Sunday, February 8, 2015

Rest In Peace, Dad

I don’t know how to even start this entry and I contemplated not writing it, but if I know anything about myself it is that writing is what I do.  It is how I express myself, process things and communicate.  It has proven to be cathartic in many situations whether I am taking frustrating life situations and laughing about them, or during times of sadness and loss in an effort to cope.

This situation would be no exception. 

I got a call this afternoon that my father passed away early this morning.  Now I am left with the task of dealing with it, processing it and making sense of how to make this my new reality.

Before I begin, let me explain that my father and I did not have much of a relationship.  For many of you that know me, you have an idea of how I grew up and how my father fit into that picture…or didn’t as it may be.

Rather than re-hash my childhood, I will reference something I wrote a few years back after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.

In a nutshell, my dad has been in a nursing home for the mentally ill for the last twelve years or so.  The only reason he actually ended up in one permanently was because his physical condition made it impossible to take care of himself and he eventually lost the mobility in his legs.  Prior to that happening, I hadn’t seen or spoken to him (purposely anyway) since I was 10-years old and shortly after my grandfather kicked him out of his house where we lived for ongoing erratic, abusive and inappropriate behavior.

Once I knew my dad was in a place where he was less of a threat, I took the opportunity to see him on a limited basis.  I still never gave him my phone number or address for fear he would go back to his old ways of harassing my family and me, but I tried to create some sort of space in my life for the man who is partially responsible for bringing me into this world.

I struggled with the visits because I never knew what I was going to get. Sometimes I felt better after I saw him, sometimes I felt worse.   I made an effort to visit him around Father’s Day and then again around his birthday which was right before Christmas.  Once I had my daughter and my mom got sick, my priorities shifted.  I also needed to protect my own mental health for the sake of my own family.

I struggled with the guilt associated with not being there for him, but I also knew I could only give so much of myself to someone who never gave much to me.  I struggled with how to justify what was his mental illness and what was his “personality.”

Eventually, his health declined and my uncle called my brother and I to discuss his future based on the inevitable.  He asked that we act as backup for medical power of attorney and we both agreed.  I was also asked to look at other facilities for my dad and I struggled with putting forth the effort to find a “quality” facility since the places that were on the list were located at least an hour or more from where I lived.  I also still had two small children at home with me and it was hard get away.  I certainly could not bring them with me to tour mental institutions, especially since I had found out that his criminal record landed him on a list of offenders that meant he was ineligible for care in certain facilities.   It was yet another chink in his already dented armor and left me with even less patience. Still, I felt conflicted and guilty.  I decided to see my priest at church for guidance.

I was half expecting him to tell me to “forgive and forget.” I was relieved when he told me that there is a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation.  I had already forgiven him in my heart, but the reconciliation part where I make him a part of my life was not something I felt comfortable with.  I never did find out where he ended up, but also never really made a major effort to find out besides a few phone calls here and there.

Fast-forward three years to a phone call I received about 2 weeks ago that my dad was in ICU in Evanston for pneumonia and possible heart attack.  He needed to be put on a ventilator, had fluid in the lungs and could not tolerate even soft foods, which led to a feeding tube.  I had discovered when I agreed to be one of the medical powers of attorney, that he had chosen the directive to prolong his life to the “greatest extent possible.”  This meant a vicious cycle of life sustaining measures with no means to an end.  At this point, there was no quality of life and he was not of sound mind to grasp what his reality was.   Despite his original wishes, my uncle, brother and I agreed that it was time to override his wishes.

I was able to visit with my dad twice before he passed.  The first time he wasn’t conscious and the second time he was a bit more lucid.  It was difficult to find things to talk about given his condition, mental state and the fact that he felt like a stranger to me despite the fact that he’s was my father.  So many emotions ran through me as I looked in his eyes.  Pity. Regret. Guilt. Anger. Sadness.

The hospital workers offered me comfort based on his condition and knew I would soon have to face the loss of my father.  I felt like a fraud.  The one nurse hugged me and said “no matter what, you can never replace a parent.”  Little did they know I had been replacing him my whole life.

To me, I lost my dad years ago.  Even before my parents divorced, he was never an orthodox father.  When he wasn’t part of my daily life anymore rather than feel loss, I felt relief.  Of course, he was never really “out of my life.”  He always lingered in some way whether it was in the parking lot of my school, on the other end of the phone or on my credit report when I went to buy my first car.  People often asked me about my father and while I was relatively forthright with my story, it was easier just to say “its complicated” or “he’s crazy.”  Even my own children asked about their grandpa and I struggled with answers for them.  I was as honest as possible without getting too in-depth.  They knew what a grandpa should be based on their relationship with Tom’s dad and wondered why their relationship with my dad should be any different.

And I suppose that’s where my loss lies.  Not in the memory of my dad, but in what a dad should be.  I know that nobody is perfect and that even seemingly strong relationships have their holes.  However, I have seen what real fathers look like in my grandfather, in my brothers and in my husband, just to name a few. I’ll admit I’m downright jealous of what I missed out on.  I know that no matter how hard I tried to have a relationship with my dad, he could never be that person to me.  I have seen some of my friends lose their parents and I know how much pain they have experienced.  I almost wish I had that kind organic loss.  One where I could feel real emotions with warranted sadness.  I hate saying that, but in some ways I think it would make the loss of my dad easier to process. 

I had several “replacements” and I would never discredit all the people in my life that helped pick up the pieces where my dad dropped off, but that nurse was right, you can never replace a parent.  That would be devaluing my own kids’ relationship with their own dad and I know how priceless his role in their life truly is.

As I sit here trying to rationalize how to feel I keep going back to how I felt at 10-years old. I remember the feeling so vividly. It was the evening my dad left for good after trying to run my brother over with a car.  It wasn’t the first time I was shocked by my dad’s behavior, but it was the worst.  It was the straw that broke the camel's back.  I lay on my basement couch crying uncontrollably while my family consoled me. I was confused, sad, angry and relieved all at the same time.  I didn’t know how to respond to this change.  How would it impact my life? How would I explain it to people? I already had lived without the support of a “dad,” but now it was official.

Kind of like right now.  I’ve been living without him in my daily life, but now its official. Its almost like Loss:Part II.  For so long my response to my relationship with my dad could be categorized as “complicated.” At least now I have a new category to place my relationship with him if anyone asks and that is, “He passed away.”  I still feel like a fraud because I am sure by putting myself out there with this proclamation I will get condolences.  I’m not doing this for pity or for people to feel sorry for me.  I still feel like a fraud for even having any remorse and callous for not having more.  To say I am conflicted would be an understatement.

To say my dad had no redeeming qualities would be inconsiderate of me.  He was brilliant.  He loved God and his family.  He didn’t know how to express and carry out that love effectively, but I feel he had love for us deep his heart.  I suppose he and I are even since I didn’t always express or carry out my love for him effectively, but deep down in my heart I did love him.

I was fortunate to get to tell him that before he died.  For that I am eternally grateful.  In my effort to make small talk with him I found out he likes latte’s, something we have in common.  When I asked him if I could get him anything he said, “a Coca-Cola.” Perhaps that’s where I inherited my dirty little Diet Coke habit. Whatever the case may be, I can be at peace with how we left things.  I'm also thankful that my uncle never actually had to change my dad's living will to "Do Not Resuscitate" before he died.  He went into cardiac arrest and they went to the greatest extent possible to prolong his life the way he wanted it, but to no avail. A memorial for him will be held this spring or summer and his remains will be buried next to his mother at a cemetery in central Illinois. 

My emotions at this point change by the minute and I’m sure that will continue to be the case for some time.  I do hope he is in a better place now.  I hope his heart, soul and mind live in a place of peace and rest that he was not able to enjoy on this earth. 

Rest in peace, dad.