It took my Dad a while to figure out how to Dad. When he was present he was pretty good at the father role. The problem was the presence part. For most of my child and teen years my Dad wasn’t consistently present. Absent, physically and emotionally. I half teased that he was a gypsy, a rolling stone.
As a teenager and young adult when Dad and I were together, we were close. But once I wasn’t orbiting in his world that gravitational pull of kinship was eliminated and I was left free floating in the atmosphere of uncertainty. There were times I was clueless as to his whereabouts or life happenings. I didn’t know when he moved across the country, nevertheless switched girlfriends and moved towns. I wasn’t even invited to his wedding to one of my stepmoms. I didn’t find out about the wedding until after it happened.
In my twenties and thirties he popped in and out of my life. He had become chronically ill and went on his own spiral with managing illness and accepting that he was no longer the provider. His whole identity slipped away. His life imploded. He lost his purpose. No one needed him. He was no longer the juxtaposed character that people loved and loved to hate. He floated around, lost, bitter and uncaring for a decade. I mentally prepared myself for his impending death as his illnesses exacerbated.
My life went on as it always had, without him playing an active role. I started my own family. I gave birth to my daughter. I wasn’t going to allow people to breeze in and out of her life. She was not going to experience hurt and pain and question her worth and value based on the participation of others. History would not repeat itself.
Dad didn’t immediately relish his newly acquired grandfather role. He was too busy drowning in self pity and pain. He didn’t quite know what to do with my feisty child who refused to bend under his attempts at charisma. Dad and I were visiting together. We went on a 5 day 3 state car chase vacation with my 3 year old in tow. Shockingly, the trip wasn’t going well. Every evening, after my daughter fell asleep we would sit on whatever porch was available, share a few beers and talk. I recall with such sharpness the intensity of my Dad’s frustration with feeling so unimportant. He would question God in anger. “I don’t know why I am still here!” He’d burst to me. “What is my purpose?”. I would tell him I didn’t know and feel a deep sadness that he was in this lonely empty place because his choices wound him there. I was sad that all the good parts of his life didn’t measure up to a purpose. We, his kids and grandkids, were not a driving force for survival or hope. For once, I kept my feelings inside rather than say them out loud. I feared a potential domino effect of speaking my truths. My Dad, once so strong and capable shriveled and shrank under his physical and emotional torments and years of regret.
The act of verbal restraint with my Dad was a huge personal shift. Growing up, as soon as I became ballsy enough to express an opinion to him I let loose. Torrents. That false courage born from anger, teen angst and desperation of nothing to lose. I vomited out the years of compounded hurt and pain and sadness and abandonment. He always took it. He never argued or denied. He would listen, silently. Lips tightly pressed together, eyes rounded and searching in concern. Then, often after my tirade was spent he would acknowledge my hurt and apologize for his actions. I think that is the reason I never cut him out of my life. He was one of the few, if the only adult who admitted being wrong. He admitted that his actions and behaviors were hurtful to me. Even if it was unintentional. No adults did that in my life.
But those years where he chased his own death I said little. I knew that he was incapable of seeing what was in front of him. I knew he felt so low that accepting unconditional love from his family was impossible. I gravely understood that no one could convince him to buy back into his own life. And I didn’t have the time or desire to invest in what I perceived to be a sinking ship. I had my own family now, I told myself. I hid, self protecting, behind that excuse.
Five years ago Dad called me. He told me that his doctors had given him six months to live. My body immediately tensed into high alert status. I offered for myself as much as him: Come back to Florida. We will make sure whatever time is left is as good as it can be. We will care for you. You won’t be alone. And, he did. We plopped him down into our lives. Instant family and friends. He and my mother even worked out living arrangements. With my brother tossed out for excessive partying, my Dad became mom’s roommate. He began to slowly win over and get to know my daughter. His spirits were lifted. He accepted his fate. He began to reinvest in life thinking he had little time left. Months passed. The clock ticked down. The six month deadline came and went. Dad was still here. His doctors claimed his health was improving. I was so happy he was here. Though, I felt a mother’s guilt about inviting a dying man into my daughter’s life. As their bond strengthened my gut sank. Potential grief and hurt loomed on the horizon. I wanted to protect her. Prevent her from experiencing those heavy feelings. They are so big for someone so little. I weighed my motives. Regardless of who my father had or hadn’t been to me, for me I didn’t want him to suffer and die alone. That’s not how I love.
Dad called me the afternoon we got the news about my brother. “You better get over here. The Jupiter Police called Mom. They have news about Travis and they won’t tell her over the phone. They are on their way to the house now.” My body tightened. I struggled to control my emotions. I knew. I knew he was dead. Cops don’t go to peoples’ homes for any other reason. Mr. Reinvention dropped me at my mom’s. He and my daughter went home. She was safe, protected for a few more hours before I would drop this hurt bomb into her world. Her Uncle TT, gone. The police came. They delivered the information that tilted my world. My Dad was there. Planted there. For me. For my mom. As the evening progressed and I existed in a deep fog, doing the things that people do when a loved one dies, trying to help my broken mother. My Dad remained. Steady. Available. The night never ending. The pain boiling and rolling. The story retelling over and over to the many family and friends of my brother. I morphed into robotic survival mode. I headed onto the porch to light up a smoke. That’s what I do when things fall apart. Dad is there. He pulls me into a hug. He says to me “I’m not going anywhere.” I believe him.
The days, weeks and months move on and my family limps onward like battered soldiers. Shell shocked and broken. Dad didn’t waiver. He didn’t run. He didn’t turn away from the pain. He found his purpose and pursued atonement through building relationships and providing for the people who needed him in a new way. He provided love and proximity. Without judgment. Without condition.
Then through some miraculous chain of events and modern medicine he received a newly available treatment for what was killing him. Free of charge thanks to the Veteran’s Administration. Extraordinarily, my Dad responded to the treatment. We celebrated in gratitude! We rejoiced in beating death. Ride on pale horse! A new lease on life.
With death off the table I feared he may take off again. But quite the contrary. He now delighted in his new role as “Best Gramps”. He exalted in being needed in a family. He felt important and valued.
A year and a half ago when my mom died, my dad stood even stronger. Firmer for me. He and my husband and friends took turns carrying me through the deep muck of grief and pain. He has not let me down. He is an active role in our family. He is needed in our lives. His purposed has swelled. He has not balked at the challenge but attacked it, gratified.
Dad’s no longer a gypsy. He’s planted roots here, with us. We are woven into each other’s lives almost daily. He has blossomed and expanded as a person with a desire to live, intentionally. It has been a beautiful process to witness and feel in a period of the worst hurts of my life. My Dad is strong again in ways he never was before. I am proud to call him Dad. I feel immensely grateful he is here. Being my Dad, being my friend.