The briefest way that I can preface this post, my father and I spent most of our time estranged, due to the divorce with my mother. I do not know details, and with my father having passed, I have no interest in hearing just one side. But the relationship I had with my father as a child, I saw him every other weekend, on a Sunday afternoon usually, for a few hours. As I approached my teens, I saw him less. And as I graduated high school, I informed him that I had a ticket for the graduation ceremony, and if there was any father/son future between us, he needed to show up that evening. He did not. And that was that.
Over the next several years, I remained true to my threat. And at the age of twenty-two, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. And still no sign of my father, or any interest or concern from him.
Following the completion of my treatments, my father and I did have some minor conversations, nothing substantial as far as I was concerned. He would end the talks saying, “I wish I would have done things differently.” I would always respond the same, “yeah, me too.” I had no interest in “coulda shoulda woulda.” When I needed him, he was not there. I did not need a father at this point in my life.
Over two decades ago, early in the evening, on December 23rd, my telephone rang. It was my now-former sister-in-law. My stepmother had been hit by a car, crossing the street in front of her house. She was in bad shape, and in the hospital. There was a lot going on by the time I got to the hospital, but my father was clearly focused, trying to understand everything that he was being told, and be able to make decisions that would affect his wife, his partner at that point of over twenty-five years.
Her injuries were extreme, with a head injury, life threatening. So many doctors. So much information to take in.
Several hours later into the night, my father felt an opportunity, and a need, to go have a cigarette. He asked me to join him. I am not a smoker, but I was figuring that perhaps my father was looking for a little clarification to the many things that were said to him. I unofficially had a lot more medical knowledge that most of my family because of my cancer journey.
He lit his cigarette. I stood there with my hands in my pocket, fighting the cold air.
My Dad: There is something I need you to know. There was a reason that I never came to see you when you were dealing with your cancer. My mother had been in the hospital for what I was told, was gall stones. Instead, she would eventually die from gall bladder cancer. I will never forget how she looked, because she had cancer. I could not bring myself to see you in that same condition.
I was speechless, and shocked. First, what the Hell brought this up? He should be focusing on his wife, not confessing to me.
Me: Dad, don’t worry about it. You have more important things to worry about right now. I am fine now. Just concentrate on her.
My Dad: You don’t understand. I would give anything if I could change the way things went.
Me: I know Dad.
My Dad: No, I wish I had been there for you during your childhood. I wish I had been there for you. I wish I could get that time back with you.
At this point, I am really confused, especially emotionally. First, at this point, we kind of agreed recently to just “start over,” and this was only stirring up old anger in me. And second, why was he worried about me? His wife was the one that need his attention.
My Dad: We had been fighting. There was some last minute Christmas shopping to do but I was dealing with the car insurance. I got mad because I just wanted to get the shopping over with, so while she was getting her coat on, I went out to the car without her. I started the car to warm it up, while I waited for her to come out. I looked to my left to see if she was coming, and at that point, all I saw was her being hit by the car, flying through the air. I could not stop it. It should never have happened. I would not have happened if I had come out with her. It should have been me.
I now saw what my father was doing, rather dealing with. My father and I did not talk much, let alone express any feelings or emotions. But my father felt guilty for what had happened earlier that evening. And in order for him to face and deal with that guilt, he had to unload all of the other guilt he carried. He had to do it while he had the chance. And here is why.
My stepmother had suffered a major head injury from the impact. We would later learn, as she would somewhat recover, she would have no recollection of the accident. And that was a good thing for her, bad for my father.
They were arguing, and perhaps said some things that were not nice. And neither would get the chance to apologize. For my stepmother, she had no recall. For my Dad, everything was his fault. He was never going to get the chance to say he was “sorry” to my stepmother, so he was unloading his guilt to those he owed that apology.
On one hand, I became slightly intrigued because he was talking to me about stuff that I was not aware of, but by the same token, he needed to be focused on my stepmother. I knew that. I had to keep him focused. He could not afford to let this be about me.
This tragedy went on for a long time, until she was finally placed in a rehab facility, eventually, to returning home. My father insisted on taking care of her, presumably for the rest of her life, because of what happened, as if some sort of penance. She is still alive today, outliving my father now, over five years. But he never did get to apologize to her.
It was this situation, that I made the rule, I would never go to bed angry, for this very reason. And just as my father had to deal with divorce, as do I, it was from conversations that I would have with him later on in his life, that I would adopt how I would handle my divorce, and custody. For one thing, I was not going to disappear or remove myself from my daughters lives. I know how that made me feel as a child, and I would not let my daughters feel that way. But the other thing I was not going to do, and continue to be this way, was the way that he carried himself. He never said one bad thing about my mother. He knew the divorce was between he and my mother, and had nothing to do with me. He was not going to involve me in that process, even later in life as an adult. And it is that example that I support my daughters in the same manner.
It was the second half of our lives that we actually got to do it all over again. And we took full advantage of it. A tragedy that evening would be a spark to recover and rebuild, and most importantly, learn. I make sure that my daughters know that I try to reach them every evening. I remind them daily that I love them. And I make the most of any and all time that I get to spend with them. Most importantly, I make sure that there is never a need or a worry, about leaving something unresolved, hopefully by not allowing it to happen in the first place.
I love my daughters more than anything, and I know my Dad felt the same about me.