I don’t talk about my father much. Since his passing, I find it disrespectful to talk ill of him. But I led a workshop recently where I met a wonderful man facing a similar situation I faced, and it made me realize that in sharing my own story I may be able to help someone…
As a child, I was obsessed with my father. It is true what they say for fathers and daughters. Your father is the first man you love and your most influential love. When I was little we would take walks around Harlem at night, where he would smoke weed and sing to me. My guess is he was hiding it from my mother, but I loved those walks. He was brilliant and was usually trying to teach me some fact about something I would never remember but I liked hearing him talk. In the house, he basically ignored me unless I sat and watched tv with him, and so I sat and I learned everything there was to learn about basketball and football and those God awful karate movies. On Sundays, my mother would go to her church and he would go to his church. To St. Nicholas Park to play chess with the fellas. And on the rare occasions my mother allowed me to skip Jesus for the day, I tagged along after my father to find his own Jesus.
My father was charming and handsome. He was spiritual and intelligent and people were drawn to him. He was a superhero to me.
On Thanksgiving Day, when I was 11 years old, a woman called and introduced herself to me as my father’s girlfriend. My entire world came crashing down that night. My father never came home and I didn’t see or hear from him again until I was a Sophomore in high school. By this point I had years of anger and hurt built up. I had become a teenager whose greatest love had left without a single word. My mother was angry and bitter. I was acting out, turning to men to fix problems that my daddy should have been fixing.
Throughout high school, when my mother was fed up with my antics, she would call my father to come get me. I was a confused child, blaming her for driving him away and always asking for him. I would listen on the other line while he made up some excuse for why he wouldn’t see me. The few times I did see him, he would let my friends and I come down to his new apartment and he would hand me the keys and beer and leave.
He was absent for my high school graduation but he did drive me to college. It was the longest, most silent, 3 hours of my life. As a broke college student, I would call and ask him for money and he would promise me he would send it. I would go to the mail room every day looking for his letter and nothing would come. Then he would ignore my calls for a month and the cycle would begin again. It went this way for all of my college life. Some times I would get drunk and call him and yell and scream and beg for answers. He didn’t have any answers, but I never stopped trying. It was dysfunction at its best.
At one point, years later, my mother’s lungs collapsed during her fight with Cancer. She was rushed to the hospital. In order to help her, they needed to skip anesticia and just open her up. I sat in the hallway, listening to my mother scream and I called my father hysterical. I was alone and terrified and I felt like a lost child. He told me, she deserved what she was getting and he hung up. I remember putting the phone down and deciding that I would never talk to him again. At that moment, I gave up on any hope of my father becoming a father.
When she passed, he showed up to the funeral late and sat in the front row. I was livid. How dare he think he deserved that seat. How dare he shake people’s hands and act like he had played any role whatsoever in our struggle. When he hugged me at the grave site it took everything I had not to cause a scene straight out of a movie. Was that a tear I saw on his face?? I wanted to smack him. And yet at the same time, I wanted him to step forward and hold me and tell me I was going to be okay. That he would be the parent I needed. Days later he called and asked to see me, and I thought “this is it!”. He realizes that he’s needed. I thought that maybe he had stayed away because of his relationship with my mother and now he could be the man he should have been. When he got to my house, he asked to borrow money. I was devastated but I loved him so I gave it to him and I never heard from him again.
Three years later I ran into him on the street. I was walking to meet friends for drinks. I see my father and a woman walking toward me. I was on the phone with a girlfriend, and I stopped dead in my tracks. He looked at me, and shook his head as if not to say anything. I said out loud to my friend, “My father is literally walking right past me.” His companion walked and talked completely unaware of the family drama surrounding her.
A year later that same woman would call my cell phone to tell me my father was in a coma in a NYC hospital. As angry as I was, still I went. That woman turned out to be his girlfriend of 10 years. They had been living together. She was under the impression that he and I had a fantastic relationship. That we spoke often. She was shocked to meet a woman in her 30’s whose last real conversation with her father was when she was 11. She was even more shocked to find out that he hadn’t seen his mother or sisters in over 15 years, not last Christmas like he had said. By the time my father woke up, he had Brain Cancer and was surrounded by all of the lies he had tried to keep afloat. I was there, his mother, his sister, his brother and the woman who had loved him and believed the life he had invented.
He wasn’t going to live. My father had never been a man to go to the doctor. The Cancer had begun in his lungs years before, we were at the end now. It was about treating what they could and offering him comfort.
I had cared for my mother day in and day out, 24 hours a day. I loved her intensely. Through her sickness, our roles had changed. The mother became the child. As I bathed and changed her I began to love her much differently than I ever had. I also began to see her as a human. She was a woman who had faced a life of ups and downs just like the rest of us. She was leaving this world as she had come in, innocent. And I realized, as I held her at night, that she had done the best she could in her life with what she had been given. We all do. We are only capable of loving as well as we were loved. Some of us realize this and if needed, we work on ourselves to heal ourselves. Some people remain stuck.
It’s because of what I learned in my mother’s passing that allowed me to be with me father through his own. I didn’t want to help him. I wanted to remain the angry hurt little girl I had been. But my mother had changed me. I was no longer a child. And I could remain stuck or I could do the work that broke the cycle. My father had been raised by an angry absent father. The adult in me began to see that this dying man was someone’s son. He was a little boy who had never been shown how to father. He didn’t have the tools to fix what he had broken in me. And I needed to let it go or it was going to rob me of being the woman I deserved to be.
And so I sat with him, and I played crossword puzzles. I watched the news with him and babbled about my life. I held his hand and told him I loved him and kissed his forehead. I told him I forgave him and that I was going to be okay. I didn’t do that for him. I did it for me. I knew that the future me didn’t need to deal with the guilt I would feel if I didn’t. I knew that somewhere along the way I had found my mother’s church and that God didn’t like ugly. I knew that if I wanted to raise children who knew the love of a great father, than I needed to forgive my own. I was always going to attract men like him if I didn’t let my issues with him go.
I tell you this because the truth is, some of us had parents we don’t really like. Some of us have parents and siblings we barely talk to. And yet some of us will find ourselves in the situation of facing death with this person and having to forget and forgive. I think about my father now and I’m okay. I buried my anger with him. I look at myself in the mirror, and I know that no matter what he did to me, I answered with love and forgiveness in the end. It made me a better human being and I am proud of my choice.
If you are facing the same, I urge you to find forgiveness. To let go of your anger. In the end, none of it matters. Kiss them, hold them, tell them you forgive them. It is the greatest gift you can give yourself.