“You Haven’t Been the Same Since Your Dad Died.”

Kirsten said that to me the other night, in the midst of expressing her concern for me regarding the “new normal” level of depression and (especially) anxiety that I daily struggle with. She was noticing another of the new(er) things that cause me (some) anxiety, and her statement was well meaning, and, I think, very telling. Of course I haven’t been the same. How could I be? It’s weird not to have parents any more. This year in November will mark 15 years (15 years!) since my Mom died, but as I’ve said often before I’ve never really mourned her because there wasn’t really anything to mourn. She was never much of a “mom” to me; so her death felt basically like more of the same. I’ve had a “mom shaped hole” all of my life. My dad’s death was another matter entirely.

My relationship with my dad was challenging and fraught with tension in its own right, but at least I knew he loved me, even in what he thought was a sacrificial way, though I beg to differ. My dad could be affectionate, and giving, and humble. In many ways, he thought of his own needs last and did his best to see that his family’s needs (some of them anyway) were met before his own. He was hard working, and kind, “a friend to kids and animals.” Sadly, while going years, maybe decades, before thinking to replace his own glasses or shoes, etc. (so that his family members were sure to have glasses or shoes, etc.), he couldn’t see how his need to be needed, his “martyr complex,” helped to create the co-dependent enmeshment that continues to visit sin on his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren today. As I’ve said before, after his first wife died, my dad’s desperate loneliness and likely fear in the face of raising his first three children (my much older half-siblings) alone merged (oh so im-)perfectly with my mother’s desperate inability to receive love, which in turn required those who would try to do so to constantly prove it over, and over, and over again. My mother wanted to be loved, desperately so even, but just couldn’t believe that anyone would. My dad over the years proved more than willing to keep trying to show her, though. It would be noble and perhaps even a story of some grace if my mother’s mental illness didn’t also make her terribly abusive and angry and volatile. She destroyed the lives of my dad’s first three kids, especially because my parents’ mutual neediness meant that they wound up marrying within little more than a month of my dad’s first wife’s death.

Anyway, as I said, I knew my dad loved me. He told me, and showed me, in a variety of ways. However, the range of ways he could do so were still limited. We couldn’t “hang out” by shooting hoops or playing games or going to a movie together as I was growing up, for example, because the thought of such activities occurring made my mother desperately jealous. They couldn’t be regarded as evidence of my dad’s love for me; instead, they would have been seen as evidence of his lack of love for her in some kind of mutually exclusive fashion. None of that mattered much anyway because my mother’s frequent and unpredictable rages kept both of us walking on eggshells, desperate not to upset her, if such a thing were possible. Such rages did give him opportunity to show he loved me, though, as he would often bear the brunt of her anger and seek to limit my exposure to it, at great personal cost to himself. He also showed me by how hard he worked, both at his job and around the house, both tasks which were all the more important because of my mother’s inability/unwillingness to do much of either.

Unfortunately, my dad didn’t love me or his other children and eventually grandchild and great-grandchildren enough to remove any of us from this abusive situation. I suspect that God may “hate divorce” because it represents a break in relationship, a seeming unwillingness to keep doing the work of love. However, as I say, “rules are for relationship.” In this case, the rule (stay married) is meant to serve the relationship between spouses and with their children. When you know you’re in something for the long haul, there’s a sense of stability and safety that helps you, hopefully, to do your best at it. You’re more inclined to work hard, to give, to even give your all. Similarly, there are some lessons that can only be learned over time, some depths of love that take years to reach even as it changes and all the while, hopefully, grows. Maybe my dad thought he was doing this. Maybe not. Perhaps he only knew the “rule” and knew he couldn’t or wouldn’t break it. Or maybe he simply knew his own (not so) secret desperation, his own need to have someone to prove himself to. I don’t know. I do know, though, that in choosing to remain in his marriage with my mother, everyone else suffered. I’ve recounted this tale and more of those details elsewhere, but I’m not convinced that anyone was better off as a result of my dad’s dedication to the marriage.  My mother went to her death disbelieving that she was loved, after all. Of course I can’t speak to what transpired between she and God or to what her final moments were like, but it’s hard to look at the whole of my parents’ relationship and say that it was “worth it.”

My mom died just a couple of years after I got married. Over the years since then and as I had a child and moved through the first stages of my adult life, my relationship with my dad changed, of course. I’d like to say it grew. I’m not sure that’s the case, though. He lived with us for over a year at one point and probably lived a lot longer than he would have otherwise because while doing so he was able to have a couple of major surgeries and otherwise recover just a little from the effects of his lifetime of overly “sacrificial” caregiving. My dad watched as my theology and political outlook evolved (I’d like to say that was a sign of growth too) and we came to differ greatly about such matters. He saw me become a parent and always spoke very kindly about what he saw. Periodically, though, as his need to be needed remained ever constant even long after my mother’s death; and as my siblings, niece, and my niece’s boys were ever willing to place themselves in his need, we would clash. Often we clashed over our family history as depicted above. Sometimes we did so over our family present as I questioned the system that was so stubbornly entrenched and that saw my 3 fifty-ish year old siblings, thirty-something year old niece, and her twin teenage boys living with my dad in the tiny and by then falling apart and roach infested single wide trailer that I grew up in. I had occasion at one point to really tell my dad off. I suppose most children at some point do. Still, I loved him and yearned for his approval, perhaps as most boys do regarding their father.

Now, the only parent I ever really felt like I sort of, almost, had has been gone for almost two years, and I’m faced with the challenge to be a great dad to my two boys. I’m faced with the challenge in many ways to give what I feel like I never got. I’m married to someone very unlike my own mother. Kirsten is wonderful in ways too numerous to count and I have every opportunity to love my kids like my dad loved me, but to do so much more, to be so much better. Some days I do better at this than others, I guess.

In the meantime, no I haven’t been the same. I was depressed and anxious before he died. I’m even more so now. I know this doesn’t have to be the case though. In this too I am challenged to give what I don’t have, and this is good, if only I’ll realize I can’t do any of this alone and reach for and receive the love that is ever offered to me.

I haven’t been the same since he died, and I hope eventually this will be a sign less of how obviously broken I am and more of how much I’ve grown. I suppose we’ll see.


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