Erik Proulx never really knew his father. But friends and relatives keep trying to fill in the blanks.
I spent most of my adult life feeling ambivalent about my father. I worked through much of my anger and sadness with early childhood therapists, and my mom was never one to say he was a bad person. Wayne Proulx, she said, was an amazing spirit who happened to have a terrible addiction.
In the space where most people have memories of a deceased parent, I have a void. No smells, no vacations, no favorite chair. It’s just, nothingness. Even though he left when I was two, trying to remember my father is like imagining what the universe must have been like before the Big Bang. I just can’t get my head around it.
Every year or two, the Proulxs have a family reunion. I had no relationship with his side of the family before my father died. And I’ve had a sparse relationship with them since. They are relatives whose names and faces I do not recognize but who claim to know me very well.
They are all very eager to mention how much my father loved me. What a kind and gentle soul he was. How his face lit up when he was playing the Beatles on the guitar. And how he had always planned to get back in touch with me.
They’re good people, they really are. It’s just, I’m a fish out of water at these events. Their lives zigged while mine zagged. For a good twenty years, our only interactions were weddings and funerals—and far too many of the latter. With a polite nod here and a great-to-see-you there, I usually have one eye on the driveway so nobody blocks in my car.
As I was devising my exit strategy from last summer’s cookout, two women pulled their car up just behind mine. I strolled up to the driver’s side of the offending vehicle to tell them I was just about to leave and could they please park elsewhere. But before I could say anything, a rattled-looking woman rolled down her window.
“I thought we were lost, but now I know we’re not. You’re Wayne’s son.”
I knew I looked a lot like my father. But to his two childhood friends in that car, I was his doppleganger. When they stood up to hug me, it was obvious that they weren’t embracing me, but rather the ghost of someone they missed dearly.
My exit was thwarted. But moments later I was thankful, because I heard stories about my father I never knew. Like, how the teenaged Wayne Proulx was regularly beaten to within an inch of his life by my grandfather. Like, how as a young boy he was dangled by his ankles out of a second-story window, screaming and begging not to be dropped. Like, what a great friend he was to both of them while they were growing up.
At last, I didn’t feel a void. There was no longer nothingness. The void was filled with empathy. With understanding. And for the first time, with love.
I have two young children now, and can picture my father through their eyes. I see how malleable and scared and dependent they are on me. To picture my father as a frightened, vulnerable, abused child has given me a whole new perspective on why he wasn’t there. How he couldn’t be there.
It made me want to give a him hug the same way I do to my son when he wakes up terrified that there’s a monster under his bed. Only, my father’s monster was real. And because there was no one there to protect him, he used heroin and alcohol to run away from it.
So, Dad, know that I am not angry. Know that I got the best parts of you. Know that I am a good friend and a kind soul and that I even play a little guitar. Know that I am protecting my children the way someone should have protected you. And know that I am teaching them the things you taught me, even if you couldn’t be there to teach them.
Photo courtesy of the author