How this father is trying to make things right and make up for lost time

When I was 19 years old, my daughter's mother told me she was pregnant. We'd been dating for a few months, but we'd broken up and it was a tumultuous situation. Because of the circumstances and the timing, I didn't believe the baby was mine. Back then, my ex and I were in the military, based in Virginia. Not long after she informed me of the pregnancy, she was transferred to San Diego and we lost touch.

Thirteen years later, when I was stationed in Hawaii, we passed each other at a military commissary. I was with my wife and our three children, and my ex was with her husband and their children. Later my ex approached me and said that one of the children was my daughter Marie. I didn't believe her. She asked me to take a paternity test. I agreed, but only if she paid for it. She refused; I never took one.

Ten years later, on Father's Day 2005, my phone rang. The woman on the other end of the line said I was her father. I was still skeptical, but my sister and wife encouraged me to give it a chance. Eventually Marie and I started talking by phone a few times a month.

When Marie was 32, we finally met in person. It was a roller coaster of emotions. There was excitement but also the sadness of realizing that I have a child I never knew existed and that I hadn't been there like I was with the rest of my children. Marie told me she'd felt unwanted. But had I known she was mine, I would have ensured she had everything she needed from her father—things that money can't buy. Now I ask her questions about her life so that I can provide fatherly input. We are working on building trust, understanding and communication.

What makes me feel the best is when we finish talking on the phone and I say, "I love you," and she says, "I love you" back. Hearing her call me Dad—that makes me feel alive too. And blessed.

This feature originally appeared in the June 2017 Issue of ESSENCE Magazine.