I loved my father, but — may he forgive me — I truly hated him, too.
This may sound unfair or harsh, but I wouldn’t even say he was a good man. Not a bad one, either — he was just…complicated. And yet, in his own unique way, he was simply, endlessly frustrating.
All my life I wished for him to take responsibility for events he’d presided over. To demonstrate to his children that he possessed the human emotion of shame — any precious shred of regret — for the tragic decisions we’d watched him make. To share some lessons learned with me that didn’t start with blaming the victims.
He passed away recently, at the age of 71, after a lifetime of mental illness that destroyed three marriages and his career. He left behind one wife, two ex-wives, four grown children, and five grandchildren. And now that I’m a father myself, I desperately hope that my children are more forgiving of me than I was of him.
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Because I was ashamed of my father. I was even more ashamed of how I felt about him. And today, that shame has reached its peak. I didn’t look up to my dad. Instead, I viewed him as a cautionary tale. A tragicomedy of errors befalling an eager martyr. An ever-expanding list of reverse commandments beginning with “Thou shalt never…” Instead, he was my anti-hero.
And despite my very best efforts, I loved him, hopelessly. I see that now.
He was my anti-hero, but he was the anti-hero who showed up to all my games, several cameras in tow, though he didn’t care at all for sports. When I was an adult, he was the anti-hero who’d use the score of last night’s game as an excuse to call and say hi — “Great game last night” — always followed briefly by discussing the weather and his ailments (both real and imagined), and then quickly run out of things to say. He just wanted to hear my voice. He didn’t know that I, too, wasn’t really a sports fan. And I couldn’t have cared less, because it showed he cared.
He was the anti-hero who’d take me to the bookstore, and stay there with me as long as I liked, while he watched from a distance, giving me space to slowly pick out a book. He never complained when I was quiet, or pushed me to talk. He just wanted to be with me. That was enough.
As I got older, despite my usually silent, passive-aggressive criticism of the way he’d chosen to live his life, and my reluctance to make time for him, he would do anything within his limited power to spend time with me. Absolutely anything. Like the time I chose to transfer universities. He drove all night to pick me up the next morning, refusing to let me travel home alone.
Still, I kept him at arm’s length, terrified I’d catch his most embarrassing eccentricities — or, worse yet, his untreated mental illness.
Towards the end of his life, after I’d started working and life became more complicated as I built a family of my own, I began to look the other way when things got bad and it stopped being easy with him. When we couldn’t just go to the book store, or sit through one of the countless movies we saw together, because the pain was getting the best of him and he’d become even more difficult to talk to.
When all he wanted — and repetitively asked me for — was a regular phone call, a check-in once a week. “I miss you, son. Call your old dad. I need to hear from you.” I’d always call back, but only after the voicemails had piled up and weighed on my conscience for a week or so. Knowing neither of us knew what to say was really my best excuse. I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, face the void that had grown where words went unspoken.
Near his end, I denied that he was slipping away. I chose to ignore his rapid decline. His sudden disinterest in attending even the fun things he’d normally never miss. Like dinner and a movie. My wedding. The birth of my first child.
More regrettably, I chose to forget the few happy memories I can now, so vividly and fondly remember. Instead, I selfishly chose to focus on the things I despised him for. At my best, I chose to ignore him.
Because life had grown hectic. Because, sometimes, it seemed easier to quietly resent him than it did to openly love him. I’m sharing this with you now, because there’s such catharsis in confession. You also may have felt true loss at the passing of a loved one. You may have had or still have a strained relationship with a parent or loved one.
And you may have also felt a strange kind of release, like the kind that I felt as I began to wrestle, and still wrestle, with how to feel about the loss of my father and the relief that slowly, shamefully washed over me as I realized the long-imagined reality of his struggle coming to an end. It was far from how he’d imagined his life ending. It’s not how anyone who loved him wanted it to end. But regardless, he’s finally at peace.
I already miss him.
I will always miss him.
I just love you, Dad.
Jeffrey Pitts is an attorney and father living in Denver with his wife and two kids. He writes for fun when he isn’t hiking, snowboarding, or testing out a new recipe on his picky toddlers.
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