Can't say I miss you
My dad married his high school sweetheart when I was twenty. Between the time they’d been together in high school, and the day he married her, he’d married three other women. With his first wife, he had two children, Carrie and Kirk. When Carrie was sixteen and Kirk was fourteen, my dad met my mom, who was working as a secretary in New York City. At the time, my dad was living in Buffalo with his family, and going to New York City to meet with the publisher of the company where my mom worked. My mom was living in Jersey City, where she was from, and commuting to the city for her job. My mom was nineteen years younger than my dad. They had an affair, and my dad left his family and eventually married my mom. They had me four years later. When my mom was seven months pregnant with me, my dad started seeing the secretary at the publishing company he had opened in New York City. My mom found out when I was three months old. He continued seeing other women for the remainder of their marriage, which formally ended the week after my mother’s mother died. Not long after the end of my parents’ marriage, my dad started seeing the next woman he’d marry, my stepmom. He married her the same year my mom married my step dad. If you’re having a hard time keeping up, it isn’t you, it’s my dad.
I’ve written a lot about how my dad confided in me about his difficulty with commitment and his need to be free, and how he made me the tiny keeper of his secrets from the time I was four. I’ll probably never forget the feeling of my grown dad crying in my arms, and the helplessness and fear I felt, trying to wrap my tiny arms around all that pain. (You can read about it in Reconciliation or Groomed if you’d like). My dad adored me and said I was the apple of his eye and the light of his life. He said I was special and mature beyond my years. He called me Angel and Princess. He did all of that for as long as I was willing to be there for him. As soon as I got old enough to understand what a total mindf&ck I’d been through, as soon as I was no longer willing to be a part of all his philandering and lying and deceit, I was no longer so adored. Instead my dad played the victim. He acted hurt and confused about my rage, and desire for him to take care of me. He couldn’t do it, so he stopped talking to me very much at all. From that time forward, my relationship with my dad was strained at best. His inability to see the impact he’d had on my childhood, on my feelings about relationships, and on the ingrained ideas I had about my role in the world and my value as a person - and to express any kind of remorse or understanding - made it impossible for us to be close. On top of that, he had flash rage. I found myself not relying on him, not confiding in him, and keeping my feelings to myself to avoid his outbursts. Life went on.
When I was sixteen, my dad and stepmom separated. She had stopped sleeping with him in a last-ditch effort to get him to be faithful. I think she hoped he’d realize what he had and finally commit, like every woman who’d ever loved him. Instead, he reconnected with his high school girlfriend, divorced my stepmom, and eventually moved to North Carolina and married his fourth and last wife when I was twenty. I went to the wedding. My half sister and brother did not. I felt out-of-place at the wedding, and strange. I didn’t know my dad’s wife or her family of nine kids, I didn’t know my dad’s new church friends, I wasn’t a part of his new life. But I was relieved that he was happy. Some part of me had always felt like I was responsible for his well-being, even after years of therapy. Now I wouldn’t have to worry about him in his tiny studio apartment on East 53rd. Now I wouldn’t have to feel pressure to meet him for coffee and go for a walk, where we’d talk about his life and I wouldn’t share much about mine.
My dad never understood boundaries. Even after a therapist told him to stop sharing the intimate details of his adult life with me, he couldn’t or wouldn’t stop himself. He’d invite me for dinner sometimes, and announce after I arrived that a new lady friend would be joining us. When he reconnected with his high school sweetheart and proposed, he told me it was like no time had passed and they made love all weekend like teenagers. “Ewww, Dad, for godsake!” I said, and he chuckled and chortled like my reaction was a strange one. I could write for hours about how he liked men on the street to think we were a couple, or how eventually, I could not even stand for him to put his arm around me.
After he moved to North Carolina, he’d come back to New York to visit once a year. It was fine. I’d see him, I’d feel somewhat tense but try to act natural, and he’d leave. We’d talk on the phone here and there, he’d send birthday cards and holiday cards, usually effusive ones about how proud he was of me. I would send cards, too, and when I found a bunch of them as I was going through his things after he died, I was surprised by how loving I was. I never wanted to hold his feet to the fire. I never wanted to make him face the kind of dad he’d been. I think I feared that confronting that would have made him feel so terrible he’d have a hard time recovering. Even then, I worried about his feelings more than my own.
When I moved to Los Angeles, he’d make his annual trek out here. He’d come for a weekend and we’d go to the Grove, or walk on Melrose. I moved from mid-Wilshire to Santa Monica in 2004, and he found a motel that he liked by the beach. He came to my wedding in 2005, and he came out when I had my son in 2006. As my son grew, and I had my daughter in 2009, his annual visits became centered around the kids. He visited one weekend when my son was eight months old. It wasn’t a good visit. First, our cat had gotten fleas and the exterminator had to come. The timing was awful, though there’s never a good time for fleas. I put my son in the carriage facing me, because he was going through a phase where my face was the thing that made him feel safe in the world. I suddenly realized I’d left the baby carrier in the house, so I asked my dad to hold the carriage while I ran inside, before the exterminator began. I busted into the house, grabbed the carrier and came out, and in that less-than-a-minute lapse, I found my dad red-faced, yelling at my son because he was crying. If you’re wondering who yells at a baby for crying, the answer is my dad. I was shocked and horrified and didn’t hold back. “Dad! What are you doing? Don’t yell at him!” I said, and picked my son up to comfort him. I had to soothe myself, too. My dad harumphed, which I suppose was his version of an apology.
Not long after that, the three of us parked in a lot at the Promenade where my dad liked to window-shop and make his way to Barnes and Noble. We headed down in the parking lot elevator with a young couple. When we got off and parted ways, my dad asked me if I thought they were wondering how an old coot like him had ended up with a hot young wife like me. The times my dad made me physically ill with his comments are countless. That same weekend, I went to teach a yoga class. My dad and my first husband took my son for a walk while I taught. At some point, my now-ex realized he was starving, and asked my dad to walk with my son while he ran to a taco truck. He was gone about twenty minutes. That night my dad took me aside and said he felt certain my then-husband was seeing someone on the side because he’d taken off in the middle of the walk. For twenty minutes. Who thinks that’s enough time to hook up with someone and come back smelling like tacos? My dad, that’s who. My ex husband and I had our problems, but infidelity wasn’t one of them.
The second and last time my dad lost his temper with my kids happened a few years later. My daughter was one and my son was three-and-a-half. This time it was my daughter who cried when I ran into our yoga studio to grab something, leaving my dad and two kids in the car for thirty seconds. I came out to find him yelling at her, terrifying both kids. Once again, I comforted my kids and tried to calm myself down. We walked toward the Promenade. There are no cars there, it’s for pedestrians and shopping, nonetheless I always had my son hold my hand to cross. My daughter was in the Ergo and I told my son to hold grandpa’s hand, but he wanted to hold mine, so he ran a few steps toward me. My dad raised his voice and grabbed my son’s hand and yanked him back, and that was it. I lost it on my dad right there. I told him there were no cars and there was no reason to be yanking on my child’s hand, yelling at him, ever. I told him he would have to walk or take the bus back to his motel, that I was taking the kids home and needed to be away from him for a few hours to think. He’d only arrived a few hours before. I sent him an email when I got home. I told him if he ever raised his voice to either of my children again, or grabbed them in frustration or anything else, he’d never see them again. That he could visit, and I’d meet him for coffee when I could, but if he couldn’t control himself he wouldn’t have a relationship with them, or much of one with me.
After that, he did keep his temper in check. He’d come to visit and we’d go to Blick, a big art store nearby. My dad had started sculpting by then, and he’d get sculpting clay for the kids and teach them how to sculpt whatever they wanted - a giraffe, a Jedi, the Tooth Fairy. As the kids got older, he’d ask about their studies and what interested them. We’d Facetime with him here and there. My kids liked it when he came to visit. We went to visit him and his wife the summer of 2019, and he’d grown noticeably more frail. He was ninety-two by then, so it was no real surprise. I asked him to put me in touch with Carrie, his daughter from his first marriage. We’d never had a relationship when I was a kid since I was the product of the affair that broke up her family, but I felt like it would be good for us to touch base, so we didn’t end up talking for the first time in decades at our dad’s funeral.
Sure enough, my dad’s health declined, sped up in part by his wife’s Alzheimer’s and the stress of watching someone you’ve loved most of your life slowly fade away. When his wife needed to go into the memory care unit and my dad couldn’t follow, Carrie moved him into her house where she lived with her husband and started researching assisted living facilities nearby, in Georgia. She took him to a slew of specialists - a cardiologist, a dermatologist, a urologist. She got his Veteran’s benefits situated, his finances in order … she became his primary caregiver. This was a huge relief to me, because at the same time, my mother was being ravaged by ALS in New York City, and slowly, painfully dying. I lost my mom December 7th, 2021.
In April, Carrie had a stroke and did not make it. It was a shock. Her husband believed the stress of dealing with my dad had been too much for her. My dad had been difficult. He’d kicked her dog, yelled at her regularly for trying to control him, and threatened to withdraw the Power of Attorney he’d given her. I tried to be there for Carrie, and to talk to my dad and tell him to act right. We had so many conversations where I didn’t hold back, when I told him Carrie was a godsend and was showing up for him in so many ways. I did not say, after you abandoned her. I did not say, when she has every right not to speak to you, the way your son doesn’t and hasn’t for decades. He would calm down and apologize, and things would be okay until the next time. And then there was no next time, and Carrie was gone.
I knew my dad wouldn’t have long when I moved him out here from Georgia. He was ninety-five, after all. Nonetheless, it was stressful and surreal. How had I come full circle, to a place where I was going to end up once again being the primary person responsible for my dad’s wellbeing? I’d spent so much of my life recoiling and recovering from that role, only to find myself in some weird game of musical chairs where I was the last one standing. It was almost funny. I really didn’t know how I could add more to my plate. I was barely keeping my head above the water that was the ocean of grief I felt over the loss of my mom. I was maybe just managing to handle the normal responsibilities of my work and home life. Now I was going to add my dad?
The reality was there wasn’t a choice, not really. I was spending so much time trying to help him over the phone, and he had severe hearing loss, so aside from his age and confusion with things like receiving texts with codes that expired in ten minutes that I would need in order to take care of things for him (AT&T), to waiting on hold for three hours with Social Security only to have him not pick up when I called to give permission for me to speak on his behalf, to a million other issues that come with taking care of an aging parent, the stress of his care was already a lot. At least if he was here, I could be with him in person to figure things out, take him to doctors’ appointments, and make sure he was okay. I was figuring out where my line was as I went. I wanted him to be okay, and I was going to show up for him, but also figure out how to take care of myself while I did that. We found an assisted living facility thirty minutes away in the San Fernando Valley. It was a family-owned place with a chef everyone loved and a sun-deck to make my dad happy, even though he had skin cancer and was the last person who should have been sunbathing. At ninety-five you stop telling a person what he should or shouldn’t do, because he might as well suck the joy out of any moments he has left.
Once he was here and set up, I’d make the trip to the valley to see him each week, take him to his doctors appointments, to Walgreens for odds and ends, out to lunch, and to his mecca, Dunkin’ Donuts. I’d often text him, even if we were sitting across from one another so I wouldn’t have to yell to be heard. He would vacillate between being appreciative, and threatening to withdraw the Power of Attorney he’d given me because I wasn’t meeting his expectations in some way or another. This could be because his custom-made hearing aids were taking too long, or because he didn’t like the cardiologist I’d found, or because he wanted to leave his walker in the car even though he needed it and I wouldn’t let him. He’d yell and curse when he was frustrated, which was often.
Since my dad had never been a patient man, this wasn’t new, it was simply exacerbated by the indignities and isolation of growing old and losing things like the ability to hear, or walk easily, or make new friends which is enormously challenging if you can’t hear. Even finding the particular razors he wanted at Walgreens wasn’t easy, nor was sculpting when his hands became too shaky, or remembering the password to his phone. Getting old is rough, so when he yelled I tried not to take it personally, which was easier some days than others. When his health took a serious turn and his congestive heart failure caused his legs to swell, I knew time was very short. I started adding adult diapers to the list of things he needed delivered each week. Growing old, if you’re lucky enough to do that, is not for the faint of heart. In the last few weeks he was bedridden and frail and he slept a lot. I set the sculptures he’d made on the shelf alongside the bed so he could see them, and moved a framed picture of his fourth wife in clear view so he would wake up and fall asleep looking at her. He started having stressful dreams about his wife “the secretary” (my mother), so the hospice team gave him anxiety medication to keep him calm. I wondered if my mother was haunting his dreams and letting him have it, though she told me she did forgive him in the last months of her life. They’d even exchanged some texts. The day he died, two police officers knocked on our door at 7am to tell me. The hospice team had been calling me since 3am, and when they couldn’t reach me they sent the police.
We drove out to my dad’s and I sat with his body for a while. I cried. I told him I loved him, and I suppose I did in my own way. I loved him enough to want him to feel loved the last year of his life, to make sure he had what he needed, to do my best to take care of him. I loved him enough to let bygones be bygones. The only time I ever asked my dad to reckon with our past in any meaningful way was when my publisher required I get a waiver from my parents before they published my (second) book. I had written a bit about my dad and my childhood, but my dad said “it felt like another life,” he couldn’t remember and signed. It wasn’t a satisfying apology, but he didn’t stop me from telling my story.
The thing is, and this is the part I’m wrangling, I don’t miss him. It’s a horrible thing to feel and to write, but it’s the truth. I did grieve him, and I also grieved the relationship we never had. The kind where you feel safe with your dad and count on him to be there for you. The kind the Hallmark cards describe. A wave of exhaustion descended on me after he passed, like nothing I’ve experienced before. I had to slow down, there was no choice involved. In that slowed-down space, I found I could and can be more philosophical about my dad. I can appreciate that he was a good friend to many people and a beloved uncle to nieces and nephews he visited when I was with my mom. He had some wonderful qualities - he was very creative and talented, and open-minded until the end. But he wasn’t a good dad. He put me through a lot and never seemed to grasp that. I think he believed he was a good dad and I never disabused him of that notion. There wasn’t a point. People are who they are and they’ve done what they’ve done. If someone can’t look honestly at their past and acknowledge places where they let you down, badly, there isn’t a lot of hope for real connection. So I forgave him, and I do forgive him, but I don’t miss him. And I think that’s okay.
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If you’d like to meet me in real time to talk about complicated familial relationships and grief, I’ll be here 11/29/23 at 1pm PST or you can wait for the Come As You Are Podcast version. And if you’d like to meet me in Portugal in June, I’d love that so much!