew that the call was coming, nothing could prepare me for this moment. After having countless health crises, he could not survive this final blow.

I methodically filled my lungs with air, fighting to thwart the storms that were surely coming. My grief quickly transformed into a raging anger that threatened to break the pieces that had taken me decades to pull back together. It felt as if nothing had changed. My trauma was still an insatiable taker. And here it was, ready to hijack yet again. It was here to take away the privilege of properly grieving the passing of my own father. Then the torrents of previous mourning came crashing down onto my chest. I had already mourned the loss of my father who could not rescue me from the system that almost killed me. I mourned the loss of my father when his parental rights were permanently terminated once I got to the third foster home, leaving me to wonder whether my Blackness contributed to the vast pools of neglect. I mourned the loss of his extended family that I never fully knew. I had already mourned what could have been, for longer than anyone should.

Then came the trigger into the nothingness that I had originally been taught to reside in. It attempted to swallow me hole once again. It taught me that I was unworthy of the warmth of constant and incessant love. Unworthy of the human connection of having an extended family who knew or cared of my whereabouts. Unworthy of being seen, both physically and spiritually. Unworthy of being heard—leaving me with a voice that had been squelched into silence.

But then I remembered. There was a miraculous window of forgiveness that appeared in my early 20s. After he sought to contact me anonymously through DCFS, I learned that he had suffered from severe mental health illness during most of his adult life. Even after learning this, the road to forgiveness was admittedly bumpy. I had to quickly learn that he could never fully take the pain away, despite being a major contributor to it. My healing journey was a life-long commitment that belonged solely to me. And that whole, “Forgiveness is for you, and not them” mantra is indeed accurate. I similarly had to learn that forgiveness without boundaries can lead to even more harm. Sometimes, forgiveness still requires separation particularly when the harmful behavior continues and/or is unacknowledged.

Despite these challenges, I slowly started to see his humanity after a few years into this journey. The few good memories that we allowed ourselves to share were the sweetest of gifts. When he walked me down the aisle on my wedding day, all I could see was pride and glory. When he met my daughter for the first time, I saw tears well up in his weary eyes. He would gleefully take my son and my nephew out on mini shopping sprees at Barnes & Noble, which was one of his all-time favorite stores. During one of our gatherings, he told me that I would someday do great things, even bigger than I could possibly imagine. He then urged me to maintain balance amid my many successes. He also shared that during our many years of separation, that he prayed for us every single day. I firmly believe that it was those prayers that carried me over the threshold during my darkest moments.

The memories of his love, despite his imperfections, are slowly giving me the space to grieve. It is still a complicated process, ridden with potholes and triggers. As I continue

to inch forward, I want to extend my eternal gratitude to my friends and family members who are refusing to allow me to slip back into that abyss of invisibility. Thank you for being my lifelines. Every single call, email, and text has shifted me closer to peace.

To every single daughter who may be similarly processing grief in the face of childhood trauma, just know that you are not alone. You are worthy of honor and respect. You are worthy of joy despite the horrors of your trauma. You have no idea who you are destined to reach, or who you are destined to become. Keep fighting to exist freely in your essence. Keep loving. Keep existing in your effervescent beauty. You are not invisible. You never were, and you never will be. I love you.

In loving memory of Philip Cary Martin. May you rest in peace.

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