Remembering Dad

“Love is how you stay alive, even after you are gone.”Mitch Albom, internationally renowned best-selling author, journalist, screenwriter, playwright, radio and television broadcaster, and musicianToday (July 23, 2019) is Dad’s 96th birthday. Dad passed away on June 22, 2019 (see post titled, A Eulogy for Dad,” published on that same day on this blog, and Forever Changed,” published two days ago on my regular blog) just one month shy of his 96th birthday, so this is the first milestone of many that will be celebrated without his physical presence.

It still doesn’t seem quite real yet that Dad is really gone (as in “never coming back” gone). While Dad and I lived one thousand miles apart and our relationship was somewhat strained especially during the past decade, I always knew he was only a phone call away, but now not even the internet or cyberspace can reach him (not that Dad ever owned techie stuff except for a cellphone, and he never had an email address or used text messaging). Technology may be the 8th Wonder of the World,” but not even all of our techie wonders can reach Dad now.

Dad (circa 2014) & Dad and my stepmother at Manhattan Beach, CA, in 2001

Despite our differences, my feelings and love for Dad never waned. While Dad went to his grave with me never really understanding what it was that he let come between us especially in these past ten years, it never stopped me from loving him. He’s the only dad I’ve ever had, and he has left an indelible mark on my life for the better even though at times he tried to make it for the worse (I say that humorously). He may have divorced Mom many years ago when I was only 12, but he can’t divorce me. I’m his own flesh and blood, and I’m his only daughter made from his flesh and blood.

Dad and I did not get into a lot of arguments (none, actually, when I was very young), but he was the son of a hellfire and brimstone preacher and he could dish it out with the best of them once he got started. There was no getting a word in edgewise when Dad got started on one of his tirades. Fortunately, they were few and far between, and the physical distance between us after I moved to Florida when I was 40 as the recipient of a doctoral fellowship at a private university helped to keep the heat mostly turned down to lukewarm.

I never understood his anger (maybe discontent is a better word) at me, and he was often quite critical even when I was very successful at something that I had accomplished, but beneath his anger I knew that he loved me. Our relationship went fairly well during the almost 32 years he was married to my stepmother until she died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2011. She softened him towards me and I was forever grateful to her for that. Dad could blow up at me when I was just sitting in a chair watching TV when I visited them, and I never knew what I did to set him off. She was a sort of buffer between us. After her death, the distance between Dad and me grew again, but not because I wanted it to be like that. I always wanted a close relationship with Dad, but he was the one who built the wall between us, and he kept it in place right up until he died a month ago.

I am not a fighter and I hate arguing with anyone. I will walk away from an argument before I try to fight back especially when I know it is a fight I’ll never win or that a compromise is not possible. And with Dad, I never won that fight as he would just shout over anything I tried to say, so a couple of decades ago I stopped trying to make him see that I wasn’t the person he perceived me to be. I felt like I was fighting against a phantom image he had created of me, and that’s about as effective has punching at water.

I can’t tell you how many years I prayed that we could be reconciled and have a real relationship as father and daughter. I watched him have relationships with other women like my sisters-in-law, and later my stepsister, and my niece, and even Dad’s girlfriends between his marriages. I didn’t even come close in comparison to them in his eyes. It was brutal, and I never understood why he felt the way he did about me. I could only assume it had something to do with my mother who he divorced when I was 12. He never let me be who I was. I was always this phantom image he had created in his mind that he did not like, and he never got to know the real me. And because of that, I never got to experience the side of him that he showed to everybody else in life, either.

It takes two to tango, and I know I wasn’t perfect either. I have my flaws as does every human being on the planet. There’s a line near the end of the movie, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” (2010) where the main character, a Wall Street guy named Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas), who had a very strained relationship with his adult daughter in the movie, says to her, “Human beings… you gotta give ’em a break. We’re all mixed bags.” He and his daughter reconcile at the end of the movie. In real life, Dad and I did not reconcile before he died, and it was his choice, not mine. I was told that he didn’t even want to see me on his deathbed, but he said he knew that I might need the “closure.” I didn’t need the closure; I just wanted to know that he really loved me, and I wanted him to know that I really loved him. After all, we are all mixed bags.

I knew Dad loved me at some level, although we had only physically seen each other twice in the past dozen years before Dad died (both times were at two nephews’ weddings–one in January 2008 and the second in October 2015), and I was the one who made the effort to “show up.” When my stepmother was still alive and after I moved to Florida when I was 40, I called home and talked to Dad and my stepmother every Sunday for all of those years until my stepmother died, and then Dad no longer showed much interest in talking with me by phone once he started a relationship with a widow he met several months after my stepmother died in 2011. This widow was really good for Dad and she no doubt had a big hand in keeping him alive for as long as he lived as he was devastated after my stepmother died. I have no hard feelings toward her whatsoever, and she has her own significant health issues going on right now, too. I was glad she brought life back into Dad for those few years they were together before Dad died, and I was happy to see that she was able to make it to Dad’s visitation and funeral with her family.

My grief for Dad is not only because he died but when he died so did the last opportunity to try to make things right when I didn’t even know what was wrong. My grief is also for the relationship we could have had if he had only gotten rid of the phantom image he created of me that kept him from having a real relationship with me all those years, and especially in the past decade.

Dad really was a great guy and he really did have a great life. He never knew a stranger; he was an honest and very successful businessman; he was enormously proud of his WWII service as a Navy aviator and his military career, and he loved being a Mason (he was a “33rd Degree” Mason which is part of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry) and a Shriner during the years he was active. He did love his family, and he had a great sense of humor, and he was loved by many including me. That is the dad I will always remember, and I refuse to let the negative stuff get in the way. We all make our choices in this life, and he chose to keep me at a distance. I would have made a different choice if I could have but, as I stated above, it takes two to tango, and his life wasn’t a dance he was interested in sharing with me.

Dad’s death might be a little easier on me then my two brothers because of the difficult relationship Dad chose to have with me (actually, that could make it harder on me if I let it, but I won’t), and also due to the physical distance between Dad and me from the time I was 40 and moved to Florida for that doctoral fellowship. Dad was very close to my two brothers and their families, and he communicated with them either daily or weekly right up until his death.

As stated above, I only actually saw Dad twice in the past dozen years–the last time being in October 2015. I asked Dad if I could come home to visit many times but I was repeatedly told “no” after my stepmother died. I will never understand why Dad did not want me around nor will I ever know the reason behind it. I sometimes felt like an orphan long before Dad died especially in the past decade.

I do love Dad with every fabric of my being. I love him as much as I love Mom who died over 36 years ago. I was very grateful I was able to make it back to Dad’s funeral even though it required me to drive 2000 miles in my almost 15-year-old Honda. It was a very positive and uplifting time for me from start to finish as I got to see family again along with folks who came to the visitation and Dad’s funeral that I had not seen, in some cases, in over 40 years. It was truly a celebration of Dad’s life and it was a wonderful celebration amidst much crying. Dad will be missed by many including me.

To those who might be reading this post who knew and loved Dad, I do not want what I have written above to in any way affect the way you knew him and loved him. Life is full of difficult relationships for most if not all of us at some point, and just because Dad and I had a difficult relationship does not mean it has to affect anyone else’s view of Dad. I wish I was able to get to know Dad like you did, and sometimes I did get to see that side of him (I saw it a lot more when I was much younger). I want you to remember him just as you do–as a great guy who didn’t know a stranger and who celebrated life right up to the end.

And life . . .

For the rest of us . . .

Still goes on . . . .

YouTube Video: “Joy to the World” by Three Dog Night (this is the last of three songs that Dad requested to be played at his funeral):

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit–personal photo
Photo #3 credit–personal photo

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