My Dad Died

Saturday, 19 February 2011

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. BEMAN 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.