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August 31
Mother, wife, twin, evil stepmother, animal lover, black belt, log cabin-dwelling lawyer who has a love affair with words; would love to write a book, but I don't think I have that much to say. But . . . I'm a late bloomer so maybe it's not too late!


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MARCH 3, 2009 10:48PM

The Last Time I Saw My Father

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My father was a serial husband. His first marriage, when he was very young and she was even younger, ended in an annulment. At the age of twenty-eight, he married my mother, four years his senior. That was in 1951. Twenty-one years later, I was summoned home from a babysitting job to say goodbye to my father; he was moving out. After that he lived with Marilyn for several years, though they never married. Wife Number Three was Elvira, who thought my sisters, my brother, and I were uncouth. Oh, she never said so . . . but we all felt it. That marriage ended after my father decided Southern California was too cold (too COLD!!!) and the two of them sold the house in the valley, and took off for Texas, then Florida in search of warmer climes. I guess they didn't travel well together, because right after they decided Texas was the place for them, they divorced. I think Wife Number Four's name was Agnes, but I can't be sure about that. I received the wedding announcement, signed by my father with his first and last name. His fifth and final wife was Nell, a tiny, kind, and generous woman, whom he married just prior to the onset of his dementia.

Somewhere between Elvira and Agnes, my mother died of ovarian cancer. So far as I know, my father and she hadn't had any contact at all since they'd been forced to be in the same room together at my younger sister's wedding a few years before. Nevertheless, my father took it pretty hard that none of his kids had called him to let him know his wife of twenty years, and his ex-wife of another twenty, had died of the cancer I had so diligently kept him up to date on since her diagnosis. Sad? Oh, no, he wasn't sad. He was mad. Mad that we hadn't contacted him. Mad that we hadn't given him our condolences. Mad that he was deprived of the opportunity to play the grieving (ex-)husband, the same guy who had walked out on her, leaving her to finish raising four teenagers by herself after devoting her life to serving him. Well. You can understand his indignation. And if you are wondering, he never so much as sent a card or made a phone call to any of his children who'd just lost their mother.

That's when I decided that I'd had quite enough of my father in my life. He was physically and emotionally abusive to us until he left, and my siblings had pretty much washed their hands of him years before I did. The difference, however, was that they maintained a superficial relationship with him. They would send cards at the appropriate times, and converse with him on the phone, if he would take the time to do so. I, on the other hand, effected a complete severance from my father. I did not call him. I did not write him. I did not think of him as a living person. So much so, that when I was asked once about my parents and where they lived, I answered without thought that they were both dead. Except for the limited interaction I had with my father during my brother's coma (see previous posts), I did not see my father for thirteen years.

That was when the phone call came. My sister explained that my father was in a nursing home near death, and that if we wanted to see him again to say goodbye (again), we needed to fly to Texas as soon as possible. So the three of us flew. One from California. One from Minnesota. And me, from Ohio.

Why did I go? First, I thought I would not go. It was an expense I couldn't easily bear, and he really didn't mean much to me by then. I discovered that I was happy with him out of my life, and I didn't miss him. I missed the father I never had, for sure, but I didn't miss the one I did have. Not at all. Then I remembered when his mother was on her deathbed and called our house to talk to her only son before she left this planet forever, and he would not go to the phone to give her that farewell kindness. Being different from my father has always been a powerful motivator in my life, so I naturally decided to go see my father off, as it were.

But there was another reason, too. I wanted to forgive him. I wanted to forgive him for the beatings, the black eye, the humiliating, the kicking, the yelling, the terrorizing, the sexualizing, the whipping, the insulting, the demeaning. I wanted to forgive him for stretching up from his seated position, lifting his head and pretending to suck on my breast as I stood next to him in my wedding dress while someone else aimed a camera at the bride and her father. Click! Preserved for posterity. I knew he might not remember everything he was being forgiven for, and I knew for sure he would deny it all, except maybe the black eye which he'd already acknowledged, but not apologized for. But I wanted to forgive him for everything even if he didn't remember, even if he didn't know what the hell I was talking about.

When we arrived in Texas, we were met by Nell's daughter, Crystal. She tried to explain my father's condition to us as best she could as she taxied us to the nursing home. "He's not himself," she said. "He is there one minute, and the next, he has my mother down on the floor and is hitting her, but it's the illness, you know." I wasn't buying it. My father had been beating up on people much smaller than him as long as I had been alive. That he was still doing so indicated lucidity, not deterioration. I was angry that his perfectly consistent-with-history behavior was being excused by his very real disease.

Once at the nursing home, I was shocked to see how old my father had gotten since the last time I'd seen him. That his beard, which he wore for probably thirty years or more, had been shaved off only added to his strangerness. He asked Nell what my older sister's name was. He asked which daughter my younger sister was. And when he saw me, he said, "Why, Jan!" At that moment, he was completely happy to see me.

He certainly didn't look like he was at death's door, or even on death's porch, when I was in Texas. He was irrational, but what was new? He floated in time, mostly around the twenty years he and my mom were married. He bellowed for Wife Number Five to come serve him beer, which he could not have because of his medications, and who needs a drunk Alzheimer's patient in the nursing home? He turned eighty years old and ate a piece of cake about three times larger than even the biggest cake enthusiast should eat at one sitting. Oh, there was no doubt he was sick, but dying? Still, I knew that was the last time I would see him, and I tried to force myself to feel more than I did. I wanted an epiphany, I guess. I wanted some answers. I wanted to know what it all meant, the way our lives had been. I wanted to discover what we were to each other. All I can say is that none of that happened, but it wasn't through lack of trying on my part.

My younger sister left Texas the day before my older sister and I did. That last night, my sister and I went to the movies, and when we came out of the theater, it was sleeting . . . a lot. "Ohhhh, it's so BEAUTIFUL," said my Southern California sister, "but . . . you know how to drive in this, don't you?"

"Of course!" I boasted confidently.

The next morning, the plan was to run by the nursing home and say our very last goodbyes to my father before heading to the airport in Austin. My secret plan was to give him a final hug and as I did so whisper "I forgive you," in his ear.

There was about an inch and a half of ice covering everything that morning. My sister and I poured water on the car to open the doors, and headed toward the nursing home, but it became apparent that we were not going to have time to go there, and make it to the airport on time. It's strange how invested I had become in forgiving my father in the few days that had passed since I made my decision to do so. When my sister and I realized that going for the final visit was simply impossible, I felt let down, cheated, robbed. But my father was the real victim of that ice storm. He never received my gift of forgiveness.

Oh, sure, I can say that I've forgiven him, but what good is such forgiveness if it is not given away? Kept as it is in my consciousness, it is vulnerable to my amendment, my tinkering, my selfishness, and my whim. I can still take it back, and I have more than a few times. If I had been able to say my words to my father, they would be permanent and immutable.  I could be held to account. I am nothing if not a woman of my word, once it is spoken, that is! And so by speaking my words to him, I would have locked myself into their effect. If I had given my father forgiveness, I doubt that I would be writing about it today.




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Thanks Barrie! Writing for me is a way of crystallizing events, ideas, and feelings that I want to understand or lay to rest. It works! And it's cheaper than therapy! Thanks for your kind words!
I will certainly do that, Barrie. Thanks for the tip!
Thank you for's wonderful and so brave of you. I felt like I was reading parts of my own life. I don't know if this will give you comfort, but you did say that he didn't say goodbye to his mother, maybe in some strange way, call it the twists of fate or something larger, maybe he didn't want you to suffer through that goodbye. Maybe he already knew you were on your way to forgiving him...maybe wanting to forgive him was all that he needed.

maybe, maybe...

Hope writing will lead you closer to peace...
I think that your need to forgive your father means more to you than it would have to him and you have done that. Under the circumstances, with or without his disease of dementia, his being "forgiven" would not mean the same thing; he probably would not know what you were talking about. The personality of your father before the dementia indicates to me that he may not have had any indication that his choices and his behavior throughout life were in need of forgiveness and that is his "failure", not yours. Take comfort in his blissful, if not dysfunctional, workings of his mind. Although throughout his life he wrecked havoc on all of those around him, and probably could not feel it, at the end of his life when we must all take an accounting, an "ordinary" person, like you, might not ever be able to reconcile his life. So, if peace is what you wanted for him, he had his own kind of peace.

You, on the other hand, and your siblings, have accomplished amazing feats of growth and development and are to be commended. You, especially, made a decision at one point that, for your own well being and sanity, you had to distance yourself in order to make a life for yourself. That is a choice many have had to make because, sometimes, we cannot save one at the expense of many, especially in a family. Because of the person you have come to be, you needed to say the words to him, but, he didn't need them, you did. You have forgiven him already, in the life you lead, in choosing to be different from him, and in just making the trip. Now, forgive yourself completely by leading a joyous life with a clean heart. I guess I am saying that you did not have a "full deck" to deal with and you did all you could do to stay in the game. And that is more than enough.

I agree that your writing of this tale is beautifully done and coming from a heart that needs not to suffer on this issue any longer. Use it to help another some day.
Tommye, you are so right. After my mother's death, after receiving kindness and comfort from people I had only known for a few months (we'd just moved across the country), I realized that I wouldn't let anyone else treat me as my father had, so why was I clinging to the idea that he might someday want to acknowledge or attone for his abuse? Cutting him loose was the most liberating experience I have ever had. It truly did leave me free to create myself, out from under his influence for the most part, or at least from that point forward.

The only time I ever broached the subject with him was when he called me on the telephone to "introduce" me to his latest wife, I forget which one. When I explained that I was struggling with some of the things that had happened in my childhood, he became angry and shouted "What about ME? I was on a ship in the war and a torpedo would come in and forty of my friends were dead!" I don't think he meant to compare my childhood to a war, but that's what he did. And, of course, in doing so, he took the focus off of me and onto himself as an egocentric is prone to do.

He has been gone for a few years now, and I'm happy to say, I have no regrets. I don't think much about the negative aspects of our relationship (this is the most I've thought about them in years! It doesn't hurt anymore.), and I do give him credit for instilling in me a love of words which not only brings me enjoyment, but pays the bills, too!
I just had to do that;-)

The last time I saw my father was on a trip for that from LA back to Wisconsin.
The last thing he said to me was, "God bless you, Ron".
I remember feeling like throwing up and being so uncomfortable that I just left without saying anything.

The last time I saw him, he was laid out in a coffin.

About 3 or 4 days later, I had an itch on my face.
I scratched it and, in a few seconds, I felt something wet on my cheek.
I touched it with my fingers and saw blood on my fingertips.
I didn't realize how it had gotten there till I looked at my fingers.
My fingernails had grown over the last few days and, I had scratched myself.
I had bitten them all my life till he died.
I finally realized what was so wrong in so many ways about my life as I relized the source of the tension was gone.

The scars on my body are long gone however, the inner ones are there forever.
They no longer pain me but, they DO still hurt.

I hope your pain goes away.
What is about the abscence of a father that can spawn all kinds of dilemmas, both moral and emotional. Think about what the father classically stands for in literature and in real life. The father represents that of the protector, he is the provider, he is the man whom we want to ask to the father daughter dance later on, go to see a baseball game with, remember fixing the stuff mom coudn't. Classically fathers are supposed to be "the man", the man a father shows to his family, in light of his ego, in light of being the bastard he is capable with out moments notice of being. He is the first man you stand on his feet and dance with, he is the first man, who will tell you what a beautiful princess you are. But the ego side asks for other ordeals, other non-okay ideas, that later for many, many girls will become the back drop of another type of father mystery. Why? oh why Lord, do you send this man to conduct himself as a fool to the very people he is to protect and help provide for? He later is to become the man who will watch for other boys that might want to take advantage, but he takes advantage as well. But he's on your side, or isn't he, not the time he yelled at you for no apparent reason. Not the time he hit mommy, not the time he felt the inside of your night gown, but he is that father exactly. He is the only one that can claim a right to you, his genes are embedded in your body, from the very top, to the silly way you both eat a hamburger together. The similaritys are alarming, the way you hold your knife, the way you laugh, the way you think, it's all there, so how could you not forgive him for being who he is? With all his self, what else did we ever ask people who are that personal to us, to be?
A powerful piece in all respects. I am always awed and thankful when a writer enters into what my writing teacher, Tom Spanbauer, calls "dangerous writing."

I've had to do a lot of forgiving in my life. What I've found is that my forgivness, has so much less to do with the person I am forgiving, than my own freedom. I've forgiven a man who beat me while we were married. He could care less. However, even if he knew the gift I've given him . . . and even been grateful. . . or somehow understood the nature of his wrongs - it would pale in comparison to how much forgiveness set ME free.

Keep writing. You're the only one who can tell your stories.

Skye Leslie
Powerful piece. I feel for you - the lack of closure is so difficult. But in fact, you went to see him, you interacted with him, he knew you were there, and although you have this image of saying "I forgive you" to him, and having that make the sentiment "true", the fact is, you forgave him (much as you could), and he knew it. Sometimes the words are superfluous. Not everyone can say "I love you" or "I forgive you" or "I'm sorry" but sometimes actions speak louder than those words. Try to let go. Very moving piece.
I have this need to say something about your Mother. Speaking as a daughter, more as a Mother of an adult daughter whose father is very "less than" and from whom she has distanced herself and is doing well. I can think of no higher tribute to your mother and no more meaningful way in which to have given meaning to her life of many disappointments and hurt, than for you, her daughter, to have been victorious over your life. Although it was/is not your responsibility to give her life meaning, watching our daughters be victorious is one of the greatest pleasures and satisfactions in our lives. She is probably very happy with you.
Tommye, thank you so much for your kind words. I think my mother would be proud of me (and surprised!) and my sisters, too. I've been thinking of writing about her influence on my life and posting it here, so maybe check back occasionally to see if I've followed through! I'm happy with who I've become . . . way happier than I ever thought I could be. Of my father, I can say that he taught me to be a fairly decent person and parent through his negative example, and although I don't approve of his teaching methods, I value the lessons I learned.
Don't beat yourself up. You went to see him. Whether or not you said it, he knew you forgave him. Forgiving a parent is not easy. But his actions had nothing to do with you. I hope you find some peace.

Jan, what a story.

I sat with my demented mother on so many occasions and bore my soul to her. Unfortunately, her dementia was so advanced, that she could no longer speak, and it was dubious whether she could understand anything at all. I wanted so much to forgive her, and to hear from her some things that might have set me free from my hurts.

Thank god for psychotherapy! ;-)
Wonderful, moving post. I'm sorry, for your sake, that you didn't get to say what you wanted to to him. If it's till bugging you, it might help to do a ritual of some kind. Create a space and say what you would have said to him, out loud. There's a power in that...good luck, and great work, on a lot of levels!