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.
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.
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.