Grief and a Gratitude List
Updated: Aug 10, 2020
I am grateful I made a point to get some affordable bodywork yesterday. Turns out the massage therapist I really like here in Nashville is now at a chiropractic office. So not only did I get a much needed massage, but a doctor put my hips back on straight. A car accident 20 years ago knocked me sideways, and years of kickboxing sealed the deal.
I really just wanted to move some energy around with intention. The heaviness of the world and my current circumstances finally caught up with me this week. I was exhausted and feeling unusually depressed. So with some reiki, a crack or two and the release of toxins came a huge release of grief surrounding the death of my dad. I cried so hard last night that it’s nearly noon and my eyes are still swollen.
With the tears came some clarity. I am here to admit that my dad was not a good father.
Long before I got sober I accepted him for who he was, knowing he only did what he was capable of. Somehow I came to terms with his faults and irresponsibility - past and real time - and loved him regardless. I forgave him, making a conscious effort to make the best of what I had been given. He loved us so much, he just didn’t know how to parent. And despite what my sister may think, I don’t have any excuses for his behavior; I just learned how to get what I needed from him, emotionally and otherwise. In the end I had empathy and compassion for the man and his circumstances, even if he created them himself.
He was never going to change, so I had to.
We have every right to hate him with the way he treated us. He regularly barked orders and gave no consolation. His impatience and anger ruined so many holidays that it became customary to be discreetly petulant at every Christmas dinner. I don’t know about my sister, but sometimes I felt he resented our very existence.
My father was not around for my sister's formative years. Maybe they never had a chance to bond the way he and I had. Like most siblings, she and I didn’t have the exact same relationship with our father. Although it’s not like he helped me with my homework. He never took either one of us on vacation. He didn’t make it to any of my meets or performances. Daddy came to one of my plays once and you would have thought a gift-bearing king had shown up.
After many promises to take my sister and I to Mexico, the only sunset I ever watched with him was from a hospital room.
We did talk on the phone twice a day, every day. He would call my sister 20 times if she failed to answer. “Did you talk to your sister?” It's so audible to me it's as if he's sitting right here.
I can also still hear him ask me if I checked the oil in my car. He asked me often. He asked my sister often. He asked this of both of us so frequently it became his catch phrase. He also instilled in us to “keep your eyes and ears open” and “never wear shoes you can’t run in.” Whenever I went through a break up, he called me every morning to check in on me. And sometimes I was in need of his uncomplicated wisdom that anyone can have a bad day.
He was affectionate. There was never a shortage of kisses or hugs. "Come by Papa," he would say. We used to spoon on the couch while watching tv after the usual Sunday pasta dinner at Grandma’s house. My father could fall asleep to the loud sounds of an Indy car race or Top Gun. I'd pretend I was napping but I would be wide awake, trying the entire time to pace my breathing with his. I wanted so badly to feel connected to him. After Matthew was born, you could find all four of us huddled on the couch. There’s a photo out there titled ‘4 People, 1 Couch, 1 Ear of Corn.’
During the last long conversation I ever had with him, my father talked about his life’s work while I silently wept in his frail arms. My father took pride in his work and he worked hard.
He was generous with what he had, but he seemed to get a rise out of saving us. Maybe that was his role. Maybe it was his way of controlling us. However we got there, we never went without.
My father would do things like buy me new tires for the car on my birthday. He always gave me cash in the most beautiful cards. I asked him once if he actually read the sentiments of the cards he chose and he said "of course I do," offended that the thought even crossed my mind. The day after my birthday this year, I went back and read all the cards I ever received from him. It’s possible he did admire and adore me after all.
I perpetually felt taken care of despite the conditions he put on us. When I was struggling, my parents always kept a roof over my head. In fact, my dad always kept a bedroom for me after I moved away. When I was at UCLA, he surprised me by paying for a class. I remember my mother doing the same. It was a turning point in my life, and that meant more than they could ever imagine. I am and always was appreciative for the ways he did show he cared.
There were just too many times I didn’t think he really gave a shit at all.
I was in awe of my father despite him being so inconsistent. He was cool and elusive — and I respected and understood it. He was an introvert like me. I am the spitting image of him, down to the furrows between my eyebrows. My mom tells me I even have his butt, which I’ve seen in a hospital gown many times since learning this. The last time he had an extended stay in the cardiac unit, I got a full view of his undercarriage as he struggled to navigate moving around in his hospital bed. I had to make it known, if only to let the air out of what I had just bore witness to. I sat for a moment, and then dryly told him I saw things I never thought I’d see. We both laughed until we cried. I miss his laughter most of all.
We shared the same dark sense of humor. We both love James Bond and muscle cars. And Golden Oreos. Only his eclectic taste in music could rival mine. I got my love of jeans and cowboy boots from him. We both like running the heat or air conditioning while simultaneously getting fresh air. We could both live off coffee and pizza. Like me, he also favored popsicles and pancakes. I told him all the time he made the best coffee. He used to tell me, “You make good pancakes, kid."
He too suffers from anxiety. Maybe this is why we liked the same drugs. I only know his habits from my own observations and investigative work. When I lived with him I used to steal a joint from the ashtray now and then. I mean what was he going to say, “Where’s my weed?”
Years later I stopped by unannounced and accidentally saw a mid-day indiscretion laid out on the kitchen table. Even though I had been around the block myself a time or two, it devastated me. In those moments, I simply wanted a normal dad.
He also drank like I did. He didn’t seem to enjoy being drunk and never drank at home. He went in for the taste, and came out self-medicated. He’d drink to fit in and the next thing you know he’s stubbornly had way too many.
I not only mirrored his bad habits, but I inherited his temper too.
I don’t have it in me anymore to hate my father. It’s not who I am. And no one can tell me I have to. I don’t have to be angry in order to grieve either. I get it — his evolution never came to fruition and my hope of that needed to die with him. I evolved way past him at some point, and he probably knows this now having reached the other side. And that’s one of the reasons I hold acceptance and forgiveness in my heart — all the work I’ve done allows space for it all.
Don’t think I’m not pissed off he didn’t care enough about us to take care of himself. And when it appeared he was making a real effort at one point, it was merely because he was afraid to die. A bitter pill to swallow but there’s something oddly comforting about the truth.
I also know that he didn’t care enough to not be so flip about his affairs. I am beyond irritated that I have to wade through this bullshit with my sister, and that she may end up with more than her fair share because he just couldn’t be bothered. And I know, she knows and God knows he didn’t intend for her to have anything more or less than I. Any justifiable entitlement and anger shouldn’t be directed at me. Although I am like him in many ways, I am not him.
I am more sad and disappointed than anything. Even though he was a shitty parent, I still need him. How dare he leave me here to deal with his fuck ups by myself.
However, I am grateful I don’t have to hate anybody. Even him.
I am grateful I am sober. Grateful I am who I am.
I am grateful I know that he is proud of the woman I became.
And I am grateful I know in every fiber of my being that he loved us. Unconditionally.
Author's Note: It's possible that someone out there needed to hear me admit this - it must be confusing to hear my heartbreak after all the years of suffering as his daughter. Either way you as a reader get to bear good witness to something that needed to be said. And I thank you. I long to be heard, and hollering at my father last night through hot tears wasn’t enough. I need to say it out loud to other humans. More importantly, I need to write about it. About him. All of him.
After thoughtful discussion, my father denounced the NRA prior to his death.
People can change.