On My Father’s Birthday

dhwI don’t recall thinking about my father that much when I was a younger. There were those obvious times when I missed not having a dad—like little league baseball games, or birthdays, or learning how to ride a bike without training wheels—but as best as I can recall, missing my father was not an everyday sort of thing. For one thing, I have no memories of my father, just a few random photos of the kid he was, and the young man he was becoming. He died before my second birthday. And as I’ve asked before, “Is it possible to miss someone you don’t remember knowing?”

But somewhere along the way—I’m not sure when—I started thinking about my dad every single day. To be certain, it didn’t start until I was at least in my twenties, possibly even my thirties, but it definitely became part of my day-to-day experiences. At times it feels like I’m experiencing some form of delayed grief—as if I woke one day as a twenty-something man, and found out my dad had died. Knowing what I know now, I recognize that in fact I am in grief, but there is more to it than that.

I think of my father most on this day. Today is his birthday. If he were alive, he would’ve turned 65 today. Yesterday, I turned 45. I’ve gone nearly 43 of my 45 years without my dad, and that in and of itself strikes me as painfully profound. But that is just the surface of a trauma that now, as man who has outlived his father by more than twofold, I am finally beginning to see clearly. For better or worse, through the lives they live, our parents provide us with a map of life. It may not be the best map—it may only lead down paths of rocky terrain, and across raging rivers infested with hungry piranhas—but it is a map nonetheless. How we choose to use these maps determines the path we follow throughout our lives. The map my father left me stops shortly after his twenty-second birthday, when a series of unfortunate decisions on his part led to his death. I would be lying if I said I didn’t wish I had a map from my father that showed a path that extended beyond the age of twenty-two. Truth be told, with no map to guide me, I became increasingly lost with each step of my personal journey that occurred after I turned 22. And with each year that I have outlived me father, the more I think about him. Not about the man he was, but about the man he could have become—the man I wished was there for me to let me know I was on the right path. Or the wrong path. Or any path. I looked to my father, as so many of us do, for some sort of lessons on how to be an adult. Oh, how I needed his advice at 25, and again at 30, and yet again at 35. And without that advice, whether it be from direct interaction, or merely the knowledge of “this where your dad was at when he was 30,” I felt increasingly lost and abandoned. My anger grew.

I see it more clearly now. If we are to believe in the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—and I do believe in these stages, then I must be honest with myself when it comes to the death of a man I don’t even remember. I grew up without a father, and I now see that I have been stuck in four of the five stages of grief for more than forty years. I could list all the examples of denial and bargaining, but those stages pale in comparison to the depression and anger, which make up a disproportionate amount of my life. It is no exaggeration to say that I have been angry most of my life, and that I have been depressed for at least half that time—depression is, after all, merely an extension of anger. I can admit to these truths, without shame, only because I have in recent years entered into the stage of acceptance. I accept that my father is dead, that there has never been, and never will be the map that I’ve wanted my entire life. I still want the map, but I am slowly and surely accepting that what I’ve always wanted is not how it was meant to be, and that in his own way, my father did leave me a map. Perhaps this map is better than the one I’ve always wanted, because it has forced me to explore my own path, to grow into the man that I am becoming today, tomorrow, and for the rest of my life.

A few years ago I came to a profound realization. I was in the middle of one of my pity parties—wishing that I could have just one conversation with my father, one moment for him to offer me some advice on life (this would be the stages of denial and bargaining)—when I was overcome with the most profound of realizations. I had outlived my father by such a margin that I was now old enough to be his father. This magical conversation that I had wished and hoped for my entire life—one that would help me along the path of being a man—would, in fact, be between myself and someone old enough to be my son. And that is not to say that a 22-year-old would not have some decent advice to give a 42-year-old, but what I was looking for from my father he would never be able to give me, because he himself never had the chance to become a man. He died as a child; for no matter what others may say about 22-year-olds, they are still in many ways children—my father especially so.

It was this moment of clarity—this epiphany, if you will—that was really the first step in me accepting the death of my father. It came to me at the age of 42, and I am still grappling with it. My acceptance is not so great that it overshadows the anger and depression, but it is getting there. I am getting there. In a weird way that would no doubt give a therapist a lot to ponder, I sometimes now think of my father as my son. I know that I have more to share with him than he had to share with me, and that lets me know that for better or worse, I have become an adult. I no longer wish I could somehow have a conversation in which he could offer me guidance. Instead, I wish I could offer him guidance (again, more denial and bargaining), so that maybe he could turn his life around. I know this will never happen—at least not with him—and that is something else that I am slowly starting to accept.

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