When my father called to tell me he was having major surgery to remove a malignant mass from his chest, I didn’t hesitate to buy a plane ticket.
“The doctors have to break open my rib cage to get the whole thing out. Safest way to keep it from spreading,” he explained.
“How long’s the recovery?” I asked.
“I want to come down and see you.”
“Okay.” His voice cracked through the line. Then my father, who under reacts in times of crisis and barely smiles for a camera began to cry.
I did my best to console his fears and hold back tears. I failed. We exchanged I love yous and hung up the phone.
Twelve years ago, had someone told me I would be speaking to my father let alone making time to be by his bedside, I would have thought they were nuts.
Divorced from my mother when I was three, my parents managed feelings about their contentious relationship and bitter divorce by throwing me in the middle even long after each remarried and had new families of their own. On our scheduled visits, which lasted well into high school, I figured my father to be a stubborn workaholic. Time at his house was spent getting to know my step-mother. In between those visits, my mother shared more disgust for and information about her ex-husband than a daughter needed to know. As such, I can’t remember a single birthday or holiday spent with my dad. I assumed he was too busy or lived too far away; but it’s likely he was never extended an invitation.
Whether my parent’s choices were driven by self-interest, youthful inexperience or something more, I’ll never know. At that moment in their lives, healthy co-parenting was not an option. To add to the dysfunction was the abuse I simultaneously experienced at the hands of my step-father.
By age 17, my entire being was a giant, rage infested mess masked by sarcasm, perfectionism and dramatic flair. Needing to simplify the noise to ensure survival, I thrust myself into the middle of my parent’s fight de jour fight over college selection and payment and cut ties with my father.
But skeletons and wounds weigh on one’s spirit. Fifteen years later, I was knee deep in therapy trying to make sense of our relationship. My therapist recommended I write my dad a letter. I was to consider it a cathartic exercise or an attempt to communicate. Sending was optional.
With the pressure off, I put everything out there; the anger and hurt, grievances and resentment, his emotional distance, my abusive childhood and our lengthy estrangement.
Afterward, I thought about my unborn son and what I might say if he one day asked, “Who’s my grandfather?”
Then I dug up my father’s address and dropped the letter in the mail.
He wasted little time. What followed was a blur of email exchanges followed by a planned call. I barely said hello when the words came out.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “My point of view doesn’t matter. You’re the child. I’m the parent and I take full responsibility for everything that’s happened.”
During a time when I was trying to piece together my self-worth, build a meaningful relationship with my spouse and prepare for motherhood, my father’s words were the light in my darkness and the greatest gift.
Whoever my father was or how I perceived him to be when I was young no longer mattered. His ability to take ownership without caveat or blame and express himself with vulnerability and honesty showed me who he was at present. I knew the least I could do was begin to forgive the man and let him in.
A dozen years travel fast. While I’m grateful for this second chance, it’s not nearly enough. Those tears shed over his operation were not about any cancer, but my fear of losing a father I’ve only recently learned to love.
Thankfully, he’s made a full recovery. The doctors cut out the stage one growth and replaced it with a 12 inch scar. We can only hope health and time are on his side.
During our visit, my dad was feeling energized so we took a walk around the neighborhood; no grandkids, spouses or pets. Just us. We kibitzed about his upcoming retirement, the politics of the day and puppies. Being able to experience such a simple pleasure felt, as he likes to say whenever presented with good eats, “pretty damn good.”
Occasional strolls and weekly phone conversations won’t replace the birthday parties missed, lost Christmas Eves or the father-daughter wedding dance we never had, but it gives me great comfort knowing we will mourn those losses and create new memories - together.