One year ago today I joined the ranks of people who have lost one of their parents. My father passed at 83 years of age following a series of heart attacks that happened over (roughly) a six week period. In the end he slipped and struck his head in his room, was checked out by paramedics on-site, and elected to simply ‘lay down and rest’ rather than take another trip to the hospital, which was something he had been most emphatic about not wanting any longer.
The assisted living facility contacted me that morning to let me know what had happened. They asked if I wanted them to ‘compel’ him to go to the hospital or not. I asked them what he was telling them he wanted, and they replied that he had said no to it. I told them to honor what he was saying to them. I knew what that most likely meant. I knew that he was prepared for that as we’d spoken about it just two days prior.
A few hours later, he was gone.
I spent a great many years not speaking to my father. During that time I considered legally changing my last name in order to further distance myself from him. I felt so hurt by him, for so many years, that I simply wanted to erase him from my life, my mind, and my heart. I took photographs of the two of us together and ripped them up, tossing the shredded images into the trash.
None of it did anything to lessen the hurt I felt. It may have taken it from being visible to my eyes each day, but did nothing to remove it from my heart.
The ongoing silence between my father and me was the subject of the only ‘disagreement’ I ever had with his mother, who I enjoyed a very close relationship with throughout my life until she passed away. We didn’t argue, per se, but she felt as though I was being too harsh on my father by cutting him out of my life the way I had. She told me that ‘those who want nothing to do with him will probably be the first ones in line looking for something when he dies’. I believe what she was referring to at the time was wanting material possessions or a share of whatever money he might have. In that I knew that she was wrong. But when he did eventually die, and we had reconciled our differences and talked them out (something that unfortunately his mother did not live to see happen), there was something I wanted from him.
I wanted him back.
Yesterday I participated in an exchange over social media with a few friends talking about rough childhoods and owning your challenges in life and doing what you can to move beyond them rather than wallowing in them and blaming someone else for the rest of your life. I certainly could wallow if I chose to. My father was rarely ‘present’ in my childhood. He drank excessively for years. He never once showed up at activities I participated in. He was not, in all the time I was growing up, the kind of father I wanted him to be. The kind who, when he learned I was gay, said ‘That’s okay, son, I love you no matter what.’ The kind who, upon realizing I had no taste for hunting or fishing, said ‘That’s okay son, let’s do something YOU like, just to spend some time together.’
Now, many years removed from childhood, I can look back at those years with a different perspective. I can put aside the hurt, the anger, the disappointment, and extract something positive from those years. I see, now, that I can be grateful for many things.
I realized, many years ago, that no matter what anyone else thought of my being gay it was never going to change. My skin grew thicker and my desire to like myself for exactly who I am grew stronger. I learned to stop trying to please everyone (that one took awhile) and just be me – as that’s when you truly get to know know if someone likes you for who you are, not who they think you are or want you to be. This is due, in part, to my father’s response to my coming out, and the hurt I felt at the time.
In becoming a father myself, I have seen how easy it is to fall into the patterns that were present with our own parents. My parents tried for many years to have children without my mother getting pregnant. They adopted, and then eventually had me. In ways I waited just as long (longer, really) and had to ‘work’ just as hard to become a parent as they did initially in pursuing adoption. I have not grown so old or travelled so far from those days that I can no longer recall the feelings associated with having a parent who was not present in my life. I have not forgotten the feeling of ‘How can someone who tried for so long to become a parent simply disregard his child?’ I recall this feeling when my kids want me to watch them play a video game even if I have no interest in video games myself. I recall it when I’m completely absorbed in a book and one of them comes to me and says, ‘Do you want to watch t.v. with me?’ and I sit down for the 1,000,000th viewing of an episode of Teenage Talking Ninja Sponges or some other such fare. I’m not perfect at this…goodness knows I get wrapped up inside my own head all too often, but I’m mindful of it. This is due, in part, to my father’s seeming lack of interest in spending time with me, doing things even if he hated them just so that we were doing something together.
My father was not, in my childhood, the father I wished for. The kind who built tree houses and taught you how to make a camp fire, and lead your scout troop, and took you to baseball games and showed you how to grill a steak or tossed a football in the yard with you when he knew you needed his advice on something. All those ‘Hallmark’ moments that get imprinted in a decisive, masculine font over outdoorsy backdrops on card stock and purchased for Father’s Day and birthdays and the occasional ‘just thinking of you’ moments.
That was never my dad. That dad was the one I saw on television programs and in movies wearing a cardigan and smoking a pipe in a wingback chair by the fireplace while he read the newspaper. My dad read the paper, but he did so in a green recliner with a can of beer sitting on the end table next to him while he recused himself from spousal and parenting obligations night after night, perhaps contemplating a life and a marriage that hadn’t turned out the way he’d wanted and while his son, at least one of them, learned how to get along without a father in his life. That was my dad.
A year ago today, he died, much the way he lived – quietly, without any fanfare nor any drama. A year ago today the time to resolve our differences and talk them out came to an end. ‘What we should do and should say’ departed, and there was only ‘what we said and what we did’ left in their wake.
Thankfully, in the ten years we were reconciled before his death, we did and said enough.
There was a time when I thought that my life would be so much much better off without contact with my dad. I did everything I could to make that a reality. But like closing your eyes and pretending you know what it’s like to be blind, I didn’t really have a clue what it would be like to no longer have my dad in my life, because he was always there to go back to – to reach out and say ‘let’s talk about this’ or ‘let’s put this behind us.’ There was always time, until there wasn’t any longer.
I used to believe that my heart and my mind would be so much more at ease if that man, my father, a man it took me nearly forty years to understand and to like, were erased from my life, if he just weren’t there at all. I used to believe that would be so much better for me. I imagined spending the rest of my life without seeing him or talking to him ever again, and what that would be like and how wonderful, after all the hurt I’d been through, it would be.
And now I know.
I was wrong.