My brother and sister scattered my father’s ashes over the water in Port Dalhousie, Ontario. I was not invited. I would not even have known if I hadn’t happened across a single random Facebook post that made reference to the occasion.
It was hardly a surprise, and I acknowledge that their choice to exclude me was the direct result of a situation of my own making.
If I had the opportunity to go back and change how I handled my father’s passing, I don’t know that I would. Even though I was confronted repeatedly with threats of “you’ll regret this” by other family members, I cannot see how I could have done anything differently and still maintained my sanity. (Such that it is.) The word compromise was thrown around a lot. But it’s funny how often, when people are asking you to compromise, what they mean is that they want you to change while the other person remains immoveable.
I don’t remember who told me he had cancer, that last time. I honestly don’t recall if it was my father himself, or maybe the news came via my sister or my mother. For some reason that moment was deemed inconsequential by my mental Rolodex and not filed away. I do remember the first time he lied and told us he had cancer (at my 16th birthday) very clearly. I remember crying. I remember mourning. I remember finding out that the whole thing was a fabrication, and my slow-growing resentment. But I don’t remember anything about finding out that he had cancer for real. Somehow the details were inconsequential.
To say that I felt nothing upon learning of his terminal illness would not be accurate. I just didn’t feel the right things. I didn’t feel what others needed me to feel.
I did not rush to his side.
In the years leading up to this point, I had already become estranged from my father. I had tried, for a long while, to mend fences. I had tried to understand the rift between us. I had tried to have real conversations with him, where hopefully we could try to find some kindness between us or something real.
A few years before he died, he invited my son and I on a trip to Nassau and I accepted, uneasy to allow him to pay our way (because these sorts of gifts always had strings), but anxious to make one last try at connecting. I also hoped it would give him a chance to get to know and understand his autistic grandson a bit better.
It was a disaster. My father drank and chain-smoked and dominated all conversation. Any attempts at communication or interjection on my part were mocked or denigrated. He wanted an audience for his superficial boasting and someone to laugh at his jokes. He wasn’t capable of listening, nor was he interested in a heart-to-heart. The majority of his interaction with my son was in anger or frustration; which made the both of them sullen. I spent most of the time with a migraine from the cigarette smoke, and took to drinking and sleeping and escaping to the beach with my son when I could.
When we returned, my father told everyone we had a lovely time.
When he made a similar offer a year later (with minimal interaction in the interim), I declined and I think it hurt him deeply. I told him he didn’t have to buy us trips and I’d rather he just talk to me like a normal human being. He hung up. A month later he had throat cancer.
Chemotherapy for the throat cancer gave him leukemia. There wasn’t any coming back from that.
My stepmother, sister and brother spent a lot of time with him in the hospital, which was easier for them in terms of proximity, but physical distance wasn’t the only thing that kept me away.
My father had his difficult moments with most people, but he had genuine love for the three of them. If he had love for me (and I like to think he did), he was never able to express it in any way that did not hurt me. Somehow by my brother moving to Toronto (i.e. close to him) and me staying in Ottawa (i.e. close to my mother), we had unwittingly identified our allegiances. He treated me in a similar fashion as he did her — but of course since their divorce she was rarely in his presence, and I took the brunt of it.
My sister pleaded with me to go see him. This was a variation on the same pleas she had expressed practically since she could speak. It was almost the entirety of our long-distance relationship. “Please talk to dad.” “Please come see dad.” “Why can’t you do this for me?” “I don’t care if it hurts you — WHY CAN’T YOU DO IT FOR ME?”
It could be argued that a 17-year age gap and growing up in separate cities is why my sister and I have never properly bonded. But the truth is, I don’t know her. She doesn’t know me. Any attempt I have made to get to know her has been thwarted by her obsession with putting our father between us. And so I tried. For a long time I tried to get along with him. For her. For me. Even for him. But in the end I couldn’t handle the repeated cruelty. Not for anyone.
He broke my heart.
Not just once, but on a regular basis.
And I knew if I let him keep doing it, there would be nothing left of me. I couldn’t live my life, or be a parent, and operate in a constant defensive position.
My brother called and asked me when I was coming. I cried. Not for my father, but for my brother, who barely talks to me, and who I wanted so desperately to have a relationship with. I wanted to do this for him, too. But I couldn’t.
My mother didn’t ask me to go. But she said she would go with me, if I went.
I went to see him.
It was a very brief visit. I barely spoke to him. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing, because I didn’t want him to have any ammunition against me.
He yelled at my son for making too much noise.
We said goodbye tersely and left. It was the last time I ever saw him.
My brother and sister continued to beg me to come back and see him again, but I knew that was the end for me. I was done.
I wasn’t afraid of seeing him die. I wanted to be able to be what he needed, if he needed me to sit there and tell him I loved him.
But I was afraid he would see it was a lie. And I didn’t want to hurt him.
I hadn’t stopped loving him all at once. It started when he lied about dying the first time and I mourned him and hardened myself to his impending (or so I thought) death. And then, with each repeated hurt, I withdrew a little more, until there was nothing left. I felt nothing for the real him.
I mourned, but it was for the father and relationship I wished I’d had.
And I knew that I couldn’t bear a single cut more. If the last words he ever spoke to me were cruel, I couldn’t bear it. It would tip me over the edge. I couldn’t be haunted by the memory of that moment for the rest of my life.
And so he died. And I felt relief.
Relief that this burden of a man, who had haunted every minute of my consciousness and inspired all my feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing, was no longer my responsibility. I no longer had to waste all my energy doing mental gymnastics, trying to figure out what I did wrong and why I could never please him or earn his respect.
I was free.
Because a dead father is easier to explain to people than an estranged father.
Because him being dead means I don’t have to keep trying and failing to fix our relationship.
I finally discovered I could start living for myself, and not just in reaction to him or his actions. I was grateful to find that I could write, without feeling like it would threaten his fragile journalist’s ego or earn his mockery.
I haven’t ever stopped thinking about him. But I’ve started to heal. It’s something I tried to do for such a long time while he was alive, but his continued existence seemed to necessarily dictate his participation in that process. And because he was not forthcoming, I made no progress.
But now that he’s gone, there is only me left to heal our relationship.
In bits and pieces, I heal. I still don’t understand why he did all the things that he did, but I’m not angry any more. Without him here to twist the knife, it is easier to feel compassion for him and accept that he can’t change any of it now. He can’t fix it, but he also can’t hurt me anymore. There is comfort in that.
I forgive him.