In 2010, I learned about my biological father’s death after another family member read his name in the funeral section of an online church bulletin.
At the time, I was a 42-year-old mother of three, and I hadn’t spoken to my father in 19 years.
This had been my choice.
My father was an alcoholic.
I distinctly remember that call from the family member:
“I’m not 100% sure if it’s actually him. The city…the name…it’s probably him…”
But we both knew.
So I called the church and explained what I’d heard.
The parish secretary got the priest on the phone immediately.
“Is it true?” I asked the priest.
I wasn’t crying.
And I cry at everything.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Yes. I’m afraid it’s true.”
There isn’t a word to describe what I felt upon hearing the next sentence: “I was with your father when he died.”
At that moment — all at once — I felt confused and overwhelmed. And I felt a gut-wrenching, guilt-ridden, shocking sense of peace.
“I hadn’t spoken to him in… almost twenty years,” I said.
“I see,” the priest replied.
Felt like I was right back in the damn confessional booth.
“My father was an alcoholic,” I continued.
Just silence. No judgement. No questions.
I went on.
“He was physically and verbally abusive. I ended our relationship just before I got married.”
“I’m sorry,” the priest said.
Then, I was the one who went quiet.
Did this priest think I was a horrible daughter for not being there for my father?
Did he know anything about our circumstances?
Did he want to know?
Did it even matter?
And why couldn’t I cry?
I wanted to explain everything to this man, this stranger on the other end of the line who’d been there while my parent drew his last breath.
I suddenly wanted to justify my not being there.
I felt an urge to describe every horror I’d known with my dad.
Every unkind word.
Every visit from the police.
Every slurred word.
Every car accident.
Every broken glass/vase/window/record/promise.
Every marriage of his that ended in divorce. All three of them.
Every blow to my arm. My face. My ego. My trust.
I wanted this priest to hear exactly what I told my father on the day I finally decided to close the door.
How I’d been 23 years old.
How I’d thanked my dad for trying his best.
How I’d thanked him for having helped to bring me into the world.
How I could no longer bear the pain of sharing that world with him.
I wanted to tell the priest, “If you only knew how many reasons I had for closing that door…”
Or that I’d made a conscious choice never to introduce my dad to my future husband.
Or to my first child.
Or to my second.
Or to my third.
I wanted to say, “I gave myself permission to live my life on my terms.”
But what did I expect the priest to say?
“You go girl!”??
I wanted to say, “This was my means of emotional survival. Can you see that? Does that make me a horrible person? Because right now, I’m wondering if you think I’m horrible. Do you think I’m horrible?”
I wanted to explain how long it had taken me to reach my decision.
How many AlAnon meetings and therapy sessions and tears I’d been through, and not just before that day, but long after.
I wanted this priest to tell me he understood… and that it was okay for me to feel this way.
But I didn’t.
Because I knew it wasn’t his job.
I didn’t tell him how I’d told my dad, during our last phone call, that I loved him.
Or that he told me he loved me, too, and said he understood my decision.
I didn’t tell the priest that my dad and I never contacted each other after that call.
I didn’t tell him that, when the Internet came to be, I suddenly found myself able to see what my dad was up to… through online newsletters and EBAY listings (and all the complaints people posted about him)…and that I sometimes felt guilty and confused when checking on his whereabouts.
I just remained quiet on the phone…and let the news begin to sink in.
But then, the priest slowly opened up about my father’s last few years.
How he’d volunteered at the St. Vincent DePaul Center.
How he’d done a bit of handywork and tinkering around the church.
And to my amazement, the priest also opened up about his own feelings.
“Your father could be… very angry at times,” he said. “I was sometimes surprised, and even hurt, by the way he’d lash out or disappear. It’s very helpful for me to hear your voice.”
And that’s really all I needed to hear.
Months later, I received my father’s official death certificate.
Under the section marked, Children, the answer was NONE.
Whether this was by my dad’s own doing — or by someone who didn’t even know him — the fact is, I closed that door, and it remained that way until he died.
I’ve asked myself throughout these years, “Should I have done something more? Could I have done something better? Was there a way we could have bridged the divide?”
But as cold as this might sound, at that time in my life, I locked my broken heart.
There is certainly guilt and tremendous sadness over the fact we were estranged for nearly two decades.
I’d have given anything for things to have been different.
And I will always wonder what went through his mind at the end.
Was he at peace?
Did he know he was loved?
Did he ever miss me?
Did my actions destroy his heart?
Was he lonely?
Was he scared?
Thing is, when I learned of his passing, I didn’t grieve.
Because I’d been doing it slowly, over 19 years of estrangement.
It wasn’t a grief I’d ever imagined… or even acknowledged.
There was no sobbing.
It’s only now, seven years after I learned of his passing, that I’m finally letting myself cry…and wonder…and feel the pain.
I couldn’t let myself do this before, because my protective shield was fastened far too tight. But I knew the day would someday come, when I’d finally have to loosen that armor. Otherwise, it’s just too hard to breathe.
And I knew I’d have to ask myself all these answer-less questions.
And ask myself “what if?”
What if Dad wasn’t an alcoholic?
What if I’d spent more time trying to help him?
What if he’d been sober? Earned back my trust? Reached out to me? Asked for my support? Apologized?
But it just so happened, on this rainy Wednesday night, that someone challenged me to write about a decision that changed the course of my life for better or worse.
The fact is, twenty six years ago, I closed a door.
But not my heart.
Rest In Peace, Dad.
Thank you for trying.
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