Today my father was buried. No one had more of an influence on my life than my father did. And most of what I had to outgrow in order to be a decent human being was accomplished (or not accomplished) despite that influence. We weren’t close.
I’ve heard people say that before and it’s a tricky, misleading statement. By saying “we weren’t close”, it intimates there wasn’t much feeling when often the exact opposite is true. There were a lot of feelings.
I know I’m not the first son to have had a hard relationship with a father…hell, I’m not even the first person in my family. But none of that matters to anyone when dealing alone with the reality of what that means. No matter how harsh, abusive or absent a parent is, they leave behind children who wonder “what did I do wrong?”, “what could I have done to change it?”
As always, the answer is “nothing”, but that answer seems so hollow and self serving to the child. In the narcissistic mind of a child, who is the center of their own universe, they must have done something wrong. So they excel in learning to take the burden for everything that goes wrong…and most carry that burden through their whole lives. I know I did.
As with most who’ve had harsh, abusive or absent parents, whether they are strong enough to handle the burden, the stress piles up. And it piles up. And it piles up…giving nothing in return but a daily reasking of the same debilitating question “what could I have done to change it?”
My dad wasn’t a bad man. He was screwed up and confused and didn’t have all the answers in life, just like all of us. And he handled a lot of things poorly… a lot of things. And when it came to his first family, he handled everything wrong. From the rough treatment of his children, to the abandonment of his family, as far as I’m concerned if anyone deserved a do-over, it was him.
Don’t get me wrong…people get divorced and I get that. I’ve been divorced myself. But spending several years making your children believe they aren’t, and never can be good enough, then walking away, starting a new life with a new family…well, it’s just not the best way to ensure your children will be healthy, happy, well adjusted people.
I’ve always consoled myself with the fact that my dad showed me how NOT to be with my children. And despite a few bumps in the road along the way, I have to say I’m so very proud of how they’ve turned out and the relationship we have. There has never been a question of support or love in my family…it was always there.
While I’m thrilled that my dad’s lessons have allowed me to do the opposite and create a supportive, loving environment for my own family, I’m still stuck today with the knowledge that my father is gone. Any childish hope I had of him rolling up in the driveway to set everything straight is gone, regardless of the fact that had been an impossibility to begin with–there would have been nothing he could have done to change the pain he had inflicted. The damage was done, the habits had been created, and the scars had been left.
What is a damaged child to do?
I learned a long time ago that nothing can ever “go back to the way it was”. The change, once set in motion, is irreversible. All you can hope to do is make your own changes along the way so that comfort can be found and the damage isn’t delivered to anyone else. I’ve always believed that those who suffer the most, are the most capable of creating change…they have to. If they don’t, whatever it is that hurt will continue to hurt until it destroys them. It does destroy many. But in many, pain turns those people into bright beacons that others emulate. Unfortunately, it’s still only a side effect of the damage done to them.
My dad wasn’t a bad man (did I say that already?). And in the new life he chose some forty years ago, he was well liked, successful and loved. I’m happy he had that. And in typical damaged child form, I’m sorry I couldn’t reconcile all the hurt from his harshness and abandonment so he could feel loved by his first family. That, was in fact, on me. I had 50 years to forgive him and didn’t get it worked out in time…my bad.
But I’ll say this for the old bastard, he knew how to leave a mark. He left a mark on every part of his life (and quite a few on me). From his high level government job to his artistic pursuits, he drew praise, awards and admiration. And it seems he finally figured out a few of his problems because his second family stayed close. I hope they get the closure they need today.
My closure will be a long, hard road with no guarantee of completion…and it started long before he died. Today is only the most recent day in the mourning that began decades ago. It’s sharp and prickly today, but it is, after all, just another day.
I imagine it’s even more prickly for my brother because the obituary failed to mention his children as surviving grandchildren. An oversight I’m sure. I’ll attempt to rectify it here with my own imperfect obituary.
Dad passed away on Thursday after a brief bout with cancer. He was good at his job and trusted with many of the Nation’s secrets, serving his country first in the military and then in a capacity that…well, his favorite phrase was, “I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you.”–he had a sense of humor.
He was a talented artist and claimed many awards over the years for his unique style and the impeccable detail of his work.
He loved fishing and being on his boat, and seems to have been loved by many in his second life.
In addition to his second family, he is survived by his first family; a wife who was never the same after he left, four children and nine (9) grandchildren…he was already being missed by them.
There is no wisdom here. There are no answers. If there were, I would have consumed them years ago and left all the pain behind. What there is is a reality…imperfect, dirty, sordid and painful. In the cracks of that, we can only hope to pry open more space for happiness and comfort. Failure to do that leaves us stuck in the cracks, and the thought of that sucks.
I loved my dad. I hope he is in peace.
I may have second thoughts about this post in a few days and pull it down, or I might leave it up as a reminder to others that they aren’t alone in having shitty parents, lingering resentment, life long struggles to reconcile and the uncomfortable question of “what to do” when that parent dies. I don’t know. If anyone figures it out, please feel free to share. In the mean time, I will do as I’ve always done and try to make the best of the day I have, even if I backslide into self pity or the occasional surge of anger.