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Years ago, I sat with the mom of a childhood friend, our former neighbor, chatting while my then very young daughter played next to me. At this time, I was expressing frustrations with my parents, we were going thru some disagreements. I was always close to my mom, but as I became a parent myself, things were standing out to me that felt like some of my childhood was a bit messed up. My dad…well, my mom helped make sure we weren’t close. And he was a man who didn’t express feelings well, so things were harder with him.
This neighbor was encouraging me to try to fix the issues with my parents, to give them more chances. She reminded me that they’d die someday, and I’d regret not having a relationship. At the time, I said I thought I’d only miss my mom. She told me she believed strongly that my dad’s death would be harder, since we weren’t close, and I’d have a ton of regret if I left things as they were. She said my mom knew who I was, and since we were closer, it would be hard, but I’d take comfort in the fact that she knew she was loved.
At the time, years ago, I thought this woman was wrong. Within the last few years, the words kept coming back though. And I did try to talk to my dad a bit more, as I learned more about who he was, and why he was who he was. And now that he’s gone…I have huge regrets, and feel a gaping hole.
My mom blurred the line between parent and friend. She over shared things kids shouldn’t hear or deal with. Her marriage to my father wasn’t the happiest, and her over sharing ways caused friction. She clearly wanted to be the “favorite” parent, and tried to make sure I was on board with that. And, for much of my life, I was. She was placed on some pedastal, where she was never wrong. My dad was hailed as an ignorant alcoholic, who didn’t deserve us.
What I realized as an adult was how awful my mom was for saying these things about my dad. How terrible it was to teach us to hate him.
As I got older, I realized why my dad was who he was. I found out he was “ignorant” and “uneducated” because he didn’t have opportunity. We were often told he had only a 6th grade education. My mom tossed that around when she was angry. Turns out, my dad bounced around the foster care system as a young kid and teen. He didn’t finish school because he worked, to make money to learn to provide for himself, since he didn’t and couldn’t trust others. Yet, with little education, he started his own business as an adult. A business he ran much of my life. The pride I have in him knowing these things brings tears. And I didn’t tell him until he was dying. I don’t know if he even heard the words. Dear neighbor, you were so right about regret.
I found out my dad had to beg for food as a child. His mother neglected him. She never bonded with him like she did her other kids. She says he was the product of a rape, and she treated him as such. He spent time in an “orphanage” or “boys home” when he was small. He was discarded by her. His stepdad brought him back from this place, he tried to turn the abuse around. But he was also an alcoholic and not quite parenting material. My dad had an awful childhood.
I see now why he was who he was. Why he was an alcoholic, learning this self medicating technique from the man who tried to help, but didn’t quite get the job done. I see why he was not good at showing emotion. I see where his work ethic came from-the need to survive. He learned far too young he must work to live. And my dear dad busted his ass my whole life, placing work above everything. I no longer blame him like I used to. Instead, I understand.
My dad was an amazing grandfather. Where he didn’t excel with us as kids, he made up for as a grandpa. He wasn’t there for many events, his workhorse attitude kept him running his business. He also didn’t do well in large social gatherings. But, on the occasions he’d come to a function, like a baseball game or performance, he made it a big deal. Ice cream for the team, on Pa! Cuz Pa showed up, and he was going to make it a big deal.
I tried to tell him in the last few years I loved him. I tried to say I was sorry for being a teenaged asshole. He wouldn’t talk about it. He’d wave his hand in dismissal, say “I know…I know…love you too…” and refuse further conversation. Emotions weren’t his thing.
As unhappy as the marriage was, my dad sure did try. Flowers on every hallmark occasion. My mom never appreciated them. I don’t know why she was so mean. But I feel sad when I think of how they interacted. How lonely my dad likely felt. I feel sad I didn’t try harder to make him feel loved.
And now, it’s too late. I’m filled with sadness and regret.
Oh, dear neighbor, why did you have to know? Why did you predict this situation so well?
But…thank you dear neighbor, because your words never left me. And because of you, I did try. In the last years, I did try to reconnect. I kissed his balding head each time I saw him. I rubbed that fuzzy head in affection, as I walked past his chair. I apologized, and said “I love you.” Things that I didn’t do often enough most of my life. Because of you neighbor, I made more of an effort. So thank you will not even cover my feelings of gratitude.
I miss him…my dad. I am still not to a place of acceptance that he’s gone. I am hovering a bit in denial. I won’t let true grieving happen yet. My eyes fill with tears, but I can let the full waterfall of sobs come. I hold it back, for fear they will never stop if I let it go. I’m struggling. I have lost a few people I loved dearly, and each is a terrible struggle for me. But, the loss of my dad feels too heavy. I don’t know how to deal with it.
I think of all the words I whispered, as I rubbed his head in his final 3 minutes, after the machines keeping him alive were removed. I pray he heard me, and knows what I said.
Today, my dear dad, or as the kids call him, Pa…today I will honor you, with a tattoo of the business that was your pride and joy. The business YOU made, and grew. It took care of us. It took care of YOU. It had ups and downs, but it was a huge accomplishment. I  no longer feel angry with how consumed you were with its success. I understand why, and I see things more clearly.
Thank you my dear neighbor, for telling me I’d need to do this all those years ago. Thank you for helping me.