Giving Thanks For my Father, Without Him

My Dad took this picture of himself in the mirror, before that was a thing. So, he’s like a Kardashian, but with film instead of an iPhone.

I am, truth be told, a reluctant writer. I avoid delving into my thoughts and feelings by way of British double entendre, Canadian straight man comedy, and the occasional game of Threes. I broke 25,000 recently so I’ve retired on a mediocre note, as high notes are unrealistic pipe dreams this year.

I come back to my computer, slowly, distractedly drawn by one more Facebook update, yet another Ranker listicle about medical mishaps, and a final drive by to “check” on the children’s activities. They are glued to screens, like they have been since March 13, so I’m not sure what I’m checking on. A pulse?

I would likely never write anything except that my mind tends to mull and ponder and obsess on a topic until it grows into a pulsing malignant thing destined for total takeover and I painfully drag it, along with every writhing tentacle of sub-thought, from my brain and set it to paper. Or keyboard. Or wherever these thoughts go when I type.

The past six months have seen the growth of so very many tumors of reflection that I have feared for our collective health. And yet. I haven’t wrestled any of them into submission. They have, accompanied by my perpetually raw feelings, been barricaded inside by the looming specter of this new reality:

I cannot write anything else until I write about my father.

The day after he died, I wrote my dad’s obituary. It took hours. I got things out. Older people, who apparently have enough practice reading obituaries to have opinions about them, told me it was lovely.

But it wasn’t enough. I didn’t get it right. It didn’t explain who he was and how hard he fought and how wholeheartedly he loved me.

I said he died holding my mom’s hand “at the home they shared for most of their marriage…” but what I meant was…

My parents LOVED. Deeply, committedly, with absolute devotion. Their life and love is the kind of thing people should makes movies about and you would need tissues and you would walk out hoping that a love like that could be yours someday, even with the pain.

I called my dad “a gifted educator who believed that any child could learn” but behind that statement was the time I nearly killed him while learning to drive and he, completely calmly, directed me to the side of the road and gave me a minute to compose myself before continuing home, to prove to me that I could do it without his help.

I reflected that “his deep bass voice is one of the things those who knew him will miss most.”

Dad called often and left messages for no particular reason. No one else on earth has ever told me they called me just to hear my voice. There is now one less human being who always cares what I have to say and I will never be ok with that.

In a stroke of obit-whimsy, I wrote, “He took great delight in the simple things of this life; a well-cooked meal, the call of a whippoorwill on a quiet walk in the woods, and the love of his family brought him immense joy.”

He taught me to whistle to the birds behind our house and that love was a thing you give freely and often. But simplicity was also the touchstone Dad needed to hold him down.

My father was bipolar, diagnosed at a time in the early ‘80s when it was called manic depression and many people didn’t believe in mental illness.

I have never had the experience of consciously discovering my father’s humanity, like so many do in adulthood. The circumstances of our lives made his vulnerability, his frailties, obvious in my earliest memories. I knew that hospital psych floors do not have buttons to call the elevator before I knew how to drive and that, between the two of us, the man behind the plexiglass was going to let me go downstairs rather than my father.

I knew that life was uncertain, cruel at times, and to be strong was better than not. The worst thing I have done in this life is to, at the age of 14, hate my father for his lack of strength. I thought we would be better off without him. I blamed him for the illness that wove itself into a permeating fog, twisting about our collective ankles.

My anger, at him, at God, at anything I could find to fault for our pain, was a living boulder I strove to crush into manageable bites so that they could be chewed and swallowed against their return.

My teenage years were not best time to know me.

My father was not considered a successful man. Despite his Master’s Degree, he could not hold down a steady job for many years. My mother provided for our family and paid his medical bills and kept our family afloat.  

Yet in his obituary I said that a “life lived with honesty, devotion, and perseverance is his greatest legacy” and I wasn’t embellishing anything. He may not be called a success, but he was certainly not a failure.

I do not know the depths of my father’s pain. I know that he thought far too little of himself. I know he struggled with the embarrassment of a gregarious personality on a manic high and became far more subdued with age, especially around those he didn’t know well.

And I know that my presence, with all of my faults and misplaced anger, never failed to bring him joy. The last coherent thing he said to me was “Oh, are you leavin’?” with a note of disappointment like he was hoping for a few more minutes.

He was leaving, not me. And he just wanted to visit with me for a little bit longer.

My father, broken and battered, fighting cancer and his ailing body, truly lived in the present. He was content. He was grateful. He was free with his love and approval and hesitant with anything that might sound critical to me. He was willing to be open minded and almost childlike in his sense of right and wrong. Right things don’t hurt other people. Fairness should be a given. Say what you mean.

I keep thinking, in our time of economic failures, civil unrest, and a global pandemic, that my father left right when we needed him most.

He encouraged. He listened. He hoped, again and again, with hard-fought practice. My very imperfect father gave up the perfect example of how to thrive in this moment in history.

I will try, Dad, to keep going forward, to notice people on the edges, and to grieve well but without despair, like you showed us.  

My father died. I am heartbroken. And I needed to get the words out again.

2 thoughts on “Giving Thanks For my Father, Without Him

  1. Jenny (Hatfield) Blonk says:

    Thank-you for writing this, Sally. My daddy died almost two years ago. Much of what you said here struck a chord, and put words to my own experience. The loss and grief is so deep. Here’s to our dads…imperfect and wonderful.

    • Sally Alexander says:

      Thank you, Jenny. I didn’t appreciate how difficult losing a parent was and feel like I should go back to friends who’ve lost theirs to apologize if I didn’t express my sympathies well enough. I’m sorry for your loss as well.

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