Nineteen Years

Complicated. Distant. Cordial.

These are the words that come to mind when I think about my relationship with my dad. He was a good man—I’ve never felt otherwise. We just didn’t really click on a personal level. When I was young, I thought it was because we were too different. He didn’t understand me at all, and I didn’t really understand him. As an adult, I think the exact opposite was the real truth: We were too much the same.

I’ve never met anyone like my dad. He was by far the quietest man I’ve ever met. He didn’t talk at all. And it wasn’t shyness; he was just very much inside his own head. We lived in the same house until he died when I was 22 years old, and we would go days without speaking—not because there was any problem between us, but because he was just that quiet. He would exist in silence, and I knew he wasn’t mad at me, but he just had nothing to say. When he would talk to me, I always felt a bit shocked for a moment.

I’m told he wasn’t always that way. My mom, my aunt…they say he used to be an easygoing guy who liked to tease and joke. I didn’t really know that side of him, but I do believe it existed. I think I just came along too late to see it, which makes me kind of sad.

I got glimpses of it sometimes, though. Every once in a while, he would loosen up and joke. He wasn’t a heavy drinker by any means, but on the rare occasion when he’d have a bit much, he would suddenly talk my ear off, which was both funny and a nice change. And when my mom went out of town one year, when my sister and brother were already out of the house and it was just my dad and me, I remember him chasing me out the door, asking me when I’d be home and what we should do for dinner. “Dad, I have to get to work!” I said. “Okay, so you’ll be home at 6:30, though, right? Where should we go for dinner?” He was suddenly needy for my attention, and I was kind of touched. I hadn’t realized how much he missed my mom when she was gone, until he suddenly didn’t have her around and was clearly desperately lonely for some company.

The truth is, by the time I came along and was old enough to remember, he was working a lot. He would leave the house no later than 6:30 a.m., and there was a long stretch of time where he wouldn’t get home from work until 10:30 p.m. And when he was home, he did yardwork on his own or watched a football game—neither of which I enjoyed at the time, so I certainly didn’t volunteer to help.

And so the gap between us widened. Not really any problems, not really any fights…just distance.

So when he died nineteen years ago, when I was twenty-two and he was just fifty-five, it was a strange feeling. For so long he had held such a small role in my life, despite the fact that we lived in the same house, that it wasn’t as if much changed for me. I didn’t have a dad anymore, obviously…but it wasn’t as if I had relied on him for anything anyway. I could’ve, if I’d needed to—I know that now, and I think I knew that then. But I didn’t need to. Despite living at home, I was independent, and I didn’t ask for help on things—it just wasn’t what I did. And the house didn’t feel much different for me because he and I hadn’t really interacted much anyway, so not much changed. Plus, we had just moved into a new house three months earlier, and he had been traveling for work every week, so I had barely seen him there.

I felt guilty—and I still feel guilty to this day—but I didn’t really grieve for him then. Well, not for me, anyway. I did grieve for him—I felt awful that his life had been cut too short. I felt horrible that he didn’t get to spend any retirement with my mom, which I knew was what he had worked so hard for. I was devastated for my mom, who I knew had lost her best friend and biggest ally. And I felt terrible for my sister, who’d had a particularly close bond with my dad and really felt the loss of him.

But for myself? It was hard to feel much of anything. It was almost as if I’d been living with a ghost, and now the ghost had moved on. It was strange without him, but not terribly different.

There have been times over the years when I have felt bad that my dad wasn’t here. I would’ve loved to have him meet Chris. I would’ve loved to have him meet the boys, even though I know there would’ve been friction between us about how Chris and I are raising them. I would’ve loved to have him know that I really did make something of myself, because I’m not sure he ever thought I would do much of anything at all. But it’s always been a passing feeling, not an overwhelming grief. I’ve always been close with my mom, and she certainly filled in the gaps.

Yesterday, my mom gave me a box of old pictures to take home. I looked at them today, and I broke. Because what I saw was not all what I remembered. I was remembering the distance and the rare moments when we connected, but there were more of them than I remembered. I saw in pictures that he had loved me. That he had actually enjoyed spending time with me at some points in my life. I relived those few but precious times when we were on the same wavelength. Like the time we went skiing, because he had always wanted to go and never had. And he crashed absolutely spectacularly, got slowly to his feet, smiled, and said, “I think I’m ready to call it a day.” And the times we spent in the car with him teaching me to drive, and suggesting that we stop for chocolate milkshakes on the way back home. And the time we made homemade ice cream out on the back patio, with a big homemade churn. And the time I had a horrible boss who reduced me to tears, and he just shook his head and said, “Bear, sometimes the world is full of assholes,” which made me laugh through my tears. And the time he took me to the zoo, just him and me, and bribed me to pet the snake because he wanted to help me get over my fear.

I never disputed that he was a good father. He provided for us, and he never missed a school activity of mine if he was in town, despite how much he worked. But I used to say, “I know he loves me because I’m his daughter, but I don’t think he particularly likes me.” I know now that I was wrong. He did like me. I just wish I’d known it then.

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