Grieving my Father's Death: 46 Years Later
You died almost forty-six years ago. You were 56 and I was 15. I am now 61, but I am not simply an older version of you. I don't know if I resemble you much at all. The truth is that I never had the chance to know you. You never shared your dreams or your fears with me. I never saw you cry and I don't remember you being very happy. I do remember that you were mostly disappointed in me; that you were inpatient and didn't know how to help me when I was scared or confused.
One day you became angry at me; ran into my room and reared back your fist to hit me, but I surprised you by quickly punching you in the stomach. I managed to knock the wind out of you and I waited for you to retaliate, but you never did. You just stared through me, like I was less than invisible. You never really talked to me again. I spent the rest of my adolescent and much of my adult hood mired in guilt. "What kind of son hits his sick father?" I discovered later that you had been having small strokes which led to the one that eventually killed you.
This was a pivotal moment for me and I defined myself as an outcast after this point. I was a rebel and I saw myself as streetwise although I was a teenager from the suburbs in the middle of congested New Jersey. I felt isolated and held my own counsel, but didn't trust any of the words that came out of the counsel's mouth.
I was the epitome of self-destruction during my late teenage years. I was a mess and got mononucleosis. The doctor told me I was going to kill myself if I continued this self-abusive lifestyle.
Dad, I didn't realize that I was attempting to escape the pain I felt inside. The void that came from losing you that November day was worse than unbearable. I had no idea what I was feeling. The day they lowered your body into the ground seemed like someone else's dream to me. I felt so disconnected to events, people and reality.
The memories that kept appearing on my private screen were your funeral, your casket being shoved into the ground and mom picking me up at basketball practice saying you had been in an accident. The shocked and forlorn expression on her face caused me to feel that my life would never be the same again. My foreshadowing turned out to be one hundred percent accurate.
I have only a few positive memories about you. I remember seeing you and mom tenderly embrace when you didn't know I was in eye shot. I remember when you consoled me when I had a bathroom accident and you told me that it was ok that it happened to you once on the train to New York. These memories are fleeting, distant and vague.
During the entire time you have been gone, I have longed to fix all that was broken and complete all that was left unfinished. I would've traded just about anything for a conversation about the day I hit you. I would've begged you for absolution because I was desperate for you to hold me in your arms and forgive me for striking you. I went through periods of my life when I believed that I had resolved your loss. My first book was all about facing your death. When that book was finished, I felt like the haunting cloud of our unfinished business had now run full circle as I watched the darkness float away.
But the cloud returned in an abrupt, unannounced fashion. About four years ago, I had a health crisis that resulted in the installation of a heart pacemaker. I was close to death, but didn't realize that fact until later. I re-experienced that lost, confused and frightened state that originally began right after you died. Trying to wrap my head around the fact that I almost died was and remains terrifying. I needed someone to comfort me. I needed you more than ever, but when I reached for you, you weren't there.
I became very disillusioned and angry with myself for being in a state of stuck grief. I couldn't understand why all these memories about your death kept intruding into my everyday life. Haven't I gone through this once before? Why am I going through it again?
I kept searching for you to give me direction and kindness. Dad, I realize that you never had the opportunity to provide much direction or kindness in the fifteen years we had together on this earth. Since you didn't teach these fundamentals, I didn't really know how to calm or soothe myself. Matter of fact, calmness itself became a fear trigger for me. I have several memories of feeling relaxed and optimistic. This led to a state of relaxation then panic because then you died, my high school girl friend broke up with me and years later, I nearly died.
These memories would drown me in their sludge. I would reach out through the muck for your hand, but it wasn't there.
Suddenly there is a dramatic shift:
I have been working so hard to resolve your loss at different times of my life. Today I am integrating new wisdom into my heart, mind and soul. For the first time, I realize what the word acceptance actually means. I feel that I have a profoundly deeper understanding of your loss and can breathe again.
You cannot come back to forgive me for punching you, but I can forgive myself and that is the best I can do.
These vivid, stark memories will come up from time to time. I cannot prevent them from entering, but I don't need to dwell on them either. I also don't have to condemn myself for feeling stuck because certain visuals are floating through my brain. To experience these memories is normal and that is the best I can do.
I can't ever be with you, but I can imagine what it would be like to have a father-son conversation today. Imagination is all that I have and it is the best I can do.
I would tell you that I have been married forty years, have a successful private practice, have written three books and run twenty five miles per week.
I imagine that you would say that you are proud of me and love me very much.
There are certain songs that I choose to listen to because they bring up memories of your death. What Becomes of the Broken Hearted by Jimmy Ruffin was playing on the radio right before your funeral. I Can't Help Myself by The Four Tops was playing on the car radio when you almost drove into the car in the next lane on the New Jersey Turnpike in the summer of 1966.
I thought I would want to listen to songs that honor your loss, but don't feel the need. I am aware that I have squeezed out all existing feelings and memories after listening intently to these songs for forty six years.
Instead I would rather listen to The Cyrstal's Da Do Ron Ron or the new Bob Dylan or new Bonnie Raitt. Being in the present is the best I can do and the best I can do isn't bad at all.