Thursday, June 19, 2014

Father's Day -- An Epilogue

Dad died three weeks ago.   My stepmom likes to tell people that my dad never knowingly lied, and he never said anything bad about anyone. I don't have the heart to correct her. Whatever he may have been, they loved each other deeply, and their 30-year relationship was a sight to behold. "He's a good man," my stepmom has always said, and to her, he certainly was. Who am I to argue?

I feel quite sure that my dad wanted to be a great father, and he did the best he knew how. But he wasn’t very good at it. He was emotionally unavailable to his kids and their mother. He was narcissistic and judgmental; he could be cold and unforgiving and miserly. His memory was relentlessly selective. Dad was, at times, a destructive force in our lives.

Every once in a while, though, he would surprise us with an uncharacteristic act of love and support, and I would hang on tight because I was so hungry for it. With Dad, you had to pretend.

For a long time, I idealized my dad, refusing to see what others saw. Eventually, I succumbed to outside pressure – I still regret that – and broke off all contact with him. For much too long, my only contact with my dad consisted of the three emails I sent each year: on Christmas, Father's Day, and his birthday. I became as lousy a daughter as he was a dad. Worse, in fact, especially because I knew better.

By the time the cancer came, I was too mired in my own dysfunction to be any help. My only act of support was to ask Dad to keep me posted on developments.  He didn’t, of course. I used that as an excuse to withdraw further. We pretended we wanted to be close while we played off each other’s more authentic mutual disinterest. 

It was the fourth cancer diagnosis – lung cancer – that finally got my attention.

And so I did finally come around, and I did my best to make up for lost time with visits and phone calls. I made it my job to listen, and I got to know him. I learned about a man who had worked hard all his life, who served in the Navy on an aircraft carrier. While on that ship, he asked to be in charge of movie night so he could order Singing in the Rain whenever he wanted. He went to college on the GI Bill, became an electrical engineer, and was a pioneer in the development of early computers for General Electric in the 1960s.

Now Dad was just a sick old man, fighting like hell to postpone a difficult death.  I wondered, looking at him, if he ever could have caused the harm I had attributed to him. But then I saw him vivisect my niece and one of his tenants, and I realized he still had the capacity to be enormously destructive. He gave me a taste of it as well, but I had expected it, so I was prepared.  

Then, two months ago, a loving act of breathtaking generosity. His gift allowed me to pay off all but one of my debts, repair my car, and replace the broken-down HVAC system in my home. The gift was truly life-changing, and I made sure he knew exactly where the money went and how grateful I was for the fresh start.

I wish I could tell you that everything was peaches and cream after that. Three days before Dad died, he called me into his bedroom for a private conversation. We both knew that death was closing in, but it wasn’t that kind of talk. Instead, he started shouting, which must have been very difficult in his physical condition. I’m completely irresponsible with money, he lectured, and I’ve been out of law school for how long? Even now I had to be bailed out. His voice rose as he declared that I will never get my act together, and thanks to me, my daughter is destined for financial ruin, too.

I’m glad to say I didn’t engage. I just became kind of dead inside. I thanked him for his honesty and told him I loved him. He said he loved me, too, and I went home to Georgia. That night he took a bad fall, and went to the hospital for the last time.  That was our final conversation.

My sponsor suggested that instead of focusing on my Dad’s last words to me, I focus instead on his last, loving, generous gift. I’m working on that. I’m working on remembering the dad who loved old movies just like I do. The dad who took us camping every summer, and taught us to sing “Blood on the Saddle,” and took the family out for sunrise cook-outs in the desert. The dad who taught me two perfectly awful jokes that still make me laugh. The dad who was the very best dad he knew how to be. 

A few months back, my therapist said it was important, if someone close to you is dying, to tell them four things: I love you. Thank you. I’m sorry. I forgive you.

So I told Dad I loved him, and I said it often. I thanked him for teaching me self-reliance, for standing up for what he believed in, and for showing me the importance of education. I told him how sorry I was for staying away from him for so long, for denying him access to my daughter, and for the horrible time I gave him as a teenager.

And as for forgiveness? Well, I told my Dad that he hadn’t done anything that needed forgiving. It seemed best to confirm what he already knew.

He was a good man, my dad.

1 comment:

  1. This is gorgeous and haunting and painfully honest. I hope many, many people read it. You can help heal others, and hopefully, in the process, yourself.