Today my father passed away. It’s been at least a decade since we’ve spoken. I’m pretty sure he had long ago forgotten why; I’m uncertain if he ever regretted it. I only know we took our respective stances and wrote each other off.
My father was a firm believer that children should be seen and not heard. When I was very young, it was just the two of us for several years. When he finally married again, she thought it was adorable I knew fireworks only by the term pyrotechnics, ate Chinese food with chopsticks, and had never had French fries. He was relieved to find a solution for the kid. Adults would marvel that my manners were impeccable. This is because if I became too rambunctious or was found speaking out of turn around adults, my father snapped his fingers a single time and that was the signal to immediately stop what I was doing and “behave.” There was never a second chance. There were always consequences.
My father had three separate families: two marriages and one fling tucked in between that resulted in me. The kids from the first family were older by a decade, give or take, and the only real overlap we had was the summer each of them came to live with us so they could reestablish a relationship with their father. I was clearly a nuisance and they had no interest in the bastard kid whose mother took away their father and broke up their family. Once I realized the only person whose attention they were hungry for was his, I stopped trying to get to know my older siblings and tried instead to stay out of the way. I remember staying out of the way a lot.
I only ever remember my father crying once — when he got the phone call that his oldest son had died in a motorcycle accident in Virginia, on his way back to register for his final year of college. Named after my father, he had a 4.0 GPA in his dual majors of mechanical engineering and mathematics and an eidetic memory. He was cruel to me and abusive when no one was around, and I was terrified of being left alone with him. I would hide, but he would find me. He told me it was pointless to hide and calmly threatened me with my life if I ever told; he’d have his friends run me over on my way to school. I was ten. When I finally mustered up the courage years later to tell my father, he blatantly refused to believe me. My brain could never reconcile my father’s overwhelming grief over his son’s death with my own overwhelming relief.
My father was a middle management mechanical engineer who was always gone, either in another country or in the New York office. Whenever we lived in New Jersey, he took the 5:58am NJ Northeast Corridor train into New York City and came back on the 6:12pm train. Gone before we got up for school and not home until we were well into our homework, he spent evenings after dinner in the recliner in front of the TV. We traveled the world because of that job; I was responsible for my younger sister while our parents traveled together. She was a welcome relief from the loneliness of life born as an adult. Even now, she is my one constant, the only person who understands the backstory of who we are and how we got here.
My father held me to impossible standards and expectations. When I got a D in high school physics, my father demanded an explanation for my failing to maintain straight As. When I could not provide a satisfactory reason for my poor performance, he put on his three-piece suit and fierce disapproval and dragged me into school to intimidate my physics teacher. No matter how much I studied or memorized all the formulas, it was clear my inability to deconstruct word problems would be the end of both me and Mr. Ritter. I’ve never forgotten the look in his eyes as he glanced at me while my father railed and demanded extra class work and homework so that I would learn my lesson. By the grace of God, a unit on light and refraction, and some creative rounding by a compassionate high school teacher, I managed a final grade of B. It was the hardest grade I ever earned.
My father passed away without ever revealing to me the identity of my birth mother. She is apparently still alive, somewhere unbeknownst to me. I have no name to go on, no picture with which to search. Until the truth accidentally surfaced a dozen years ago, I’d been told she had died in childbirth. When last asked about it directly, my father steadfastly refused to discuss it. In his words, “That’s none of your business.”
My father was the product of a generation who believed in firm discipline, and he ruled with a heavy hand. He was rigid and suffered fools and liars poorly. His word was law, and I always abided by his decisions, no matter how much I wanted something else. As I got older, I was envious of my sister’s ability to skirt the negative outcomes. She was able to find alternatives, to offset the objections and therefore got to do much more than my blind obedience would ever allow. I wished with my whole heart I had been born more like her. I was never able to stand up to my father.
My father was born two years before the Great Depression and his parents died when he was young, so he lived with his older sister until he was 16. He lied about his age so he could join the Merchant Marines Academy towards the end of World War II. He was fascinated by the human body and, in a different life, might have studied medicine. He had five children, an incredibly messy personal life, and was convinced he was never wrong. For a long time, he had me convinced as well. He filled his empty nest years with a number of cairn terrier companions that travelled with them in retirement; I think he appreciated the unconditional love that dogs are wont to give. In the last couple of years, his body was ruthless in turning against him and, in the end, his heart finally gave up.
I know the feeling.
My father passed away without ever seeing me hit my stride. He never saw me finally find my voice, or fight the fights I felt worth fighting. He wasn’t there when I finished my degree despite telling me I wouldn’t amount to anything without it, and he never knew what I did for a living. He never heard me speak. He never saw me, somehow, manage to muddle through raising three children who turned out pretty incredible despite my missteps and many do overs. He never had any relationship with my kids. He never met my youngest son.
My father was a complicated man and ours was a complicated relationship. Most of the time he was disappointed I didn’t reach my potential. I couldn’t seem to live up to the dual engineering and business majors in school that he picked out for me; nor did I stay the docile little girl he could manipulate with a snap of his fingers. Somewhere along the line, he finally lost control of me. And once I tasted freedom, I was determined to keep it at all costs.
My father was a difficult man. Some things, even now, are hard to reconcile. Bad memories far outweigh the good. I am struck with how different the family I created is from the family in which I grew up. We didn’t show feelings, and we didn’t use the word love when I was young; I’m hard pressed to even remember an instance of my father saying it. I do remember “Damn” and “Blast” were his favored expletives, and I heard them fairly frequently. But conflict always has at least two sides, and in pulling my memories out of their dusty corners, I know my own lenses are dirty, smudged, and distorted with time. With age comes experience and children of your own. You now find yourself on the other end of the parent-child relationship, and you see things through older eyes. Looking back, you begin to see a different generation who probably did the best they could with what they had. It was, as they say, a different time. With age comes, if not clarity, then perhaps acceptance. Or maybe just understanding.
My father passed away at the age of 88. There will be no funeral service to attend, no memorial to remember a man whose life spanned almost nine decades. It feels oddly open-ended and awkwardly incomplete. This isn’t how stories usually end — but then, this isn’t a story, it’s just life. There will be no last chance to make right what once went wrong. There will be no last crazy family standoff where things go sideways, and there will be no final reconciliation. It’s as if the tidy ending has finally come undone, and bits of memories and unimportant detritus slowly drift away. There will be a cremation and then, quite literally, my father will be dust in the wind, never to be seen again. Even if ever it were possible, redemption is no longer an option.
Despite it all, despite everything I’ve fought to be different from, I am my father’s daughter. For better or worse, he is in my DNA, and he is the voice in my head that pushes me to do better. I’m certain there will be kinder memories to come. Perhaps once the tears stop flowing.
Today my father passed away.