I’ve started a list of things I know about my father: creative, construction worker, DJ, acted in local theater before I was born. My father had blue eyes which in some pictures appear to be the same shade as mine and in other pictures appear to be much lighter.
He was tall, somewhere between 6’ – 9’ depending on the angle of the picture and the things around him, but I know for sure that he was always much taller than I was and skinny, very skinny, like a tall sunflower, his long blonde hair extended like petals from his head. Sometimes his hair was short and brown but he was always tall and skinny. Short hair just made him look less like a sunflower and more like a proper human dad.
Except he wasn’t a proper human dad. A proper human dad did not need his wife and young children to pick him up from the bar by the Naperville train station late at night on a school night. A proper human dad had a driver’s license and regular employment. A proper human dad didn’t speak in loud slurred words and nonsensical phrases nor did he smell like cheap beer and stale cigarettes nor walk around with bruised knuckles.
A proper human dad didn’t go to rehab but forget to-do the whole getting sober part.
My father was not a proper human dad. He was broken and sick, and he chose cheap booze over his wife and kids. I was better off without him – That was my truth until my children, his grandchildren were born. It was the black-and-white version of my story so I could grow and go through life each day, ignoring the forever hole created by his absence. It was the sum of years of early therapy, mourning a man who was not dead.
Then, my middle son was born with my father’s cowlicks, my father’s nose, and my father’s mischievous twinkle in his eyes.
My feelings, my truth about my father, stopped being black and white, neatly boxed up inside of me, a tidy square box trying to fill the large circle hole of his absence.
Becoming a parent complicated everything; my anger towards my father transformed into a deep gray sadness for all that he missed in my life and all that he would miss with my children. I went back to therapy to mourn and to forgive my father, a man who was not dead.
Four years ago, I received an unexpected call that my father was found disoriented, crawling around on the ground, severely malnourished and not likely to survive. He was diagnosed with some crazy long medical condition, which I had to write down several times to spell correctly yet cannot remember today. The official medical name was not important when I learned that alcohol had destroyed my father’s brain and there was no cure. His brain was forever stuck in past memories from decades ago, unable to create and retain new memories in the present.
In that moment and every moment since that call, the only thing that mattered to me was that it was irreversible and that he was forever lost to me. We would not get our Hallmark channel movie reunion that Christmas nor any Christmas thereafter.
Yesterday morning, my father died on his birthday.
I wasn’t expecting this deep sadness, this hopeless finality. I have literally spent years grieving. I have cycled through the damn stages of grief so many times over the years that I am honestly shocked that I have anything left to feel for him, for us; yet, my tears will not cease. The constriction in my throat burning a path to my heart will not ease.
Yesterday, my aunt, his sister, asked me what I would want of his. Her kind, gracious question has haunted me ever since because I want from him what I’ve always wanted from him: a father. I want him to get well, to get sober, to show up and to be my dad. I’m 40 years old, and I still want what I’ve always wanted: my dad. But he’s forever gone now.
This morning, I woke with swollen eyes on a tear-stained pillow case and started making the list of things I know about my father, a stranger, and I’m ready to answer my aunt: I want to know him.
I want papers with his hand-writing, his drawings, his favorite music, his favorite books. I want to know what unusual things or pictures he carried in his wallet or pockets or in the glove compartment of his car. I want to know his favorite food, his favorite movies and TV shows, what things made him laugh. I really want some kind of recording of his laughter, of his voice. I want to fill a notebook of things I know about my dad, to piece together a picture of the man I never knew.
I want to create an enormous Venn diagram of us: intersecting circles filled with his traits, likes, and dislikes along with mine until I can actually see the large overlapping section we share on paper though never shared in life.
My father, who was never a perfect human dad, was my dad, and he’s forever gone. Now, I shall mourn a man who is dead, a man who left a forever hole in my heart, where a father’s love should be. He is in peace. It’s time for me to find peace as well.