Here goes. Things are about to get really honest, personal and intense. I’ll begin by saying that my dad died recently. And although and he isn’t here to speak up (not like he would anyway), this story is all mine. I’m not writing about this to hurt anyone’s feelings. I’m writing about this because parents die and when they do, it’s extremely hard. But what about estranged parents? How are we supposed to grieve for them?
When my parents were married, my mom already had two kids (my sisters) and my dad had one (my brother). They had me a bit later in their lives. And at that time, in the mid-’70s, it was probably considered even “later” than now. Since the other children were older (the closest one to me was twelve when I came along), I was kind of like an only child, I guess you could say. As I grew, I spent a lot of time at my sisters’ houses with their families. Not because there was ever anything wrong at my own house, but because they had little kids and I just adored them and being around them. I don’t even remember my parents not getting along. I just know that one day they were divorced.
The divorce happened when I was nine or so. I stayed with my mom (who is the best mom ever) and my father moved to a town about an hour away. His side of the family all lived there, and he relocated his car repair business to that area. My paternal grandparents (Granny and Papa) lived on the same dirt road, and I really, really loved those grandparents. I have the fondest memories of all of my family in that town, actually. Of Easter Sunday, running up and down the dirt road to “the shop,” getting lost on wooded trails and pretending the propane tank in their front yard was a pommel horse for our gymnastics shows. Being able to see my Great Aunt Addie, watching her quilt, and hearing my Granny ring that dinner bell in the front yard.
I was supposed to spend every other weekend at my dad’s, but somewhere along the way, things went wrong. When I’d go, I’d want to stay down the road with my Granny and Papa instead. Or I’d stay with my favorite aunt and her three girls (close in age to me), who lived a couple exits south. Although my dad worked a lot, I remember learning how to shoot a BB gun and swing on a rope across the ravine — but mostly I remember him drinking too much. And giving the dog beer in his bowl rather than water. He’d fill it to the brim and the poor dog would fall over. Was my dad a nice guy? I’m guessing he was. He just seemed more into what he wanted to do than paying attention to me.
Because of that, the visits were skipped altogether. Or I’d go, but spend the entire time at my aunt and uncle’s house with my cousins instead.
One weekend, he picked me up from my sister’s house. I had my little blue suitcase (a hand-me-down of my brother’s). I walked out, got in the car … and wasn’t spoken to at all.
I cried. Not a loud cry, but just quietly weeping. How was I going to get through another weekend of this? We were over halfway through an hour-long ride when he turned the car around and drove all the way back to my sister’s house. He roughly said, “Get out and come on.” When my sister opened the door he said, “I don’t want her. She cries.”
I can still see my sister asking me to go inside and close the door. She let him have it right there on her front porch.
I guess that’s when I decided that I really wasn’t much of anything special to him. It only went downhill from there.
High school came and went. He did drive up for my high school graduation.
Tony and I got married and I wondered if he’d walk me down the aisle. He did, but it wasn’t a huge deal. He’d remarried not long before and “she has kids so now I have grandkids” so he spent a lot of time talking about them instead.
Then there was my college graduation. I was the first person in my family to graduate college. My dad refused to attend because, he said, “He didn’t want to get lost when driving.”
So he didn’t come. Or send a card. Or anything. After all, now he had a new family, I guess.
Through all of this, my mom never said a bad word about him. She let me sort my feelings out on my own. I would still call him on his birthday, although his calls and cards to me had stopped years before.
Years went by and he didn’t contact me. My kids were born and there wasn’t so much as a “yay you” spoken to me. I occasionally felt a wave of guilt and would call or invite him to my girls’ birthdays. He usually wouldn’t come; in fact, he only came to two, but when he did, it was strained. He’d spend his time talking about his wife’s kids and his other grandkids. He once told me (in front of my mom and sisters) that he wanted me to bring my girls down to see him because at his house he had a rope and a lake to throw them in. Caroline (now 11) was a year old at the time.
And that’s the last time I saw him. Or spoke to him. Because that is not the sort of environment I want my kids around.
Despite that, I woke up every day and wondered, in the back of my mind, if that would be the day he would call to ask about his grandkids. If that would be the day he changed his heart toward them. He never did.
So, when my sweet cousin (whose house I spent so much time at) called me a few weeks back to say that he’d died in his sleep…I wasn’t even fazed. Doesn’t that sound terrible to say about your own parent? But I didn’t cry. I didn’t feel anything. I’d already been through the grief process with him. Long before I stopped calling him, he was done with me. He probably didn’t even know all of my girls’ names. He certainly didn’t know what they looked like.
At this point in my life, I have really weird emotions coming at me. For one, a relationship that tanked. And now a father who is still not here, but I no longer have to wonder if today will be the day he decides he swallows his pride and wants to see his grandkids. Because he decided years ago that he didn’t want to do that.
He didn’t care to know that Emily taught herself how to play guitar, that she loves horses and can sing like crazy. He wasn’t around to know that Allison is such a fun kid who loves soccer and marching band. He also didn’t care to know that Caroline is hysterical with such a kind heart. Maybe he wasn’t even aware that we had a fourth girl at all. And I don’t mean that I expected him to come to soccer games or dinners. However, I did expect him to at least call. Perhaps people are saying, but men sometimes don’t think, in general. And to that I say, then his wife should have spoken up: “Hey, you should call your grandkids or daughter.”
So yes, I blame him. But I also blame her.
When a parent dies, it’s devastating, right? An absolutely heartbreaking loss. But for my dad, I mourned his “death” years ago when he chose to go on with his life and I chose to stick with those who love me better. The death of an estranged parent means you’re forced to grieve their death twice. Once when they cut ties (or you choose to move on because there’s nothing left to give), and again when they die. But for me, I’m not grieving because he’s no longer here. I’m grieving because he chose not to be here for his grandkids long ago.
Do you know what had the most sting? Reading the obituary to see that my own kids aren’t listed among the surviving family members. But, his wife’s grandkids are.
It’s like mine never even existed. And that is pretty sucky because he sure did miss out on some really great kids.
But again, at least I don’t have to wake up wondering if today would be the day. Because it most certainly is not.