I grew up estranged from my father most of my childhood, following the divorce of my parents. The history is not relevant to this story other than it happened. As I got into my teens, the “attitude” that I had against my father grew to the point he had been told, “I never want to see you again.” At age 22, I was diagnosed with cancer, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, he was nowhere to be found.
And it stayed that way for several years. Were it not for the gesture of my younger sibling, it would have been forever. My father was going to get married and he must have told my sibling, it was important to him that I be there. Ironic, since when I laid down the ultimatum at him, the final event of my childhood, high school graduation, he was a no-show. But my sibling was adamant that I attend the wedding. Even a few close friends of mine that I had confided in, encouraged me to attend.
Reluctantly, I did go to the wedding. He and I did not talk through most of the evening. He finally approached me.
“Thank you for coming. It means a lot to me,” he said. Means a lot to him. Fuck him. Where was he when I needed him? I was there for my sibling. “I want to talk to you. There are things I want to say to you. Tonight is not the night, but there is so much you do not know.”
That night changed everything. Spoiler alert, when my father passed away several years ago, he still had not spoken of “the divorce years” or those that followed. But a door was opened that evening, and I really do not recall having any meaningful conversations about “the past.” The conversation just move forward, as if forgetting the past ever happened. Something I swore would never happen.
Fast forward sever years later, my phone rang. It was December 23rd. There was a horrible accident. My stepmother was crossing the street in front of her house and had been hit by a car. All I was told was that it was real bad. My wife (for clarity, 1st wife) and I rushed to the hospital. Injuries were not fully explained, but the ones that were known, were serious enough. How did she ever survive the impact?
My father and my stepmother were having an argument, I believe over an auto insurance issue. Agitated, there was still some last minute Christmas shopping to be done. My father, in a huff, told my stepmother he would wait for her in the car. Waiting impatiently, he kept looking across the street to the house, to see when she would exit. Focused on her, he watched her lock the door, come down the stairs of the outside porch, to the sidewalk, and into the street. It was now dusk, so cars were using their headlights, except, for one. As my stepmother had now crossed half-way across the street, it was then that my father saw the car, with no lights, in his side mirror. And then the impact. I will not describe how he explained what he witnessed. Trust me, it was awful.
Time seemed to drag through the evening as answers were so slow coming out to us with any encouraging news. My father, a smoker, had not had a cigarette in hours, finally needed one, and asked me if I would go out to the parking lot with him, keep him company if you will.
It was 2:30am, Christmas Eve.
“I’m sorry,” he scratched out with a gruffled voice. I looked at him confused and said, “for what?”
“I’m sorry I was not there for you when you were going through your cancer. I just… I just couldn’t do it.”
Now, I was really confused. Your wife is in the ER, fighting for her life, and you are worrying about something a long time ago. Focus man! Don’t worry about me at this point.
“My mom died of cancer,” he started. I knew of her death, just not why. “I was lied to. When she went to the hospital, they told me it was her gallbladder. But she looked horrible. And then, she was dead. Dead from cancer. I could not get the strength to possibly watch you die too.”
I was floored. Sure, I had every reason to be mad at him for my childhood and his absence. But, not being there for me when I was going through cancer, was unforgivable. Clearly, my judgement and sentence on him was too harsh. But how was I to know. He never talked to me. Until that Christmas Eve morning. And now, it was making sense.
My father was experiencing something really only portrayed in movies such as “A Christmas Carol” or “It’s A Wonderful Life.” It was a moment that changed us both forever.
There was no way of knowing if my stepmother would survive the night, if at all. The last conversation that he had with my stepmother, an argument, that may never have the chance to be resolved. He felt guilty about that, extreme guilt. And then it became obvious what was happening. That moment was so much more than that. It was then that I learned, my dad carried so much more more guilt, and so did he, unbearable guilt. He needed to unload what he could. With me, he was able to do just that.
He only had one cigarette during that conversation, but the time was now 3:15am, when we headed back inside. The chaos surrounding my stepmother’s condition, did not allow me anytime to reflect on what had just happened, or if it had even made a difference to my father. Because once back inside the hospital, the focus had to be on my stepmother.
It was a long road, and she never did fully recover. But my father made a decision that to this day, is why I consider him one of the most admirable men I will ever know. The secrets he kept from me, to protect me, many likely died with him. But others, I could see why he did what he did. For several years, my dad took care of my stepmother, eventually she outliving him, something none of us would have ever suspected.
In my years of survivorship, he was there every time a health crisis came up, and there had been a lot. He attended both of my weddings, and got to spend time with his two granddaughters that adored him.
I missed having a dad around in my childhood. We made up for that time in the last half of my life prior to his passing. Going through my own divorce, with children, I learned how to carry myself, and most importantly, to never give up on my children.
This is the last photo with my dad. I am glad we had that chance.