Many of us have never experienced the perfect “nuclear family” situation with two strong parental figures who are in it from the beginning and stick around til the end. I dare say MOST people born after the 50s have not had that experience. Divorce and the prevalence of blended families has become a norm, and so many family situations are painful and confusing for children. It’s true that we can’t choose our families any more than we could prevent the decisions our parents had to make when we were children, and sometimes kids get the real short end of the proverbial stick. The experiences we have through these complicated family dynamics and the people who influence our young lives make us who we are as adults. I am lucky to have a family that I like to think I would’ve chosen, with the exception of one. My biological father.
Because it is hard to accept that a parent is fundamentally flawed and toxic to one’s existence, and because having these kinds of feelings can cause rough emotions like guilt and regret to take hold, I wanted to share my story with others who may have had or are having a similar experience to let them know that it’s okay to feel that way. It’s okay to say goodbye, and t’s okay to protect yourself and your feelings no matter what. It isn’t your fault that your parent disappoints or hurts you, it is not a reflection of your importance on this planet. Parents are held to high expectations and seen as god-like beings when we are young, until we can finally accept that they are human beings with difficulties and flaws of their own, flaws we do not have to carry on in our own lives. It takes so much work and self-love to let go of the idea that things will ever get better, because oftentimes, they just won’t. And life can go on and be beautiful anyway, it really can. Even if my story doesn’t help someone else feel understood or validated, at the very least it will allow me to close a long and painful chapter of my life.
My father passed away last month at age 70. I hadn’t seen him in nearly 15 years, and hadn’t been talking to him at all for 12. I made a choice to shut him out of my life completely in 2007 with no regrets. It had been a long time coming, and when he told me yet another of hundreds of lies one day in 2007, I shut down and shut him out. The moment it happened was empowering, frustrating, and shockingly easy. I was resolute, and never looked back. I had taken too much shit to have any second doubts at that point. I didn’t even tell him at the time. I acted like I believed him, and calmly ended our phone call with no reaction at all. But I knew the second I replaced the receiver that I. Was. Done.
When I learned of his death, I was surprised by the level of my initial grief. I had spent many years and countless thoughts confirming with myself that I would not feel guilty when he died because I had turned my back on him. Thankfully, I guess, guilt was not the emotion I was having when I got the news. It was just a profound sadness. Sadness that this man who really did have some great qualities and a scorching intellect could die in the state that he did, and without ever truly getting it right. Nothing about his life was ever easy, and he never took responsibility for that, which I’m sure is why things never improved for him. if you don’t truly own it, you can’t fix it. He preferred to play the victim, and alienate himself from others with bad behavior, lies, and self-obsessed tall stories. I was profoundly sad that the man half responsible for my life was gone, and that I would never hear that he had changed, really changed. The 4-year-old who worshipped her daddy cried tears of deep and powerful grief rattling though a 47-year-old body. Grief for potential that was lost forever.
He was a man capable of giving and expressing great love. He was musically talented and fiercely intelligent, and could write better than anyone I know. He went to college, served his country in Vietnam, and fell in love with my amazing mother, who he still loved til the day he died. When his heart was in it, he worked incredibly hard, and physically was like a cockroach, in that absolutely nothing could kill him, even when doctors were sure he was a goner. He had a great belly laugh, cried when he was sad with no shame, and was an amazing cook. He had a lot to offer the world.
Unfortunately, he was a terrible father. Not initially, when he was physically around. But after the divorce when I was around 3 or 4, he moved back to Texas, and the long and painful legacy between us began. I was lucky to have a strong and committed man come into my life as a father figure when I was 4, and he became and still is my dad. But my father held on, and held on in a way that only hurt me and my parents. He would promise to come visit, and never show. He would say he had mailed me a surprise, and it would never arrive. He would blame the post office every time. I had to hear my grandfather say negative things about him all the time, but he would never do anything to actually prove him wrong. For years, I kept believing him. Because he was my daddy and he loved me. And for years, he kept disappointing me. I went years and years without seeing him at all, and just when I would be ready to give up on him, he would resurface, raise my hopes again, and promptly destroy me all over again.
He never, ever came through with any promise he made, plain and simple. To this day, I have a hard time believing that others will come through when I have expectations of them. This may sound like a sob story, like it’s not really that bad, and I realize that. I was never physically abused, nor did I have to tolerate the countless horrifying things a child can endure with a parent. But it has negatively impacted every relationship I’ve ever had, because it is so hard for me to trust that someone really loves me and will really come through for me. Gratefully, this has improved with age, but wow. Talk about damaged goods.
At 17, I had some circumstances in my life that caused me to move to Connecticut and live with the father I hadn’t lived with or seen more than three times since I was 4. He was on wife number 3 or 4 at the time, and in a pretty stable and financially secure situation, so it was hopefully going to be a good time for us to mend fences and get to know each other again, and hopefully fix the hurt. But I had serious anger towards him, and even in therapy, he was incapable of understanding my position, preferring instead to blame me, blame my parents, blame everyone and anything else but himself. It was another time of complete turmoil for me. I wanted to believe that he cared about me. He was paying for school, paying for therapy and participating, and outwardly seemed committed to helping me, but would lie to the therapist about his absentee parenting, claiming much more involvement than he ever came close to, and blaming my stepfather for keeping us apart, which was a blatant lie. My anger and depression built and built, and I went down a very dangerous spiral that I thankfully lived through. And even though my intellect understood that this person was not good for me, my heart could not accept that my father was not worth my effort. I blamed myself for what I was feeling, and was convinced that I was just royally fucked up in the head and a really bad person. Things were not good for me.
Bopped around for several years after that, from Connecticut to New York to California, and then went to live with him again in Austin, TX in the early 90s when he was getting divorced again and having health issues. That was probably the best time between us as adults, mainly because it was just us and there was no woman 7 years older than me trying to play mom, and because he was traveling so much for work, which kept us apart a lot. Because the anger was still high, very very high. I was doing my best to be sympathetic and try to enjoy a relationship with him, but I still had this nagging feeling that he was never going to be honest with himself, and therefore could never be honest with me. He lied so much, and about everything, even the stupidest of things. You could catch him red-handed in a lie and he would tell ten more to try and cover his ass. I just got to a point where I realized that I fundamentally did not like this man, my father. But I STILL didn’t want to hurt him.
I moved back to California for a while, then to Tulsa for a decade, then Memphis, and we kept in touch and saw each other fairly regularly through those years, no more than once a year. But I admit I did whatever I could to avoid seeing him, because a molten crater of anger lava was always in my gut when we were together, and he just kept up the stupid lying. It wasn’t until he told me that whopper in 2007 that I finally snapped. The adult finally beat the 4-year-old into submission, and not for nothing, but my emotional stability suddenly improved ten-fold, and continued to improve as every year without him went by.
He didn’t just accept my decision, oh no. He kept writing and trying to call, and would not honor my wishes. Some of his emails were harsh and hurtful, so I finally blocked him in every way I could. But he kept on. He would just start a new email address, or show up to a show I was calling, even when I refused to see him. I never read an email again, and when it still didn’t stop, I finally wrote my own harsh email. It stopped the contact attempts for a while, but they started up again when he tried to use his poor health to manipulate me into restoring contact.
Contact was never restored, and now it never will be. And I am at peace with that. The week of his death was hard for many reasons, but none that made me be hard on myself. I can finally have peace now that he is at peace, and I do hope that for him. Despite his issues, I know he loved me. He just didn’t know how.
It is age, experience, and perspective that have carried me though to this place of acceptance and gratitude. I value every relationship I have even more as each year goes by, and realize how truly fortunate I am every moment. My family is amazing, and I couldn’t love them more. And the older I get, the more I believe in others. It’s a gift that this ability was not completely unattainable for me, and I am so grateful. Life is worth every ounce of the tough parts. They make the good parts truly mean something that I’ll never take for granted.
And with that, this 48 year chapter is closed.