I'd first met Tina and her mom, Terry, in the mid-eighties, outside of a biker bar named The Wheel, in the mountains above Ojai, California. Tina was a year old, and you would have thought every woman and every one-percenter in the place was an aunt or uncle.
Terry and I started dating a year later, and Tina sort of put us together. I'd arrived at a fish and chips place in Isla Vista with another woman on the back of the Harley, and Terry was there with another guy, Tina in tow. I sat next to Tina, and as it turned out, the little blond two year-old was more fun to talk to than my date. Tina was eating french fries drenched in tartar sauce, and no one wanted to share them with her. Except me. I really didn't like french fries with tartar sauce, but the little tyke was so doggone cute that I had to accept. When it came time to leave, Terry held Tina up to me, and she held my face in her hands while she kissed my cheek. I rode away with my date behind me, wondering if I'd stopped being a real man: I'd arrived feeling fixated on my date's fabulous ass, and I left feeling as if a two year-old had stolen a chunk of my heart.
For four years, Terry and I had an on-again, off-again relationship. When we parted for good, Terry was understandably angry, but after a few months, we agreed that it would be good if I stayed involved in Tina's life. Terry's bitterness waned, we became friends, and I often came by to take Tina for an outing.
But, things changed when I got married and moved to northern California. Instead of dropping by to take Tina to a movie, it was the occasional meeting for dinner with Tina and Terry. I'd reunited with the love of my life, and often, the rest of the world just seemed on the back burner.
When the years rolled by, and I realized that Tina was graduating from high school, I regretted that I hadn't made a better effort to stay in contact with her. I wondered if she felt I'd abandoned her. Still, I wasn't her biological father, so no one seemed to point fingers. If I was concerned about avoiding blame, I could count myself in the clear, except for what my heart spoke.
That night, I left the motel and headed for the wedding. I was nervous as hell.
I walked to the door, and a young man greated me. Tall, athletic-looking guy with old-soul eyes. "Is this the wedding site for Ty and Tina?" "You're in the right place," he said, "I'm Ty, the groom." He shook my hand.
"You're Ty?" I silently berated myself: no, Dipshit, he's lying to you. He chuckled. "That's me. What's your name?" "I'm Hal." "You're Hal?" He grabbed my hand again and grinned. "I'm so glad you could make it. Tina will be so excited."
Ty pointed me in the right direction. I walked upstairs, feeling a little numb.
Yep, I started talking, and it all went to hell. Tears filled my eyes, and it felt like a golf ball had wedged itself in my throat. And all I’d managed to get out at that point was, “Tina and I . . .”
I needed a gulp of champagne. Hell, I needed a bottle of champagne. I threw back my glass. The champagne missed my stomach. The champagne went into my lungs. Oh crap. I ran out of the room and suffered a coughing fit in the hallway. I couldn't stop coughing. I felt like I might barf on the wall. There was silence in the room behind me. Twenty-two people waited for a tall middle-aged doofus to finish coughing and finish the damn toast.
I walked back into the room. The bride and groom wore understanding looks, but some of the folks were looking a wee bit uncomfortable. Crap.
I took a few deep breaths. I wanted someone to hand me that damn bottle of champagne. “First of all,” I began, “I’d recommend that you all avoid inhaling champagne.” Everyone laughed. Good. I was gaining a little momentum. But then I looked at the bride again, looking so lovely in the wedding dress she’d brought back from Instanbul. The golf ball returned to my throat, big time.
I felt no choice but to plow forward. If I waited for the golf ball to go away, we might be there all night. I tried to look about the room, and I began again. “Tina and I first bonded one day when she was two years old. I was one of a few adults sitting at a table in a fish and chips place . . .”
Aw shit. The golf ball was swelling into a soft ball. I could hardly breathe, much less speak. I took several breaths before I could even think about speaking again. So much for urbane and witty.
“She discovered that one adult there would allow her to hand feed him French fries coated with tarter sauce. That adult was me.”
“For several years, I was a regular part of her life. In recent years, we haven’t had much contact, because I suck at keeping in touch.”
I felt in danger of deconstructing into a blubbering idiot at any moment. I took more deep breaths. “I can’t say much more, except that I’ve always looked at Tina as the daughter of my heart. Ty and Tina, congratulations.”
I felt like a first-class numbnuts, but a few people came up to me afterward to tell me how much they enjoyed my toast. I guess folks find it quite touching when a tall middle-aged guy makes a blubbering ass of himself.
The reception and dinner afterward was wonderful. I got the chance to reconnect with Tina's grandparents, with Terry's brothers, and I had a little time to get to know Ty a little better. Tina hugged me several times over the evening, and thanked me for coming, and I had to fight back tears every time. I felt that I'd done quite enough blubbering during the toast. The second time she hugged me that evening, a vision came over me. It was 1986, and I was carrying the three year-old Tina through the supermarket, explaining the products up on the shelves. It was 1986, and she fell asleep on my shoulder, and I walked around that supermarket for an hour until she woke up.
She thanked me. The thing is, I’m the one who’s thankful. That wedding connected me to an important part of my past, and renewed the hope that I that I wasn’t just some chickenshit bandit who'd preyed upon two hearts. What I gave wasn’t enough, of course. When you love someone, especially a child, can you ever give enough? No. But that wedding told me that I could at least fold up one particular circus of regret living in my heart, and banish it to the back forty. It told me that just maybe, the thought that sometimes pierced me, they would have been better off never knowing me, was blessedly off the mark. What I left wasn’t enough, but it was enough that I still have a place in the hearts of two women who were once a big part of my life. What I left wasn’t enough, but now, I have a renewed hope that I left more than I took.