Chapel Hill: Opinion

Finding Dad’s pulse – Anita Woodley

Anita Woodley
Anita Woodley

What is a deadbeat dad?

I define the distinguishing traits of a deadbeat dad as follows: rarely or never spends quality time during the formative years; calls intermittently; sends financial support occasionally; misses proms, graduations, potty training, tucking in bed, reading aloud, first words and steps, of their biological child.

My father missed all those moments and more. He did reach out by occasional pay phone-booth calls, and sending money in Federal Express packages for a “winter coat or pretty panties with flowers.”

Yes, my dad was qualified to be the deadbeat dad’s poster child.

In college, I chronicled his fathering failures in a dramatized public service announcement. The actor mixed my personal facts and fiction.

(Watch the video from 18 years ago, at this link:

Then it was my graduation day from San Francisco State University.

Dad was hauling a load of lettuce through California’s Bay Area. “Baby girl, daddy gone make this graduation. I love you.”

My dad is a long haul truck driver and a Marine. These experiences seemed to render him unable to detour from a mission, and unwilling to fathom missing work.

I turned my tassel without my dad, again. “Dispatch rerouted my load, baby girl. Sorry, but daddy have to go to work. I love you.”

On my wedding day, he had to work. When our son was born and whenever I performed all of my last 300 one-woman shows, my dad had to work.

It was hard to understand how he could always choose work over me. After all, my husband chooses to never miss our son’s momentous occasions, and makes plans around work.

A couple of months ago, my dad had a weekend layover on his truck route in Mebane, at the Petro Truck stop.

As I disconnected the call, that second-grade girl within me got super excited, smiling until her teeth felt dry. He would finally get to see not one, but two of my performances in person! He made it, as promised, and did just that.

His smile was just as I envisioned it. Proud.

My dad packed my equipment, took photos, laughed and enjoyed me as a storyteller at the Bread for the World Conference in Raleigh, and as lead vocalist for the free jazz band N4HC (Not for Human Consumption) during a music festival at Scuppernong Books in Greensboro.

A man of few emotional words, he said, “It was different, baby girl.”

We even danced in the middle of the bookstore, and again at the truck stop. As he spun and dipped me, our fingers interlaced. Between dad’s bulky silver and turquoise rings, there was a throbbing, steady beat.

I found my dad’s pulse.

I squeezed harder, intensifying the beat’s pumps. He was here. Alive. Human. My only surviving parent.

Back at the Petro truck stop, over a buffet skillet meal, I asked, “Dad, were you there when I was born? I don’t see your signature on my birth certificate.” He clasped his rings over his lips. Silence. Followed by tears.

“I wanted to be there. Your mother didn’t let me. I no longer wanted to be in a relationship with her because she was abusive. She didn’t tell me you were born until you were walking. Whenever I tried to come see you, she sent you off to visit other people. ... I didn’t come around as much because I didn’t want you to think your mom and I would get back together.”

My mother never spoke ill of my father, so I never thought my loving mama was one of those parents who uses her child as collateral. But I was very familiar with her serious mean streak, when you got on her bad side.

We both cried. This new understanding brought instant healing over me. Over us.

Honestly, I thought I knew unequivocally that my dad was a deadbeat.

When I got married, I didn’t keep my maiden name. My thinking was, why keep the name of someone who didn’t earn or deserve such homage, since they didn’t raise me?

When my mama was dying from breast cancer, I sometimes wished it was my dad instead. That way I’d have a live parent who called me every day, and understood me since my beginning.

Thank goodness selfish prayers aren’t answered immediately.

I am grateful to have a busy, healthy, 72-year-old dad in my life. And we deserve the chance to build a father-daughter relationship, even though I’m an adult.

Mr. Roosevelt “R.C” Cornelius Morgan, I am truly proud to have you as my father! You’re a solid dude with a good heart.

Until we embrace again at a truck stop along your route, I will always love you and can feel your pulse through mine.


Anita Woodley is an award-winning journalist, health educational performer, literary teaching artist and keynote speaker. You can reach her at