My friend’s father-in-law passed away yesterday afternoon. It wasn’t sudden – he’d been sick for awhile – but it’s still a shock to the system and still hard. I was glad we were at work when she got the news because she’s one of those people that’s strong for everyone else and is left with no one to hold her. So I held her – it’s what I do.
But this morning it has me thinking about my own father and what he meant to me and what his death was like for me.
As you know, my dad was an alcoholic. Everyone thought that he became one because of his eye disease and the fact that he lost his eyesight at a fairly young age. But the fact was he always drank in an alcoholic way and was the son of an alcoholic and so, since the disease is a progressive one, he would have turned out the same (maybe worse) had he remained sighted.
The role I assumed in our dysfuctional, messed up home was that of caretaker and peacemaker. So when my mother and sister would leave and go stay somewhere else because of his drinking, I would always stay home to be sure that…what…I don’t know. I guess be sure he didn’t die – who knows? That’s a subject for an ACOA meeting one day.
But as messed up as my father was, I know he loved me. I wondered for a long time because no matter how much I begged him to quit drinking he wouldn’t. So I figured either he didn’t love me or I wasn’t good enough to love. (And since my mother had no capacity to love anyone but herself, the latter is what ended up stuck in my head.) I mean, how could you hurt your children and destroy your family if you really loved them?
God really has a sense of humor doesn’t He?
After I recognized that my drinking was out of control, I began to realize that quitting was way more difficult than I ever thought it was and, most importantly, my inability to quit had nothing to do with how much I loved my children. It made me start to understand my father a little more and to open that door on the part of my heart that I had shut down. To believe that, in fact, he did love me…in his way. And really, that’s enough for me.
He was sober the last 13 years of his life and I cherish that time I had with him. We were always close but we became much closer during that time. We didn’t really do anything differently, it was just wonderful to be with him and share the same space when he wasn’t drunk. It felt almost…normal.
And then, 16 years ago, he had a massive stroke and died suddenly. They rushed him to the hospital and hooked him up to all these machines…the ones we had to later unplug and let him go. Did you know when you do that your loved one doesn’t pass right away? It takes the body a little while to catch up to the brain so they linger for awhile. In my case it was about 8 hours. I cherish those 8 hours. They were some of the worst of my life but I was honored to be standing next to his bed when he took his last breath. Honored that is was me and not my mother or sister (no matter how petty that sounds) that was standing there. Honored that it was the one who understood him the most.
The pain of that moment still lingers. The gut punch to my stomach and the subsequent draining of all the joy from my life for awhile. The realization that there was no more time. That 13 years was all I was going to get. That I was alone with the crazies. That I couldn’t say, “I love you daddy,” and have him reply “Ditto.”
But now at least there is the knowledge that there was love – no matter how dysfunctional – and that of all the crazies in the looney bin that was my family, he and I were loonies together.
And that will have to be enough.