My emotional bandwidth is full at the moment. The world seems to be a swirling mass of chaos and I cannot process one more thing. My father died a couple of weeks ago and I’ve been trying to find my footing ever since, I’m still shaky. We weren’t close, we weren’t estranged, we were somewhere in-between, a relationship on hold. A quick call on birthdays and holidays, a visit or two throughout the year and lately one or more of those visits was in a hospital room. I always tightened my stomach before dialing his number, it never got easy, but I kept trying. Walking through the awkward became somewhat less traumatic yet, it never vanished.
Our relationship went off the rails the summer I was 9. My twin brother and I were back in New Jersey after living in Florida for a year. Before we moved, there was a custody case, mom won and promptly took us away. While we were gone, we would get weekly calls from our father and stepmother telling us how much they missed us and couldn’t wait to see us again. We believed them.
We made our way back to New Jersey and were visiting a family friend who lived around the corner from our father and stepmother. My brother and I went to the house, excited to see them. We could barely contain ourselves, wouldn’t they be surprised! A somber version of our father emerged and coaxed us away from the door and sat us down on the front steps. I don’t remember his exact words but the gist of it was – you can’t just come here unannounced, I have a family now. I’m sure it had something to do with his baby daughter and a wife that wanted to contain the crazy. Looking back I can see where the man had been put through hell. Trying to get custody, losing that battle, then his insane (certified) ex wife takes his kids to Florida, it must have been an emotional roller coaster for him. I lacked that perspective then. What I heard was I don’t want to see you and then it all faded to black.
I think my little psyche had been through too much at this point so I just shut down. Florida was a nightmare and I had witnessed far more than any child should. If he didn’t want us to visit, then fine I wouldn’t want to be there. I flipped a switch, threw up a wall, deployed the shield. My brother, God bless him, he handled it different. He just tried harder to get the man’s attention. For years, decades even, it was like watching an animal stuck in a trap trying to get free, wailing in pain with each pull of a limb. I avoided the trap.
My father and his second wife had 5 children. They raised them Catholic, took them to church every Sunday and didn’t mention the fact that they had half siblings. My brother and I would visit our paternal grandmother who lived 4 houses away from our father and he would not stop in to visit. A whispered hush fell over the town when we would visit, “those” kids were around. Our uncle lived next door to our father, we could hear our siblings laughing and playing outside while we were across the street. They didn’t even know we existed. I guess the plan was that eventually we would give up on every paternal relative but we didn’t. We kept showing up and at some point our father and stepmother had to tell the other kids about us. Is this the Christian way to raise a family? I mean I don’t go to church too often but this seems a little off, but I digress.
We never had a conversation about this. I wrote him when I was 21, suggested that we get to know each other. I acknowledged that I had not heard his side of things. He never responded to that letter. In our late twenties my twin and I would see our father and his family at events for extended relatives, things started to thaw.
Back to Dad…
In mid September he went in for a test, that test resulted in an error which required a surgical fix. I went to visit him on a Wednesday, they were talking about discharging him, this was 5 days after his surgery. We did our usual small talk, I showed him digital pics of my kids from a recent trip, we listened to the weather channel. A somewhat bland visit, it was to be our last conversation. Oh how I wish I could redo that chat. The next day he went into cardiac arrest, 5 days later, he was gone.
Those days went by in slow motion, somewhat suspended as we sat in a CCU waiting room, anxious for the next update. I was there with four half siblings, my father’s significant other and other relatives that would stop by. I participated in conversations about his medical directive and eventually we got him transitioned into hospice. I’ve been a hospice volunteer for ten years so I was familiar with the process and knew which questions to ask. He died within 20 minutes of having the ventilator removed, per his wishes which he declared in an Advance Medical Directive. He was surrounded by people that loved him in his final moments and it went about as well as these things can, it was still awful.
I knew the wake would be hard for a variety of reasons. Of course there is the grief of losing a parent. If you’re lucky, you have a lifetime of memories to cherish, inside jokes, and special moments that live in your heart. My memories are scarce and tainted by abandonment, unanswered questions and decades of denial that I wanted, no, needed a father. No more do-overs, mulligans or second chances, in that regard, hope also died. Hope that somehow, someday, somewhere, someway, the awkward yet necessary conversation will happen, it won’t. It never will.
That’s a lot to take in when your standing in 4 inch heals for five hours straight on the back end of the receiving line for your dead father. He was flanked by honor guards, standing at attention. Honor guards, and some people looked confused as they were trying to sort out my role. I was his oldest daughter, twin to a brother that bore his name and I had to explain that dozens of times throughout the wake. It’s not the first time someone has said “Oh, I didn’t know he had an older daughter”, perhaps it will be the last.
Of course there were pictures. Pictures everywhere of a life I never lived. A seemingly happy family with 5 kids and two parents in matching Christmas outfits, funny birthday shots, tons of beach and bay photos filled with beautiful people on sunny days. I forced myself to put a memory board together and only found one photo of us from my son’s Christening 15 years ago. I filled the board with twin baby and toddler pictures of my brother and I. Then I added some random beach shots of my kids in the town that my father lived in. It was pathetic and sad and I insisted on doing it, I needed to be in that room. I needed my kids to be there too, forced inclusion at it’s lowest level.
The pictures were of particular importance. Nearly 20 years ago, my stepmother died in a car accident. We had just begun to heal our broken relationship when she died suddenly and that wake had a thousand pictures filling the room. My brother and I weren’t in one, believe me we searched with bloodshot eyes, not a single picture. At one point, I needed to leave that wake because I was so overwhelmed by grief of the life we never had with them, it was palpable and I was choking on it. Then 4 years ago, our father’s youngest son died. Another wake, more pictures, more despair, this family has been through hell.
After 5 hours of standing in line, trying my best to look less broken, we were asked to sit. I sat in a chair which was off to the side, it was closest to the casket and gave me a side view of the speaker. An elderly man, a chaplain from the firehouse, who gave a very passionate speech which at times, felt like a personal challenge.
Man: “He was a GREAT man, a great man!
(OK, stay calm this will all be over soon)
Man: “He was the best if you had a problem with him, then that was your problem!”
(Are you challenging me old man. Oh FFS, I saw him beat my mother, he abandoned his first two kids, didn’t pay child support and was likely a neglectful parent to his other kids after his second wife died, he was a serial cheater and probably an alcoholic)
Man: “We will all miss him so much. Truly, a great man (sniffs).”
(Maybe I was the asshole, everyone says he was great. This send off feels like a canonization. Dear God, was it me, was it my fault??? Table that for later…)
The wake was followed by a dinner with a large crowd and it was as nice as these things can be. I truly enjoyed spending time with my brother, niece, nephew, uncle, aunt and half siblings. I don’t know them well, yet I feel a pull towards them. An inexplicable pull that goes beyond having compassion for people that have been through some serious shit of their own.
The funeral was on a Monday and it was as if a Statesman had been laid to rest. His flag draped coffin was placed on the back of a vintage fire truck. Uniformed firefighters saluted his coffin, bag pipes wailed as the church swelled with people. I had to keep reminding myself to walk tall, shoulders back, head held high, looking straight ahead, like an android in mourning. I treated this like a last wish, playing my part in this orchestrated event. After the mass, his casket was placed back on the fire truck and paraded past the places he frequented most. Cops closed off intersections to let the procession cars go through red lights. Surely, a legend had died, a great man forever sleeps.
The next day the sibling in charge of our father’s estate sent out a group text outlining the details of the Will. Yup, a group text which was sent while my twin was mid-route of his multi-state drive home. We were clearly not the favorite kids that hunch became tangible as some of the finer points were laid out. The house would go to the four kids from the second marriage. That was expected, in fact our father told us his intention in regard to that property. My twin was hurt, I was somewhat indifferent, it still stung a little. Another property with individual components would be divided 6 ways. Wait, there’s a catch, sales from the property being divided 6 ways would first go toward the house mortgage, any remainder would be divided six ways. (Geezus, do I owe money at this point?)
Imagine a pie – perhaps it’s blueberry, pumpkin or custard – it’s your pie, imagine whatever you want, no calories, so YAY! You need to share that pie because sharing is good. Right off the bat 2/3’s of the pie go to the younger 4 siblings. That’s OK 1/3 of the pie split 6 ways is still a delicious little sliver. But before you get your sliver you need to reduce it some more and give it back to the younger ones (the ones Daddy loved more) and you’re left with…crumbs. Crumbs and a bitter taste in your mouth because he didn’t warn you about that bit and clearly a lot of thought went into it.
So for the past two weeks I’ve been cursing at ghosts. Grieving the childhood I didn’t have, feeling my brother’s pain along with my own. I am determined to get through this, lose the bitter taste in my mouth and get on with it. I’m just not there yet, there’s no manual for this.