My Dad Died

My dad died awhile back, on Wednes­day, 19 Jan­u­ary 2011. He was diag­nosed with lung can­cer in the lat­ter half of 2010, had a lung removed, and then devel­oped an untreat­able infec­tion.

Don’t smoke, peo­ple.

The Past

Here’s the thing: shame though it may be, for me, my dad died one sum­mer after­noon about 17 years ago. As a 13 year-old, I jumped out of the 1970 Pon­ti­ac GTO (that I helped him restore) on West­ern Avenue & 18th Street in Con­nersville, Indi­ana. He was yelling about how he was going to beat the hell out of me when we got to his home. My father died dur­ing the ter­ror of those min­utes in the car, while I fever­ish­ly weighed the options on how best to pro­tect myself. I nev­er dri­ve past the ram­shackle house halfway down that block with­out remem­ber­ing.

At first it wasn’t like he’d died, but grew into death as the years rolled by. Through­out high school and taper­ing off in col­lege there were awk­ward instances at cross-coun­try meets, cards wish­ing me Hap­py Birth­day & the like. I was unable to rec­on­cile the man he appeared to be in pub­lic (which seemed an act to me) with the man who once spent an entire day of vis­i­ta­tion dri­ving me around in his van and yelling at me & my mom for mak­ing his oth­er chil­dren bas­tards in the eyes of the Catholic Church. I was unable to rec­on­cile the man who said he want­ed to be a part of my life with the man who fought tooth & nail to avoid con­tribut­ing to my upbring­ing & edu­ca­tion.

He was eas­i­er to for­get as those attempts at inter­ac­tion came few­er and far­ther between. Once I start­ed my blog, I knew he read it, he left strange, stilt­ed com­ments from time to time, but by then it was easy to just see these as com­ing from one more stranger among the bunch. The awk­ward attempts to com­mu­ni­cate with me via the occa­sion­al card, email for­wards, blog com­ments & prox­ies were the my father could do. I think he had a per­ma­nent vic­tim men­tal­i­ty. This allowed him to twist the wrongs he did to oth­ers into wrongs done unto him. There is no need to admit mis­takes or ask for for­give­ness (two things I nev­er heard or saw him do) when one is the chron­ic vic­tim. Repeat the spin enough and oth­ers will believe it, repeat it long enough and you’ll start to believe it your­self.

In high school, one of my teach­ers (and a one­time friend of my father) had a talk with me about his abort­ed rela­tion­ship with his father . He con­fid­ed in me that his one regret in life was that he didn’t make peace with his father when he had the chance. I wasn’t any­where near a place where I could have done that when I was giv­en that advice, but it has always stuck with me. I fre­quent­ly thought about con­tact­ing my father, but con­tin­u­al­ly put it off, some­times through my own reluc­tance, but some­times that deci­sion was rein­forced through the actions of peo­ple close to him. I’ve received hate-filled emails through the years, most long-since delet­ed, but here’s a recent sam­ple, from a com­plete stranger:

Hey, can I be any clear­er now? Do I have your atten­tion? I know Don has kept in touch with you and let you know what is going on, but I dont know if you seem to under­stand the sever­i­ty of this sit­u­a­tion. Are you real­ly that shal­low that you are going to allow your own father, who gave you life, to go through this surgery, that he may or may NOT live through, and nev­er let him meet his grand­son? You are a sick, pathet­ic excuse for a per­son and you have no feel­ings. My kids are so hurt by this. He is their grand­pa and they love him and he treats them won­der­ful and they dont judge him by mis­takes he has made in the past. I am cry­ing on a night­ly basis and pray­ing to God that he makes it through and you cant even reach out to him in his time of need. He is not even my father, but he has treat­ed me like a daugth­er since the day we met.…..You should be ASHAMED of your­self. Every year that man has bought Christ­mas presents for you and they have just piled up in a clos­et in his and my moms house because you nev­er had the guts to show up. BE A MAN ADAM and let your boy meet his grand­fa­ther. Stop run­ning. You are going to regret this deci­sion for the rest of your life if he dos­nt make it through the surgery. Please make peace. Your dad wants to be a father to you and ALWAYS has. Sor­ry your mom ruined that for you but your old enough to make your own deci­sions now. Be the adult and face him and let him know you give a damn. He loves you with all of his heart and it makes me sick the way he aches to meet his grand­son and wants to see you. You make me SICK. You so deserve an ass beat­in!!!! I wish we could have been friends or fam­i­ly but you refused to let that hap­pen and I tried to give you the benifit of the doubt over the years and keep my opin­ion of you to myself but seri­ous­ly, how do you look at your­self in the mir­ror every­day? ????

Do the right thing for your son Adam. Stop being self­ish and think­ing about your­self. The world dos­nt revolved around you. Are you old enough to under­stand that yet???

MAN UP BOY.…MAN UP!!!!!!!

When­ev­er I thought that rec­on­cil­i­a­tion was a pos­si­bil­i­ty I would receive a reminder of the unhealthy envi­ron­ment I’d been delib­er­ate­ly avoid­ing. I’ve nev­er felt the need to accept that neg­a­tiv­i­ty into my life.

Things could have been much dif­fer­ent these past 17 years if at any point in that time I had got­ten the sense from him that he had changed in any way, but that nev­er hap­pened. In some ways, I’m still that scared 13 year-old boy when think­ing of my father, and I think my father was nev­er able to see me as more than the scared 13 year-old boy he didn’t under­stand. Not only did I nev­er get an indi­ca­tion from him that he had changed, but bits and drib­bles of rumor made their way to me through a vari­ety of sources that con­firmed my sus­pi­cions. Once my son was born, I start­ed hear­ing from peo­ple that he would show folks a pic­ture of Abra­ham and tell them “That’s as close as I’m ever going to get to meet­ing him.” I think the only way he knew to get atten­tion from oth­ers was to manip­u­late them into giv­ing him what he want­ed.

For 17 years there have been things that I’ve need­ed to dis­cuss with my father; now I will no longer have a chance to do so. It might be cow­ardice on my part for nev­er hav­ing attempt­ed to make those tough con­ver­sa­tions hap­pen, and I think I bear a small amount of respon­si­bil­i­ty (the same respon­si­bil­i­ty any per­son has for resolv­ing unfin­ished busi­ness with anoth­er) for not hav­ing con­tact­ed him once I was mature enough to know my own mind, but a greater respon­si­bil­i­ty lay upon him to seek amends with me. Not once in the 17 years of our estrange­ment did he approach me forth­right­ly, con­trite­ly or non-manip­u­la­tive­ly. The approach­es were always oblique, con­de­scend­ing, retard­ed, as if he could not notice the giant red flag of his abuse. I don’t know, maybe he couldn’t see it. Noth­ing could be eas­i­er than to spread blame around; the fact remains that the sit­u­a­tion will always remain a sad one. It’s a shame; espe­cial­ly since I for­gave my father years ago. How­ev­er, for­give­ness is only pro­duc­tive when it is shared with some­one who seeks it; and for­giv­ing some­one for an abu­sive rela­tion­ship does not require main­te­nance of that rela­tion­ship. I made my peace with him, but he nev­er gave him­self the chance to find out.

For 17 years I didn’t want the grow­ing pile of Christ­mas presents in his clos­et, I want­ed my father to respect him­self, our rela­tion­ship, and me enough to say that he was sor­ry.

A lot of buried bit­ter­ness per­co­lat­ed to the top in this sec­tion. I’ve known about it and rec­og­nized it for years, and since I’ve done that, along with know­ing and rec­og­niz­ing oth­er dan­ger­ous emo­tions and prob­a­bil­i­ties that are my inher­i­tance from my dad, I’ve been able to chan­nel them into pro­duc­tive ener­gy, towards myself, my son, my kith & kin. And bit­ter­ness is a pas­sive emo­tion; I bore and bear my father no ill will; I was sad­dened to hear of his can­cer and decline in the same way I would be sad­dened by hear­ing that news about any per­son that I know.

The Future

Because I’ve lived over half my life with­out a father, I’ve had to learn most of what it means to be a man on my own. That’s both a hin­drance and a help; a hin­drance because I’ve had no con­sis­tent pres­ence to set an exam­ple or offer guid­ance, a help because that very lack of pres­ence has forced me to work hard at defin­ing man­hood for myself, and I feel that I’ve reached an under­stand­ing that I would have been inca­pable of if I hadn’t had to do the work myself. The learn­ing process began with sim­ple things, like teach­ing myself to shave, but has expand­ed and mor­phed through­out the years into some­thing as com­plex as a phi­los­o­phy for my actions & deci­sions as a father. There will always be holes in the foun­da­tion, but that just means I need to change the metaphor for man­hood from a struc­tur­al one into a pro­gres­sive one; it’s a jour­ney, not a house. A jour­ney changes, a house set­tles.

Because of my father’s dis­ap­point­ment that I wasn’t the boy he want­ed me to be, I’ve learned the oppo­site of his exam­ple: to accept that what I want has noth­ing to do with what is. I’ve learned that the impo­si­tion of will is less pow­er­ful than run­ning water. Instead of beat­ing on a wall and get­ting nowhere, flow around it and move beyond. The dif­fer­ence between being stub­born & being implaca­ble.

I’ve been blessed to have sur­ro­gate father fig­ures through­out the years, not the least of which have been my uncles. They have always been there with the right advice — right when I need it. I haven’t gone through this alone, and though I’ve done my best in this post to stick to the core and key (my father, for­give­ness, myself) of this many-ten­ta­cled inter­per­son­al con­flict, there is much more that could be said. For my part, I think I’ve shared what has been most impor­tant to me. It is nice to final­ly lay the bur­den down.

The whole par­a­digm I’ve been talk­ing about and work­ing through is a sad and com­plex sit­u­a­tion. This sto­ry could have been about repen­tence, for­give­ness and heal­ing; so what I mourn most is what the last 17 years could have been if things had been dif­fer­ent. One thing I do know, my future will be dif­fer­ent; I’ve got my rea­sons and I’ve got the moti­va­tion.