This post is longer than is usually the case, but given the subject matter, I am sure that you will understand. Thank you for taking the time to read and experience it.
My father passed away almost two weeks ago. When a parent dies, it seems that most children feel a sense of sadness, longing, grief and in some cases, regret for missed opportunities and all that will never be. However, those thoughts and feelings are often tampered by the gratitude and precious memories that you shared with this man, your father.
A couple of months ago, one of my oldest and dearest friends called to tell me that her father had passed. Upon hearing the news, tears flowed and I was overwhelmed by a sense of grief, sadness and gratitude. The grief was present for obvious reasons; the sadness because a special man was gone from this world; the gratitude, because as fate would have it, I became best friends with his daughter and through her, was able to see and feel all that the word “dad” entailed, and the importance of the role of a father-figure in one’s life. Nevertheless, when I learned of my father’s passing, I felt a sadness, as I would when told of anyone’s death, but more prominently, there was a visceral void.
I suppose that you can say that our relationship was complicated. You see, he turned his back on our family when I was only five years old. When I say that he turned his back, I mean that his leaving was so complete that it was as if he disappeared from the face of the earth, certainly from my world. In fact, he did for about 11 years. At the time he left, I was the oldest of three girls and my Mom was left to raise us by herself, with no contact or support from my father. As a young child, I didn’t have the tools necessary to comprehend my father’s actions, so for the most part, I was confused, and even guilty, thinking that his actions were my fault. As I grew older those feelings transformed into resentment and anger, feelings that failed to change even after he began making the occasional appearance in our lives. He came bearing gifts, but none that I wanted or needed.
The truth is that I didn’t know this man and I knew no more about him than the passing stranger. What I did know was that he wasn’t there to give us food, shelter, clothing or love. He wasn’t there when I had measles or chicken pox, to pick me up when I fell or to soothe my tears over some perceived devastation that all children endure. Complicating the matter is the immutable fact that he is the man who gave me life, and my rational and logical mind knows that were it not for him, I would not be writing this post.
As is expected, people continue to express his or her sympathy at my loss. I’ve noticed that people use the words “father,” and “dad” interchangeably, and when the word “dad” is chosen, I feel very uncomfortable. I find it impossible to apply that word to our relationship. In fact, I feel wrong even trying to do so. My mind keeps returning to the same question: what is the difference between a “father” and a “dad?” Why have I always been unable to refer to this man as anything but my father? In fact, more often than not, I instinctively referred to him by his first name, John. Yet, this is a topic for another place and time.
In reality, I’ve been pulled between the angry, confused and sad child that my father deserted, and the older wiser me that realizes that his actions were about him, not me, and that the anger and resentment has harmed me much more than it hurt him. I don’t know how to feel about a man who is a virtual stranger to me, but is a primary cause of my presence in this world. The icing on the cake is that as one of his next of kin, I am the one who has to make post-death arrangements, as well as pay for them. My inner child is stumping and screaming that life is not fair.
Yet, as often happens with life, a sense of closure occurs in the most unexpected ways. In my case, I was standing in line at the pharmacy after having had an amazing experience with my yoga therapist, which I will write about in a later post. I was next in line and I casually noticed that someone had gotten in line behind me. It is a dapper elderly man whom I later learned was a young 82 years, and a transplanted Californian who moved to Austin five years ago. He said, in a friendly and sincere voice, “How are you today?” The question moved me because so often these days, people don’t take the time to concern themselves with others. This man was different. I turned toward him as I answered and politely asked, “And how are you?” His response took me by surprise. He said, “I am better than great. I couldn’t possibly be better!” I suppose that his answer intrigued me because I can’t recall feeling that way in some time.
As we continued our conversation, I learned that he and his wife had grown children, with lives of their own. Five years ago, they decided that with their children gone and they had no reason to tie themselves to California. They decided to set out to discover a new place to live. Serendipity brought them to Austin, Texas and he is, by all accounts an amiable and happy man. For reasons that I didn’t understand at first, I felt an undeniable bond with this stranger, this man who I’d never laid eyes upon. Before long, it was my turn in line, so I started toward the counter. All of a sudden, I experienced one of those proverbial ‘light bulb’ moments, and in my heart, I knew both why I’d met this man and why he’d affected me so much.
I turned back to him with intense curiosity. Although I hadn’t realized it before, there were definite similarities between him and my father. He was the same height and build with a similar hair cut and the same quick smile for strangers. When I was a kid, this was the type of man who I’d always imagined my father to be. I believe that there is a reason for everyone that we meet and that they arrive at the exact moment when we most need them. Even in his passing, my heart yearned for a compassionate, loving and attentive father who loved and hugged me liberally. I longed for a father just like this man, and I believe that this man represented all that I did not have in a father, and that, if for only a short while, he was God’s blessing to me.
Unconsciously, I reached out to him, grabbed his hand, and thanked him for his kindness. For reasons that I still cannot explain, I felt compelled to explain to him that my estranged father had just died and that meeting him was the balm to my soul that I’d desperately needed. He expressed sympathy and thanked me for bestowing such an honor on him. He hugged me in a fatherly way. I turned back toward the counter, picked up my scripts, waved goodbye and continued on my way.
I was aisles away from the pharmacy picking up a few items when I heard someone call out to me. It was my new “friend.” He’d searched the store for me because he wanted to properly introduce himself and learn my name. He told me that “When he thought about our meeting, he wanted to know my name,” and believed that every experience was a gift to treasure. We exchanged introductions, shook hands and turned to go on our ways.
As I walked away, I felt a weight lifting from my shoulders and an overwhelming sense of peace filled that hollow in my heart. I experienced a letting go, and a sense of forgiveness that eluded me during my father’s life, but now was possible at his death. It is true, forgiveness is more for you than the other. I do not claim to have let go of years of anger, resentment, disappointment and longing in a matter of 15 minutes. Yet, I’ve begun the process and to me, that is profound. As I attend to my father’s post-death arrangements, I intend to extend him the peace and respect that I never received from him. Doing so, brings me peace. It seems to be coming together, as it should be.