Untying Knots - Transcript

This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled “Untying Knots.” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.

Listen to the episode here.

Britt is raising money to provide free therapy for black men. Support her fundraiser here.

I’m Nora McInerny, and this is “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.”

We have a lot of mugs in our house. We’re a mug-heavy household, I gotta say. And in the full collection, which we put in cabinets — Why am I saying that? Everyone puts their mugs in cabinets. I guess I’m just trying to brag that we have a cabinet full of mugs. We have more than one mug says “#1 Dad.”

They were gifts, obviously, from the children to their dad. They’re homemade. They’re the kind of thing you make in daycare, or in grade school. They’re the kind of thing where you just say, “Look, we know fatherhood is a contest, and there’s only one way to make it fair, and that’s that everyone wins.”

Obviously, not a fan of those mugs, and it has nothing to do with the fact that I was only ever given one mug, one homemade commemorative mug that said “#1 Mom.” And I’m not going to name names, because the kid who made it knows that they half-assed it. They did nothing. A teacher made me this mug, and this teacher knew me. She saw me squealing into the parking lot at 6PM when daycare closed at 6. But according to my car clock it said 5:58. I was not late. And I’m pretty sure she wanted to write “#487,368 Mom.” But she didn’t. She wrote #1. But I could tell her heart wasn’t in it.

The point is: As parents, you’re pretty aware that you’re not the best. Every parent is pretty sure they’re not the best. But kids? They don’t really seem to know. Do kids really have a realistic idea of whether or not their parents are really like... doing a good job? I don’t know. 

Our guest today is Britt. And growing up, Britt was pretty sure she had the #1 Dad. Or at least a Top 10 Dad. His name was Crofton, but she didn’t call him Crofton.

Britt: I called him Dada. And I remember him just treating me like a princess. Just knowing like, this is definitely my dad. You know, he picks me up, like when he comes home from work, like, he picks me up. He throws me in the air. He gives me kisses on my cheek. He tucks me into bed.

Crofton was a successful guy. He was in real estate. He owned some buildings. Dada was Britt’s security. She was his Princess, his Dollbaby.

As a kid, you really don’t know much about your parents as people. If you ask my kids, “What does your mom do?” They’d be like, “Yell at us?” And that’s true, and also it doesn’t pay the bills. So I also make a podcast. Thanks, children.

Britt: I knew that he was a real estate agent. I knew that the home that we lived in was his home — one of his properties, I’ll say. I knew that he was pretty well off and wealthy. I knew that he made my mom laugh a lot. He, to me, was security, even though he wasn't. It's interesting, because he wasn't around, and I knew that, you know, he didn't always sleep at our home, but there was something about him that was security to me. And I think it had a lot to do with the fact that he made me feel included, and he made me feel like I belong to him.

That’s what good dads do. Good moms, too. Good parents. Good grownups. They make a kid feel like they belong. Like they have a place in this world, and that place is right here. That’s what Crofton did. Even though he wasn’t always right there.

Britt: I thought that, you know, maybe like he was like... on business trips when he wasn't, you know, here in the house with us. So there was a lot of piecing together that I did. I remember going to a grocery store with my mom and my mom saying, “Oh, this is Dada's son.” And so I remember thinking to myself, like, “I didn't know he had other kids.” Like, I thought that I was, you know, his kid or I thought that, you know, I was the only one that was around. I didn't know he had children.

So, that’s confusing, but you only know what you know. So, Dada wasn’t always around, but then he kind of stopped coming around at all.

Britt: And so I started to think like, “OK, something's wrong, something's off.” And I would say to my mom, like, “OK, where's Dada?” And she told me. One thing about my mom was that she was always very honest. She didn't really try to sugarcoat anything or not have me in the loop. And so she definitely told me that, you know, “He's in the hospital, he's sick.” And I always said, ‘Well, can I go see him?” Like, you know, somehow I thought, like, as a kid, like, OK, well, if I see him, then that would make things better and then he'll just be able to come back home. And so I remember thinking that as a kid, and she's just like, “No, he's really, really sick and, you know, you wouldn't be able to go and see him.”

Britt never saw him again. Crofton died. And that was it. Her mom told Britt that Dada was dead. And that they couldn’t go to the funeral to say goodbye. Because Dada was married. And had kids — sons — with that wife.

There was an obituary, but it didn’t include Britt. Or Marva. It was like they didn’t exist. They weren’t a part of Crofton’s life and certainly not his death. 

We take our cues on how to grieve — on what to do with the feeling of grief — by watching the people around us. And here are the cues that Britt took from Marva. 

Britt: It was almost as if she couldn't really grieve for him because there really wasn't that ritual of that ceremony that we could go to -- his funeral -- to say our final goodbyes. And I think at that point, my mom had to figure out, well, what's going to be my next move, because he was supporting her financially. So I think the cue from her was, “We got to move on and we got to, you know, make sure that things are in place so that we can continue to live. So dry your eyes.” 

Britt: You don't have time to grieve. We have to get up. We have to go and we have to figure things out because we have to survive. We're not the ones dead. He is. So we got to continue to live. 

And continuing to live meant moving. Because without Dada, they don’t have a home. Not emotionally, like “this house isn’t a home,” no no no no, like physically. They didn’t have a place to stay. He was Britt and Marva’s financial support. He was also their landlord. He owned the apartment building they lived in. So his death meant that their non-existent lease was up.

Britt: And so at this point, you know, we needed to find another place to stay. We needed to find a place for the two of us now to live, which meant that my mom had to, you know, make sure that she had a job and had a position where she had enough money now to pay rent and all of the bills now.

Britt’s mom worked -- she was a teacher -- but they lost their financial safety net. And raising a child on your own is hard. Making sure their Catholic school tuition is paid? That’s hard. Doing all of that with complicated grief? Is hard. And Marva did a good job. She did. But Britt could tell that there wasn’t enough. There wasn’t enough money, and when there’s not enough money, there’s not enough of a lot of other things: time, attention...

Britt: Things like... the lights being shut off and me having to do homework in candlelight. Things like, you know, when the lights or electricity would get shut off, we would have to take an extension cord and, you know, put it in the hallway electric socket so that we can at least have our refrigerator to keep our food cold and also a lamp and a TV so that I can be entertained. So I noticed that those were like little things that would start to slip through the cracks where I would start to notice, like, “Wow, like maybe things aren't really like... good.”

It’s not just about the lights. It’s that sense that things are not okay. And Britt can’t afford to make them any worse. She might be only 7, 8, 9 years old old — but she knows that she can’t ACT like it. She’s a kid, but she’s got her mom to think about.

Britt: it would be making sure that, like, “OK, mom, are you okay? Is everything OK?” I remember asking that question incessantly to her multiple times a day as a child. “Are you OK? Is everything OK? How was work? How are things going? How are you feeling?”

Britt’s mom is really, really struggling. And Britt can tell, because even though she’s just a kid, she knows her mom needs her.

Britt: I was included in a lot of the household decision making when it came to what's next? What's the next step? How can you maybe help with this? You know, “Your tuition is due. Would you be able to maybe ask someone to help with the tuition because, you know, you'll get kicked out if you don't.” So that pressure became, now I'm like, I've moved from daughter — or I kind of like... vacillate between daughter and co-parent. 

I think the way to get love was that responsibility piece and really saying like, “OK, if I'm responsible, if I'm the quote unquote, good girl, then that's going to show my mom that I love her because that's what's going to keep more emotional things off of her plate, things that she doesn't need to worry about, I'm not going to do.” So, I'm not going to be like my peers that, you know, may get called down to the principal's office, you know, a couple of times during the week. I'm going to be that kid that stays in class. I'm going to do my homework. I'm going to make sure that overall my behavior is at its best to show her that I'm cooperating with our circumstance of survival. 

For years, that’s what they do together. They survive. And Marva is not just a struggling, grieving mom. She’s not just a mom with bad boundaries. She’s a good mom. She’s a fun mom. And beyond just being a mom, she’s a person. She’s Marva.

Britt: Marva is strong. She is skeptical. She doesn't trust others. She has a huge heart. She wants to give, and she wants to have very deep and very close relationships with people. And yet the trust piece doesn't allow her to do that. She's funny. She's hilarious. She has jokes for days and can truly make you laugh and would absolutely give you the shirt off her back if you didn't have one.

Teaching is Marva’s joy, and her job, and she keeps working, and she keeps sending Britt to Catholic school even though it’s a huge stretch. And the two of them move from apartment to apartment.

And one day, as Marva and Britt drive by this diner in their neighborhood, Marva slows down, and she says, “Hey, see that guy over there? The one eating breakfast? That’s your dad.”

We’re gonna take a quick break.

We’re back. And Britt is a little kid grieving her dead dad… but her mom just pointed out a stranger at a diner and said, “That’s your dad.” Which is confusing. Is Dada not dead? Is this like a soap opera? No no no no. “That’s your dad,” as in, the man you’re still mourning, the man you call Dada? He was not your dad. Not biologically at least.

This man -- this stranger, who looks nothing like the man who tucked you in at night -- he’s your dad.

Britt: And that was my first introduction to this foreign guy that I've never seen before being my father. When this entire time I'm thinking that there's one guy that's actually my dad and he's not. It's crushing. It's absolutely devastating to hear someone that you know is your father, so it's not like this is some mystery man, right?

“That’s your dad.” With that sentence, Britt loses her Dada all over again. Because he’s really not hers anymore, right? He never really was. To her little brain, her little kid self, that’s what it feels like. That the pain she is feeling is a pain she doesn’t have a right to.

What is her mom DOING here? She doesn’t want this guy to be her dad. She doesn’t know him. But this moment isn’t about what Britt wants. It’s about what Marva wants.

But what does Marva want? Why is she telling Britt this now? And why won’t she just let it go?

Britt: I think the, the, the game for her was, “I want him to acknowledge her and I want to make sure that at every chance that I get, I'm going to present this child in front of him so that he can take ownership.” And I think that was the priority for her. The priority wasn't necessarily to protect me from what he could do or say. The priority was, “I want you to claim this child.” And that's just something that didn't happen. 

But Marva keeps trying. They keep trying to run into Harry, to get Britt and Harry to connect. To force a connection. And even as a child, Britt knows this isn’t right.

Britt: And I remember thinking, “This is not my responsibility. This is not my responsibility to start a relationship with my father. This is something that he should be doing with me.

Britt doesn’t want this strange man to be her father. And you know what? He doesn’t want her either. And he makes that very clear.

Britt: And so, I went to his car with my mom kind of prompting me and pushing me to kind of say, like, “Go up to him,” you know, almost kind of like she wanted to get back at him and not really necessarily thinking about my feelings regarding that. But I think she kind of wanted to say, like, “Here we are in public. What are you gonna do now? Are you going to step up to the plate and say, like, yes, I'm your father or are you going to push your daughter away?” And so it was kind of like this experiment that I really didn't want to be a part of. And so I think she also saw the results of it, and, you know, that just made her more angry. But walking up to his car that day basically kind of saying, “Hi, you know, Harry, how are you?”

Britt: And so this one day she said, “Let's go to the restaurant that he's at. I know he's there.” And so she dropped me off. He was in a van. And so I went over to the van and he said to me, “Never come to me ever again. I don't care. Wherever I am, if you see me, please do not come up to me. I don't want anybody knowing who you are.” And then continues to say, “My family would not accept bastard children. And that's exactly what you are.”

That’s exactly what you are.” A bastard child. Not a child. Not my child. Just a bastard. 

For people who are unsure what that really means in this context… my kids asked me about it recently, and I explained to them that in the U.S., we kind of use the word “bastard” as like, “Someone is a… son of a gun, someone is no good, someone is a real so and so…”

But the origin of the word is an insult. It’s meant to devalue a child who is born outside of a marriage. When I told my 7-year-old that definition, the historical one, he lit up. “OH! Like my brothers! Both my brothers are bastards!” And he was so excited for them to have a title. And I think that’s how we break down stigma. 

But it’s not 2020 when Britt hears that word. It’s the late ‘80s, and she’s a little girl whose mother just pushed her into this situation. And Harry speeds off. And Britt is just… there… just standing there. And her mom, this whole time, has been right across the street, in her own car. Marva couldn’t hear the conversation, but she could see it. She could see Britt walk back across the street, crying. 

Britt: And I remember feeling so crushed walking back to the car. So I know that this guy is my dad and to hear him say those things was absolutely crushing and devastating, and then I also kind of had multiple feelings. I had anger towards him, disappointment towards him, and I also kind of had this disappointment towards my mom because I'm like, “Why would you set me up for this when you know this is what he's going to do? You know him, right? You knew him before I was even born, right? You guys had some level of a relationship before I was born. You knew how he was gonna respond, so why would you put me in that situation?” There was this expectation, like, you got this. You can handle this. And it's just like, no, because this is not the person that should be prompting this conversation.

Here’s the thing. Marva and Harry got together when Marva and Dada were on a break. And Harry, like Dada, also has another family, a whole other life, outside of Britt and her mother. And that’s the life he wants to protect. Not Britt’s. Not Marva’s.

Harry doesn’t want Britt as a daughter, but he also doesn’t fully disappear from her life. 

Britt: The funny part is that my dad would always somehow, like, continue to keep up with us, or at least keep up with my mom. So like, no matter where we move, so like, you know, remember, this is like ‘80s and ‘90s. So everyone had, like, landlines. So, you know, every time we moved, I feel like somehow he would always get our number and he would always reach out to talk to my mom. So that was another hurtful piece, because it's just like, are you morso interested in a relationship with my mom or are you interested in a relationship with me? And I knew when he would call and disguise his voice and say, “This is John. I'm calling for Marva.” I knew off the bat, like, well, you're not calling for me. You're calling to check in with my mom. And so that was just constant, you know, rejection, you know, hearing from him as a child. 

And so him doing that and me going into teenagehood, it was just the explosive anger that will come out. So when he would call, I would say, like, “OK, John, I know this is Harry, stop playing on the phone.” Or I would, like, hang up on him or I would say to him, “You know, it's really funny how you call to talk to my mom, but you can't even say hi to your own daughter.” So really just a lot of like truth telling and just kind of like blurting out like and just really being honest. But then there were other times where I was just, like, rude and like curse him out and then just hung up and never told my mom that he called. 

That’s about as “bad” as Britt got, by the way. She was just a good kid. She got a job in high school to help her mom pay the bills. 

Britt: The majority of my childhood life, I was very anxious, because I knew that my mom was a single parent. And my thought in my mind was, if something happens to her, what's going to happen to me? And if my mom doesn't take care of herself physically, then where would I go? if my mom doesn't take care of herself emotionally or mentally, where would I go? Because she would be, you know, put away, right? If something happened and she had some kind of like breakdown, where would I go? What would happen to me? 

Britt doesn’t want to find out, so she takes care of Marva. She takes care of school. Her mom always told her that education would be Britt’s escape… and Britt is going to make sure that’s true. 

Britt: So I applied to mostly all schools outside of Illinois — like, you know, you're always told to, like, you know, apply to like... a safe school. And yeah, for me, I'm just like, well, you know, what's safe for me is outside of Illinois, to be honest, right? Because I really wanted an opportunity to build my life up and to build myself outside of the relationship that I had with my mom that I didn't have the terms for at 17, but I knew we were enmeshed. 

Britt: An enmeshed relationship is really feeling as though a child, specifically myself, I felt a lot like I was taking care of my mom, not in the sense of obviously financially. I was a kid, so I didn't have a job, you know, to assist her. However, that obligation was always there. You know, especially once I got older and I was in a position to work, I said, “Well, I can work so that I can help my mom with bills. And so things won't be so hard.” So that enmeshment piece really is just feeling like I was constantly taking care of her emotionally, making sure that I was taking care of her emotional well-being and even physical well-being.

You know, my mom was a worker. Like she worked very hard to get the things that she had inclusive of sending me to school and making sure that I had the best opportunities so that I can have more in life. And, you know, while I appreciate that, of course, there came with, you know, different costs. 

Britt knew, even at 17, having gone through zero therapy herself, that she needed to build her own life. That this urge she feels isn’t only to run away from her mother, but towards herself. Her future. 

Britt is accepted into a school in New Jersey, and she accepts. Marva and two of her friends drive Britt out to school. They make it a big road trip just to drop Britt off.

Britt: As soon as they drove off. It almost felt like there was this, like, relief of like, “OK, now I'm finally here and I can finally do it myself.” I'm like, I got this and I'm excited about that. 

And you know what? She does have it. She has been responsible for herself and her mother since she was 7. Unlike most college freshmen, she’s not homesick. She’s not totally befuddled by the idea of paying bills or making her own food or getting herself up in the morning.. She can handle that. But she does worry about her mom. How is Marva doing without Britt? Is she okay? 

The physical distance from her mother helps her to realize her own needs and also makes it easier for her to express them. It’s 2005, pre-FaceTime, and sometimes an old-fashioned phone call can help you say things you struggled to say face-to-face. 

Her senior year of college, Britt has one of those calls with her mom.

Britt: I kind of just expressed how I was just tired of feeling like this responsible person, you know, growing up and, you know, kind of at some point being like a co-parent. Like everything that I experienced, everything that I kind of fleshed out and talked about earlier, really, I put out there to her, and I said to her, “You know, this, you know, was something that hurt me. This was something that made me angry.” And so there was a lot of breakthrough there, because I think that was me drawing the line finally. And so the line was drawn in the sand. I was basically saying to her, “Listen, I'm telling this to you because I actually like you. And not only do I love you, but I like you as a person, and I really want to have a relationship with you. But these are gonna be the terms now.”

Britt doesn’t know it yet, but those are boundaries! And she’s bracing herself for Marva’s reaction.

Britt: And oddly enough, she understood. And, you know, she... she apologized, which I did not expect. It was like a breakthrough. It was like it was literally like a therapy session with her. And I'm just like, wait a minute, did I have that therapist hat on? Or was this just the daughter hat on that was just fed up at getting, you know, these unrealistic expectations thrown on her? And now it's time to say something to advocate for herself?

While she’s advocating for herself, there’s also Harry.  They’ve been in sporadic communication since she got to college — nothing productive, nothing helpful. She’s mad at him, still. But she doesn’t want to be mad at him.

Britt: I can't continue to hold on, you know, to all of the things that my dad did to me, because it would be nice to actually have a relationship with him. But what would that look like? He would have to want it, right? But I have to figure out how I go about having that conversation. And part of forgiveness, of course, is being able to to tell your truth.

So, one day, sitting in her little burgundy Nissan Altima, outside of her apartment, Britt calls Harry. And she tells him the truth.

Britt: And I said to him, like, “You hurt me, you know, all the times that you called my house. You know, that was rejecting me every single time. You didn't include me, you know, in your family. There's a whole side of your family that I don't even know, that you didn't even introduce me to. And that hurt. And you didn't take responsibility for me. And not even financial responsibility, but the emotional and physical psychological responsibility that a parent has to a child. You didn't take any of that. And that left a huge, huge gap in my life.”

This is the first real, honest conversation they’ve had. The first one of substance. Britt knew her mom, she knew what to expect. And she’d been surprised by Marva. But what is this guy -- still a stranger after all these years -- what will he say? How’s he going to react? He listens. And he says:

Britt: “You're absolutely right. Like, you know, sometimes it doesn't matter how old you are. Sometimes you just don't get that concept of responsibility.” And it's interesting, he used the word responsibility because I'm sitting in my mind thinking like... I've been responsible my whole life, dude. Like, what are you saying? Like, I've been responsible. It feels like since I popped out the chute. And you're saying how it's hard it was hard for you to be responsible and to take responsibility. So there was something in that statement that really made me angry. But then I'm just like, but he's talking. So because he's talking and he's also telling his truth. I have to be fair and listen. And so I was very taken aback when after everything I was saying, he was listening. He wasn't interrupting. He didn't say, “No, that's not true.” He really did a lot of healing when it came to just validating, hearing me and hearing my story and actually saying, “You are right. I should have done something different.”

Britt had planned to graduate with her communications degree and become the next Oprah, but now she has a new plan. She’s going to get a master’s in mental health counseling. She’s going to do this stuff with and for other people. She gets into a program, and she loves it. She’s a natural.  And now, looking back, she can see how valuable that conversation with Harry was. How clearing out her emotional junk around him helped clear a path forward with her life.

Britt: I think subconsciously that's what I was… that's what I was thinking. I was thinking, like, if I'm going to not just be married, but if I'm going to have a healthy relationship with a man, if I'm going to have a healthy marriage, I have to do this work with my father. I think that absolutely that's the work that I needed to do in order to have a really great relationship with a male and a really great marriage. 

That’s the goal. Not that she and Harry have the Best Relationship Ever, but that she can build a foundation for her own healthy relationship in the future.

Britt: Broken relationships are really, really tedious work, because it's really kind of untying a bunch of knots. And I think we did a really great job looking back on untying a lot of knots.

She and Harry aren’t immediately planning daddy-daughter vacations. She’s not making him a #1 Dad mug any time soon. But they’re talking

Britt: It's not like I talked to him weekly, but I probably talked to him more than I ever talked to him, you know, prior to that conversation. And we were able to kind of, like, talk. Have conversations. Laugh. I was able to learn a lot of who I am as a person that came from him. Like he's a very chill, like, laid back person. And I feel the same, you know, about myself. And I'm just like, you know, it's cool to kind of be able to say, like, “I'm just like my dad,” because I've never been able to say that prior to that conversation. So we were really able to get to know each other.

Call by call, laugh by laugh, they’re untying knots together. And then, Marva calls. And she tells Britt that she has Stage 3 breast cancer. And Britt can tell that what Marva’s getting at is that she wants Britt -- her only child --  to move back to Chicago.  

And Britt  is scared. She’s reactive. Her mom is sick! She starts to imagine going home, taking over, making sure it’s all okay  for Marva. The same way she did when she was a child. And later that day, when the phone call is over...

Britt: I started to think like, man, like everything is... like... good. Everything is like on the right track. Like, this is exactly what I wanted. And it's almost just like — and this is what this is me just being very honest and transparent — I'm just like, “Wow, here my mom goes again, like, doing something to, like, mess up what is a good thing for me.” And I felt so bad saying it. 

Nora: People need to hear that, Brittany. Like they do. They need to hear that it's OK to be like “fuuuck.”

Wow, I am really eloquent. “It’s okay to be like ohhhhh F word!” Hmmm. How do my kids have such terrible mouths?

Anyways. It is okay to feel that way. Because sometimes things happen. And what’s going to happen right now is we are going to take an advertising break.

We are back. Marva has breast cancer, and Britt really doesn’t want to uproot her life in New Jersey to go back to Chicago. 

Britt: I had to really go to God with this one. And I really believe that I absolutely heard, “If you go back to Chicago, you will not come back to New Jersey. You will stay there for a very long time taking care of your mother, and you will not have your own life.” And I remember sitting there saying like, “OK, OK, so that makes sense. So here's the plan. We're gonna go for the surgery. We're going to stay for two or three weeks. We're going to leave and we're going to go back every single month of the year to make sure that Mom's laundry is done, Mom's house is clean. Errands are ran for her.

When we talk about boundaries, it’s not about what we are trying to keep out. It’s what we are trying to protect and grow on the inside of those boundaries. 

Britt’s decision to not move back to Chicago is protecting the career she’s passionate about, and the stability of the life she’s spent so much time building in New Jersey. It’s not saying “no” to Marva. It’s saying “yes” to Britt and her life.

So the plan is this: Britt will do what she can from New Jersey. She’ll give her mom some financial support, and help with her care coordination. She’ll go to Chicago to visit her mom, but she won’t move there.

When Britt is in Chicago for visits, it’s not just about Marva. It’s also a time for Britt and Harry to untie more of those knots. 

Britt: He would make it a point to come by and to visit. And so he would come by. He would visit. He would say hello. And he would say, like, “I'm coming to see you.” Which, of course, was very different from when he would call and say he was John wanting to speak to Marva. So this was different because he was actually saying, “Hey, are you home? You know, I wanted to come in and visit you and say hi to you.” And I'm just like, OK. And it was kind of, like, this weird feeling, like, “OK, my dad is coming to visit me. What's that going to look like?” So, you know, he would come and, you know, he would sit down, we’d chat for maybe like 10, 15 minutes and he literally would leave ,and I would be okay with that. You know, I wasn't looking for anything more than that. But I respected that because that was him doing the work of having a relationship. 

Britt’s in such an interesting place here: trying to create a healthy separation from her mother, and trying to build a healthy connection with Harry. And then,  she meets someone -- a lovely man named Sonny. And she’s in love pretty much right away.

Britt: I remember us talking and he was telling me about his family, and he was telling me that he has five older sisters and that there's six of them and he's the youngest of six and that he has this really great relationship with his family, his mom. He talked to me about his dad. And so the first thing that he talked about was his family. And so for me, I just thought that that was just amazing. And then, you know, of course, going back to my childhood, kind of my immediate family unit was just me and my mom. Right? So to see this man that has this large family that it sounds like he has such a great relationship, you know, with all of them, it made me think that he's a good guy. You know, he's a good guy because he puts his family first. That's like a value, you know, a personal value. And I just knew that, like with the way that he talked about his family, that he took care of them and that they took care of each other. And so that was kind of the first time that I heard of -- at least then in a relationship with a guy -- that I heard about, you know, “We take care of each other. We love each other, but we also take care of each other.” And it just made me feel like, oh, well then, if this continues, then you'd also be able to take care of me and vice versa. I'd be able to take care of you. We'd be able to take care of each other.

That’s the plan for the two of them. That they’d take care of one another. Sonny is smart and kind and sweet, and...

Britt: And he also loved the Bulls. Like, this man was born and raised in Brooklyn and then part was partially in Irvington, New Jersey and loves Michael Jordan and loved the Bulls. And that was, like, my life growing up. You know, like in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, you know, definitely being a Bulls fan, being from Chicago, diehard, of course. 

It’s meant to be! They call themselves Pippen and Jordan. And Sonny agrees that Britt is the Jordan. She’s the star. He’s happy to be her Pippen. He’s happy to be the guy that got Jordan SIX CHAMPIONSHIPS!

After two years of dating, they’re planning to get married. Britt is going to create the kind of stable family unit that she’s always wanted. And Sonny’s love -- the way he just SHINES love on her -- reminds Britt of someone. It reminds her of Dada.

Britt: That's a lot of qualities that Sonny had that reminded me so much of him, which I think is very interesting because I feel like if they ever had the opportunity of meeting that they would absolutely, like, hit it off for sure. Because I feel like in so many ways they're almost like... almost like the same person. And I remember him saying, “I'm so proud of you.” That's always something that he just constantly just poured into me multiple times. I'm proud of you. I'm proud of you. And it made me feel good because it made me feel like, OK, yeah, I am doing the right thing for myself because that always kind of came up and came out of his mouth every time he said, “I'm proud of you.” It's because I decided to do something that felt right for me. So he wasn't saying it in a way where it was manipulative, where it was just like, “I'm saying, I'm proud of you because there's something that I want for me, from you.” He was saying it because he was absolutely acknowledging that I did something good for myself. And that made him feel proud. 

When Britt and Sonny get married, after two years of dating, Britt invites Harry and his children and his grandchildren to the wedding. And yes says yes! But he also cancels last minute, which is disappointing, but it’s okay. Like, really, it’s okay. Because Britt knows enough now to know that Harry’s carrying his own shame, his own feelings, his own version of this story. And besides, Britt and Sonny had decided right from the start that Britt was going to walk herself down the aisle — towards Sonny, and their life together.

The work of a relationship, the work of love, is an ongoing thing. It’s not about showing up for wedding album photos that will never see the light of day. Imagine, as Britt and Harry are untying the knots of their relationship, that there’s another task, too. That they have to smooth out those threads, to test the strength, and try to weave something new together. How do you test the strength of those new bonds? It’s not in quick phone calls and short visits. It’s when things are hard. And you don’t go looking for a test. They come to you.

Marva’s godmother dies. This is a woman who was like a grandma to Britt. And Britt wants to go to Chicago to attend the funeral and pay her respects. But at this point, Marva has moved to Las Vegas and can’t make the trip, and Sonny has to work. So Britt flies to Chicago alone. 

And Harry calls.

Britt: And he's just like, “You know, I heard about Nita.” Her name was Juanita. I called her Nanita. And so he's just like, “I heard about Nita,” and he's just like, “You know, are you going to the wake and the funeral?” And I said, yeah, I'm actually here now. So he's like, “OK, I'll come with you to the wake.” And when he said that, it just kind of like immediately, like tears kind of came to my eyes. And I think it was because that was really one of the first times that he showed up for me in a way where he's just like, “I'm your father coming to be with you during a difficult time.” And he knew it was a difficult time because he knew I grew up with Nanita and, you know, like they knew each other, because they both worked in kind of the same hair care fields in Chicago. So he knew Nanita for years. And so he did come. He showed up. We were at the wake together and it's so funny because there were people that are just like, “So who's this guy? Is this your husband?” So people knew in Chicago that I had gotten married in 2012. So they're thinking that my dad is, like, my husband and I'm just like, “No, that was my dad.” But it's so funny because people are like… they've never seen me or my dad together before. So it's so funny because people are just like, well, who is that? 

Nora: Also, only that would only happen to a dad and a daughter. That would never once happen to a mom and a son ever. 

Britt: Right?

Nora: Ever.

Harry is doing the exact opposite of what he did on that day 26 years earlier, when Britt walked up to him in his van and he told her to get lost, to never acknowledge him in public again. He’s walking into her community as her dad. Showing up for his daughter in the way she needs him. After the wake, he drops Britt off at her friend’s house, where she’s spending the night.

Britt: And then the next day he came back for the funeral. So we sat together and, you know, he was kind of, like, being very attentive, just kind of, you know, making sure things were OK. And, you know, I remember the funeral being over and going to the burial site and then the burial, you know, being over and he's like, all right, “Well, I'm gonna head out. You know, I'm glad to see you and lay eyes on you and see that you're okay.” And he's just like, you know, “I'll see you next time you come.”

Britt flies back to New Jersey with a sense of peace. A sense of happiness. She still calls him Harry to his face, but if she’s talking about him? That’s her dad. They’re still untying, still re-forming a relationship with one another. A relationship where Harry isn’t the last option to go to a funeral with you but the first person that Britt wants to call when she and Sonny have one of those dumb fights where it feels so important in the moment even though in a few years you absolutely won’t be able to even describe what the argument was about. In one of those moments, who does Britt want to call for relationship advice? 

Harry. She calls Harry!

Britt: I remember saying hearing him say you know, “Men mess up. Men mess up all the time. You know, we're not perfect people. And, you know, Sonny's definitely not, you know, perfect. He may be perfect for you, but he's not perfect. But, you know, I know that you guys will get through it. Just talk to him and tell him how you feel.”  I'm just like, WHO ARE WE? Because this is not who we were years ago. And how did we get here? And how we got there was really a lot of forgiveness, a lot of honesty, a lot of transparency, a lot of building, you know, boundaries together and really just kind of moving forward through the mess.

After 33 years, Britt has a dad. She has her own solid family unit with Sonny, and they’re ready to start trying to have kids. Mom is healthier, and so is Britt’s relationship with her. And things are good. They’re really, really good.

And next season, when we come back, we’ll continue Britt’s story. Because this show is not called, “Really really good, glad ya asked!

CREDITS:

Nora Mcinerny

Marcel Malekebu

Hannah Meacock Ross

Jeyca Maldonado-Medina

Phyllis Fletcher

Tracy Mumford

Jordan Turgeon

Kryssy Pease

Kristina Lopez

Geoffrey Lamar Wilson

American Public Media