Posting the story
about my sister Parrish reminded me of an email exchange that took place between my estranged father Mike (more a sperm donor than a parent), my mother, my youngest half-sister Helen (who has never laid eyes on him in her 35 years), and myself a few months after her death.
Early on in my sister's disease there was some discussion as to whether or not Parrish wanted Mike to know she was ill. Her decision was that if he hadn't been there for the entirety of her life, there was no reason to invite him to be part of the end of her life. The subject remained closed for several years, until the end was nigh, and it seemed prudent to bring it up again.
At the time of Parrish's passing, neither of us had spoken to him in about 20 years. Actually, 22 years for me and 17 for her - she'd tried to have a relationship with him when her first daughter was born, under the misguided notion that he would appreciate grandchildren any more than he appreciated his daughters. Mike left when I was three and Parrish was 6 months old. When I was eight he stopped coming to fetch us for weekends and holidays. My mother tried to encourage him to take us, to have a relationship, but he would have nothing to do with us. When Parrish and I went to visit him around my 18th birthday we found documents in the room where we were staying (a guest room-cum-office) that indicated he felt the $100 a month he paid in child support was blood money. (Yes, I raided the files. I'm a nosy bugger.) For me, this sealed the deal. Our relationship, such as it never was, was a fait accompli. Parrish would try several more times over the years.
My parents met in high school and share many of the same friends. While they don't speak or see each other, from time to time information is passed on through mutual friends. My mother felt that news as tragic as Parrish's impending death was something she should tell Mike personally. She called and there was cordial conversation. He was sad to hear the news and asked if Parrish wanted to see him. My mother said that she would have me raise the subject with her at an appropriate time. Meanwhile they were invited to join the Yahoo! group we had set-up and which we were using to keep the myriad of friends and family up to date. Emails were exchanged. They asked for an address so that they (he and his wife - who also happens to have been my teenage babysitter for whom he left his family) could send a card or flowers.
Before taking the steps to have this conversation with Parrish, I wanted to be sure that, should she want to see him, Mike would really rally and show up. I wasn't going to dangle a carrot before her just to whip it away when she went for a bite and give her one more disappointment in her short time left. So, with that in mind, I (using my mother's email address and posing as her) sent Mike an email asking him if he would be willing to make the trip to see her should she be willing. I waited for a reply. And I waited, and I waited.
When you're dealing with brain cancer, particularly towards the end, time is not something you have going spare. By the time I had sent Mike this email Parrish was already losing her language skills. Her sentences barely made sense and her thoughts were, at best, disjointed. She would walk into the room and say things like "I need yeast to be served to me", when in fact what she wanted was her medication. So, I didn't have a lot of time to wait on his reply. While she did still have some cognitive abilities I decided to test the waters, just in case.
I went up to her room where she was sitting in bed doodling on a piece of paper, trying to write something, but it was largely gibberish.
"Dad's on the Yahoo! email list."
"He says to tell you he's thinking about you."
"Do you want to see him?"
Hard cold stare.
"Yeah, that's what I thought you'd say."
Meanwhile, the days passed, and still no response from Mike, even though the point was now moot. No flowers arrived. For weeks my mother and I made a game out of checking the mailbox to see if a card had arrived, knowing full well that Fuck Face, as Mike was now known around the house, wouldn't be sending one.
The end finally came in early September, and Parrish was gone. We then began the arduous process of calling friends and family. My sister Terese sent an email message out to the Yahoo! group letting everyone know. My mother and I decided that Mike could find out through Yahoo! like everyone else. This time he didn't warrant a courtesy call.
In October we held a memorial service at our house in Malibu, complete with a paddleout service with about 40 surfers in the water spreading her ashes. The invitation went out through the Yahoo! group and through friends and family. It was an open invitation, everyone was welcome. 250 people showed up. There was food, music, drinks, and a bonfire. It was the ultimate beach party and Parrish would have loved it - particularly as it was all about her! Friends we hadn't seen since elementary school came. Old boyfriends. People flew in from all over the world. The only people really missing from the celebration of her life were Mike and his wife. Still no card, no email, no flowers.
Finally, in early December, my mother receives an email. Not one that says "I'm so sorry for our loss. I am sorry I wasn't there for her at the end. I can't imagine how hard it was for you to watch your child die. What is going to happen to Parrish's daughters, our grandchildren?" But rather:
I've taken this time to ponder over and digest Parrish's death. I can't imagine how terrible it must have been for her. Her passing is a very very sad thing for everyone concerned.
When it comes to me, I had hoped you had mellowed over the years. It seems I was wrong as you appear to still be vindictive and mean spirited. The only change I see is that you have added self righteous, condecending and lack of human decency to your repertoire.
Since it is obvious that nothing is ever going to change and the harm can never be repaired, I would consider it a great kindness if you never contacted me again.
Well, as you can imagine, this went over particularly well amongst my sisters and I. Neither of my youngest sisters have had the pleasure of meeting Mike. Their father was more than enough crazy for them. Helen, the youngest of the four of us, wrote him a scathing email chocked full of expletives and funneled rage, and I grinned like the Cheshire Cat when I read it. It was from the heart and grammatically incorrect, and brilliant.
When I read his email I was so enraged that I was utterly calm. Never, never a good sign. I waited a few hours, gathered my thoughts, and put together my own email back to him. However, I suspect that because he shares his email address with his wife, it is quite possible that he never saw the emails from Helen and from me. That notion as bothered me. Not just because I don't want him to think he had the last word, but also because I truly want him to know how much he has actually lost.
Therefore, to that end, I am re-posting my email here, so that it may live on in the eternal archives of the internet, like a message-in-a-bottle floating at sea. Perhaps it will make its way to its recipient, perhaps it won't. Perhaps another father will read it, and will be kind enough to send his dying daughter a card and a box of See's Candies.
When you can begin to count the years since you've participated in your child's life in decades and have never celebrated the birthdays of your grandchildren, you don't get to pontificate indignantly from some imagined height of human awareness and understanding. Nor do you get to lash out with your own sorrow or regret at the one person who stepped up to the plate to raise your children while you've indulged in a lifetime of narcissism.
You were given an opportunity at the end of my sister's life to make amends and you balked and backpedaled as fast as your legs could carry you. We asked you if you would be willing, should she wish it, to come see her and say good-bye and perhaps repair a little bit of the damage of a lifetime of paternal neglect, and how did you respond? You asked if you could send a card, which never arrived. Not even a heartfelt Hallmark card to indicate you thought the very best of your own child before she passed. At least I know that I don't have to regret having dangled a visit from "Dear Old Dad" before my dying sister.
The one good thing that has come from this glimpse into our familial ties is that my siblings, nieces, and husband all now know that I will not be calling for a reconciliation with my father on my deathbed. It's too bad that unlike my mother, your golden years will not be filled with the richness of the love and warmth of your children and grandchildren. You could have been a very wealthy man in this respect, but for some things there are no redemption and no reward.