Yesterday, my father died. It was not sudden. We had been expecting it since mid May when he was told he only had a few weeks to live.
Beside the grief, and all the family phone calls (why do my sisters and I need to savor every detail?), and such, there is something else I am feeling right now, at that is relief. You see, from this day on, no one will expect me to have a normal relationship with my father. And that is a relief.
You, out there. Yes you. Chances are, you have or had a relationship with your father. It may have been a great one (I hope so) or it may have been a crummy one with alcohol, abuse and all kinds of other ugly stuff, but you still have one. You still have a relationship. If people ask about your father you can actually answer. “Oh, he’s in Antwerp, on sabbatical,” or “He’s at home watching Fox news right now, and cursing at the tv.” What your father is doing doesn’t matter, so long as you know. And that’s what you have, that knowing.
Me, I didn’t know. Only it wasn’t just me. It was pretty much everybody, even people who lived with him. That “not knowing” thing was pretty awkward to. It meant I didn’t like to talk about him because every time I did I would have to explain to one of you “normals” why I don’t know anything about my father. Why the simple act of trying to call him on the phone could leave me shaking in frustration. Why he would occasionally hang up on me because there were certain topics that he simply could not talk about (with no way to know in advance which topic was the “bad” one). Why he never called (he called us twice in the 12 years I’ve know Teri). Why we never saw him at Christmas or the holidays. Why I finally stopped even sending him birthday cards.
You see, you could never have a relationship with my father. There was no “there” there. You could talk to him, and sometimes have engaging conversations about something in his interest, but at some point you’d start to realize there was a limit. A line at which he would not cross; a lack of empathy or emotional commitment. Since I ride the bus frequently, I often talk to strangers. Talking with my father was exactly like talking with a stranger. The same rules, the same expectations. You could talk blithely about any topic, but not in detail, and not with any emotional depth. Poking fun at Obama was okay, but the same was not true for poking fun of prop 8. The weather was always a safe topic. We talked about the weather a lot.
One of the things we do in America is to not really deal with the issues around mental health. If you have a mentally ill member in your family, then that topic is not acceptable in public. People do not understand, or want to, as near as I can tell. They’ll give you pity, but not empathy. It’s too scary, or too weird, or too whatever. Well there is mental illness within my family, and thankfully I have some pretty ballsy nephews who are not interested in covering it up. Quite the opposite, in fact.
In my father’s case, he was likely a narcissist (the clinical term is Narcissistic Personality Disorder). I say likely as I really do not know, and mental illness are notoriously difficult to determine outside of strict tests. Regardless, the name means very little, the effect is what is important. Living with my father was like living with a stranger.
My sisters and myself tried all kinds of ways to get our father to care about us, to act more like a dad. They never worked. Its possible he really wanted to be more loving, and was simply unable. Worse still, because of his mental illness, he was unable to see himself as the cause. It was always someone else’s fault. So even if he could understand the underlying problem, he was incapable of seeing the only possible solution.
So I went for years without talking to my father. We hardly spoke of him at home, and my son only got to meet him by the slimmest of luck. He never really knew the rest of his grandchildren, and worse still, he didn’t seem to care about them.
So now that he is dead, I’m in the rather envious position of no longer having to explain about my father. No one expects me to carry on a relationship with him anymore. I don’t have to take parents aside and say, “we can’t really talk to him” when questions come up about grandpa (we’re lucky also in that we have two sets of parents which are normal, and with which we have normal relationships). All I have to do is sadly smile as say, “I’m sorry, he’s passed away,” and the expectations end.