The dying of an estranged family member can be as difficult as the dying of a close loved one.
The last time I saw my father alive and well was the Sunday before Thanksgiving in 1996. We hadn’t talked since the 50th-anniversary party of his parents a decade earlier. After just moving back into the old neighborhood, we bumped into each other, as neighbors do.
We exchanged awkward pleasantries and after brief chit-chat, I invited him to have dinner with me for the holiday, thinking it would be a good opportunity to get re-acquainted. He agreed and accepted my invitation, but when the day arrived, he didn’t. My father stood me up; deserted me just as he had done when I was a toddler before he and my mother divorced.
I remember that last day we were a cohesive family. I was three and we lived in a garden apartment on a busy street at the edge of the city. I was standing on the couch looking out the window, waiting for him to come home from work. He was late and my mother was worried and upset. He got out on the passenger side of an old beat-up red pick-up truck driven by a co-worker and headed straight for the front door.
My mother greeted him with a kiss on his cheek. She quietly asked him why he was so late. Standing just inside the doorway where I could see, he slapped her across her face. I was scared and didn’t understand how he could hurt my mommy. She must have swept me and my baby sister out of the room and soon, out of the apartment. I don’t remember anything more in that apartment after that incident.
I later learned that my father had a short fuse and was often in trouble for fighting. When people learned of my last name and asked me if I was related to him, the usual response I got after replying, “Yes, he’s my father” was, “Oh, I’m sorry.” I once asked someone who was less verbal if he could tell me anything good about my father and his answer was much the same. “Oh, honey. No. I’m sorry.”
My father offered no explanation or apology that Thanksgiving day or after. I was heartbroken, again. Troubled-soul that he was, he avoided me and the rest of his family, including my sisters (his daughters) and his own mother, for the rest of his life. Some say we were better off without him. I believed that for a long time.
In November 2008, I learned my father was in a local nursing home dying of testicular cancer. With a schoolmate friend along for support, encouragement, and my physical safety, I went to see him on the Friday before Thanksgiving.
To say hello. To ask why? To say goodbye.
It was hard. Hard to walk up to his doorway and see a man who more closely resembled his father – my gentle, loving, recently-departed grandfather –more than the trouble-finding, uncomfortable-with-reality father I remembered.
I was quiet for a minute as I stood in the doorway, wrapping my mind around his aging physical body sitting in a wheelchair. This was not my grandfather, but my father. It was one of those spiritual moments when I assumed G-d caused my father to resemble Gramps just so it would be easier for me to be warm to this near-stranger. After all, if he had still appeared to be the strong, healthy, 52-year-old who stood me up for Thanksgiving dinner, it is likely my next move would have been much different.
He spoke first. “Well, hello!” His pleasant tone surprised me. “Do you know who I am?” I asked. I honestly do not remember if he said my name, but I knew he knew me when he looked into my eyes and responded with all the enthusiasm his exhausted body could muster, “Yes! I do! Please come in.”
My friend was right behind me, and when I determined my father was clearly no threat to me, I nodded for him to wait in the lobby.
As I sat on the bed next to my father in his wheelchair, I thought of the many elder hospice clients I had worked with and I felt compassion for this man. Surely he knew he had made choices in his life; the consequences of which had brought him here alone, rather than dying in his own home with loved ones surrounding him, as was true for Gramps the year before. Still, I considered, while we know time only in a linear reality, he cannot change the decisions of his past, nor can I change how I responded to his absence.
I reached to touch my father’s bare arm and he twitched a smile as tears fell from his sad eyes. I held his hand in both of mine as I had done with clients and my grandfather. Touching each other as father and daughter for the first time since I was a baby, my father and I wept silently for a few moments. We made peace together in the nursing home that day with few words and a gentle touch. Whatever his reason for choosing to abstain from family life, I forgave him. It was healing for me, and probably for him as well.
When I visited my father the next day, he was in a critical care room; semi-conscious, eyes closed. I sat with him quietly, realizing I would not get any more questions answered, nor would he have the strength to ask anything about me or our family, even if he wanted to.
I also came to the awkward awareness that he did not invite me into his room this time, and he might prefer to be alone. I had no way of knowing except that he had always chosen to be away from me; from all of his family. I gently placed my hand on his shoulder and whispered, “I’m going to leave and let you rest. I’ll come by tomorrow to see if you feel like company.”
I left a chocolate milkshake for him that Saturday afternoon. When I told him so, he faintly grunted two syllables that sounded to me like “thank you.” That was the last sound I would ever hear from my father. On the Sunday before Thanksgiving 2008, 12 years to the day after I invited him to Thanksgiving dinner, my father’s cancer-filled body died.
Growing up, I had always wondered if my father didn’t like me. As a young woman that Thanksgiving he stood me up, I couldn’t help but revisit that thought. The day I brought him the milkshake it occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t me he didn’t like, maybe he didn’t like himself. Or maybe he didn’t like that he felt he couldn’t communicate his truth. Whatever his truth, it has gone to the grave with him.
Certainly my father had some good qualities and a few of his friends shared them with me when we gathered for his memorial at the local tavern where he worked. He was “nice, fun, and a good friend.” Short list. However, they seemed to love him at least superficially. I was glad to see there was some love in his life.
My father was intelligent, and I’m grateful to have had his biological family as mine. I am also grateful my father and mother conceived me and my sister Laura, and he and his third wife, Mavis conceived my sister Jayne. I am grateful that I chose to visit him in the nursing home, and that I also witnessed him making peace with his mother before he died.
I used to approach Thanksgiving with sadness and resentment, as the anniversary of his repeat abandonment. Since we made peace when he was on his deathbed, I have remembered him with compassion and am no longer sad at Thanksgiving.
I will never know why my father made the decisions that kept him away from me and the rest of his family, even though he lived in the same neighborhood. But, I am certain he knew before he died that I had forgiven him for his absence from my life. Although he didn’t parent me, he will always be my father.
A version of this post originally appeared on the author’s blog.
This post was previously published on GMP on Nov. 24,2015