Closing Doors…for Good

On the Monday before Thanksgiving, my mother called me.  Since my grandfather has been in Hospice for weeks now, I always assume a call from Mom will bring the news Grandpa has passed away. My grandfather is my only living grandparent.  He is the father of my stepfather.  My stepfather has raised me since I was nine.  Grandpa and Dad have been with one another almost every day since my grandmother died in September.  It’s been an exhausting, painful year for my family — especially for Dad — saying such a long, painful goodbye.

My mother’s call, however, delivered an entirely different piece of news.  She said she had run across something on the internet, indicating my biological father might have died.

I haven’t spoken to my biological father, by choice, since one week before my wedding, which will be 20 years in July.

Cutting off our relationship was the only way I could hope to move out of the periphery of his mental illness, alcoholism and rage.  He’d been physically and mentally abusive to everyone close to him, including me.  I’d tried my whole life to please him, to calm his anger, to avoid his disappointment with me.  However, at twenty-two years old, as I was about to step into my new life with my new husband, I had to separate myself from a dysfunctional relationship in order to make room for a healthy one.

Since that separation, I’ve kept tabs on and accumulated tidbits about my biological father…he lived in Cicero, Illinois, he liked to fly Remote Control (RC) airplanes, and he bought & traded RC equipment on eBay. I knew all this from Googling him in recent years.  It’s amazing how many newsletters and chat groups show up on the net.

Then, Mom ran across a church bulletin online last week, mentioning my biological father’s name with the words “Rest In Peace” next to it.  She gave me the church’s name, and I called.  The secretary put me through to the church priest, who immediately took my call.  He’d actually been with my biological father at the moment he died, over three months ago, on September 3, 2010.

No one else was with him.

The priest gave me a brief summary of the last four years:   “Your father was destitute and was helped by our St. Vincent DePaul Society, which assists the poorest of the poor.”  I also learned, after obtaining the death certificate from Cook County Medical Records, that he died of metastasized esophageal cancer (which had spread to his stomach), at a hospice center in Cicero.

The priest described a couple of fond memories of my biological father: painting the rectory window frames; finding a leaf shredder for the church.  However, he also gave me the other side of the story.  He shared that my biological father had disappeared for a year-long period from the church “because he said he wasn’t thanked properly for the work he’d done.”

My sister attempted to renew a relationship with our father in 1997, but found he was as bitter, manipulative and angry as ever.  She, like me, thanked him for bringing her into the world, but insisted their relationship come to an end.  My sister and I are two of the biggest “pleasers” you might ever meet…so for us to close the door on someone is one of the most agonizing things we’ve ever done.

In August 2010, about a month before he died, our father tried to “friend” my sister on Facebook.  She was unsure to what end his efforts would lead, and we talked about what she should do.  I advised her to block him: We didn’t know what he was capable of now, or how his anger and resentment had grown.  While we knew he might be reaching out to reconcile, we’d learned from experience he never did anything without strings attached.  She did, indeed, block him.

About one month later, he died.

Some people have asked me, “Are you sad?”  “Do you regret not making up with him?”  “Does it bother you that he was alone?”

I answer, with all my heart, that I have no regrets, though I am lately consumed with sadness over how he chose to live his life.  I’ve never known someone who’s died alone.  No matter who it is, it’s unconscionable.  My biological father chose to alienate his daughters and his first wife (our mother); his second wife (and her daughter); and his third wife and all her children (they were only married 49 days, so I cannot even remember how many there were).  He chose to alienate his two siblings, who only learned of his death when I informed them.

I’ve also been sad because this news has distracted me (and my sister and our mother) from the attention our grandfather deserves.  My stepfather — whom I have called Dad since the moment he walked me down the aisle on my wedding day — has held vigil by his own father’s bedside for weeks on end.  My biological father, who never paid child support, who never showed up for court dates, who made excuses for everything, has suddenly “reappeared” and reopened massive wounds.

I applied for his death certificate online and received it the day after Thanksgiving.  On it, his marital status lists him as never having been married.  If he was determined to kick us one last time, posthumously, by letting his record show we’d “never existed”, he didn’t succeed.  I’d expect no less from him.

As hardened and cruel as I may sound, I have learned many things from this man.  I learned how not to treat others.  How not to live my life.  How not to let pride stand in the way of apologizing.

The sins of my “father” demonstrate how important it is to admit when I am wrong…how to remember others and not just myself…and how to get OVER things.

Except, of course, him.

I’ve asked myself over the years if I could live knowing I hadn’t “made peace” with him.  Would I be able to live with myself if I ever found out — God forbid — that he had died alone?  Well, that day has arrived.  And I’m here to tell you, I can live with myself.  It’s hard, but I’m doing it.

Self-preservation helped me through.

He was a man who could lure you in with apologies and roses, promises and tears, then slowly begin the bargaining process.

Over the years, I read and reread all the complaints posted online by people who dealt with him in business transactions.  “Scammer.”  “Jerk.”  “Unbalanced.” “Blackmailer.” “Mail fraud.” “Not to be trusted.” “Avoid.”

With those last two comments from complete strangers, I know I did the right thing by staying clear of him.

Parents are supposed to be full of promise and knowledge and refuge and hope.  They’re who we seek out for safety, for peace, for sanctuary.  Parents are often seen as the keepers, or vaults, of our history; closing the door on them is like rejecting our history, our safety, and ourselves, right?

For a long, long time, I wondered if I’d made the right choice.  I stuck to my decision, but I still wondered.

In my opinion, it’s much easier to keep an unhealthy relationship open than to cut it off.  Guilt, shame, and especially feedback from others can convince us to stick with the status quo…and hope it might get better.  But without a plan, without a realistic and attainable goal for making improvements, an unhealthy or impracticable relationship is doomed to repeat — or worsen.

But, Dear Reader, allow me to dig you out of what may feel like a downward spiral of negativity.

Did she say her father died alone and she’s okay with that?   Has she lost her mind?

The truth is, at 42, I can see I’ve gained a tremendous amount of confidence to “say it like it is”:

The man was horrible to me and to many people who tried to love him.  He devastated my self-esteem for years, sent me through more therapy than I can possibly recall, and until recently, prompted me to live my life looking out the corner of one eye, worried he’d reappear and hurt me (or my family).  He might have been a parent at the time of my birth, but he lost that title through his actions.  My mother and stepfather raised me with consistent love.  They offered safety, refuge, and peace, and still do.  My biological father brought me into the world, then essentially checked out.  Who, then, really left whom “alone”?

I think we’ll find our truest voices when we talk about what we truly — and not symbolically — need.

What I needed growing up was a dependable father.  From the time my mother married my stepfather (when I was 9), I’ve had one.  I tried to hold on to my biological father because I thought I ought to.  I finally realized it didn’t make sense, it wasn’t good for me, and it would be better to say goodbye.  It was the most difficult decision I have ever made, but also the best.

Some doors are meant to be closed for good.  It’s up to us if “good” means forever or to make a situation better.

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8 responses to “Closing Doors…for Good

  1. loved this post. how difficult to write, i’m sure, but it was beautiful. i’m sorry that he’s gone, but happy that you’re healthy. and close the branch libraries.

  2. a very moving and powerful piece…..another form of “love” is being practical in the face of emotion…….. branch libraries should close if remaining open challenges the stability of the main library……. that’s my opinion

  3. Dear Christine,
    Although you didn’t ask for a response to your decision to block your birthdad from your life, I want to reinforce your brave and necessary choice. For whatever reason your birthdad maintained his self-descructive, family-destructive, relationship-destructive behavior, you could not change it. If he didn’t change his behavior, you had to get out for self-preservation. Anyone who would condemn you for that essential decision is also not worth your time or attention. I’m only sorry to hear that his last act — of dying — distracted you from your real father’s family. Your stepfather and his dad were the real dad and grandparent in your life. Using the term “birthdad” is appropriate — as that describes his only role in your life, as he did nothing to move his relationship with you from one of participating in the creation of your life to one of being a real dad.

    Re the branch libraries, I must agree with you. I have loved our north branch library and used it extensively when my children were little, going to story-time, picking up books on the fly as I dashed home from work and wanted to have picture books to read to the boys. My husband loves it now for the convenience of picking up a book on hold as he walks home from the train. I also understand the importance of these libraries for older or handicapped citizens who find travel difficult. The branches have been a wonderful boon to both south and north Evanston communities. But we are in a financial crisis. Everyone knows something must be cut, and even in family budgets, things that are not essential, but make life more convenient, have to be cut in tough economic times. We have busses to downtown Evanston. I’ll bet neighbors would pitch in to help people get to the library who need help. I don’t pretend to know all the ins and outs of the budget, but if health clinics are the choice to cut vs the libraries, it seems obvious. In a crisis like this we can’t afford to keep extras, and our branch libraries really are extra conveniences, as fabulous as they are. Let’s everyone pitch in to help inform and support those for whom going to downtown Evanston is a burden. Perhaps a bookmobile can work. I hate to see our wonderful north branch library with its dedicated staff and neighborhood atmosphere disappear. if my job were lost, I would hate not to be able to send my child to summer camp, but I might have to make that tough choice, as essential to his overall growth and development summer camp may be. I’m so sorry we are in a situation where such painful choices have to be made. If the libraries stay open, what other essential services will be lost?

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