This post was inspired by my girl, Michelle from She's Not So Basic's “The Unexpected Mother's Day” Post. Love you <3
With this month being my birthday month, the request for some more personal posts, and Father's Day this weekend, I decided it was time to share a little more about my life. This post is different than what you typically see on TCM… there's no actionable advice for you to take into your own life. Just a reminder to love your loved ones a little harder, because life is precious and fragile.
This isn't my first Fatherless Father's Day. In fact, the majority of these last 27 Father's day's have been fatherless for me. But for the last eight years, it's weighed a little different on me. As I pass the Father's Day cards in the store, as I scroll by the “Father's Day Gift Guides” on-line. A knot so big and tight hardens in my chest. I can't seem to catch my breath as I fight back the tears and anger simultaneous brewing inside of me.
Before the man who I call my dad came into my life, there was my biological father. An alcoholic and abusive man who never earned the title of “dad” in my eyes. When I was four years old, my mom divorced him. He's from a small country in Europe, and up to that point he spent a good amount of time overseas instead of living with us. Despite their divorce, my mom still sent me to live with him for one month every Summer and every Spring Break. I won't go into all the details about him and that time in my life, but the short version is that by the age of 10 years old, I told my mom I no longer wanted to visit him.
Despite a phone call at 14, a kidnapping scare later that year, then again two years later (let's just say stalking runs in my family), and a very unexpected surprise Facebook video chat (I thought I was getting on with my brother…) a couple of years ago, we've had no contact in 17 years. I am not mad or sad or any way about it. It's just the way it is. My past.
The truth is, I don't believe family is who we are connected to by blood. I believe family are the people who are there for us by choice. Through the good and the bad, not just one or the other. Family are the people who teach us about life and love, who we are as people, and who we want to become. The title of “family” is earned in my book. Which is why the man I call my dad is a man who came into my life when I was seven years old, Roger Taft.
I remember the first time I met him. My mom brought me to his office, where his secretary handed me a pile of individually wrapped presents (they were clothes for my Barbie's). This wasn't the first time people had tried to buy my love (read: biological father), but this memory always stood out to me. I felt so special. Maybe it was coming off the string off d-bags my mom had been dating, but I instantly liked this dude as much as I could (I was very protective of my mom as a child).
As an ACOA, I understand that when I like someone or feel vulnerable, I have a tendency to push them away in inexplicable ways. But as a kid, I gave him hell. I mean absolute hell. I called him names, I constantly forced my mom to choose between the two of us. After about four years they broke up because he didn't feel like there was room in the relationship. But they found their way back together. Over the years, he slowly chipped away at my jaded exterior. Moving in with us officially (even though it basically had felt like we all lived together for years) when I entered my teen years he quickly picked up the roll as “Mr. Mom”.
He worked from home, and found himself in the morning middle school car pool. Making after schools snacks, and chasing away every boy that came near our house. Even so, we would still have the occasional blow out fight. We were so similar and so different. Both strong willed, passionate, sensitive, and opinionated. We would go toe-to-toe on what was for dinner, board games, TV shows, really anything under the sun. You could say we both carried a lot of unresolved anger and were always looking for a fight. Something I still work on to this day. My mom couldn't take us to restaurants at one point because every meal ended in a food fight. We didn't know when to stop until the other was upset.
Despite his Harley Davidson, and tough guy appearance, my dad was a mush. A total teddy bear that just wanted to be loved and adored. He wanted to feel wanted and hated how independent my mom and I were at times. Despite all of his flaws, he was my dad and an absolute love of my life. Our love was unconditional. We were family.
My dad was diagnosed with cancer when I was young. I can't even tell you how old I was because it was something that we just didn't talk about for many years. He always seemed healthy enough. We would go to the gym during the week, boating on the weekends, and the occasional motorcycle ride. He never seemed sick.
Until my junior or senior year of high school. His cancer kept coming back, and in different forms over the years. He was in experimental treatment after experimental treatment. Finally, the doctors got to a point they didn't know what to do with him, and basically said it was only a matter of time until he died.
At the same time I was going through a lot. He and I would stay up and watch the Jay Leno monologue every night then talk about life. We spent hours having heart to hearts about friends, relationships, and the world. I trusted him more than I ever trusted anybody, a sentiment I shared at his funeral. He was supposed to adopt me when I turned 18 years old (we didn't want to get a signature from my biological father).
For all intensive purposes, he was my dad and I was his daughter. We were proud of each other. We had gone through so much to build not only a relationship out of convenience, but a friendship. We mirrored one another's flaws and strengths. He would tell me when I was being a “little shit” and I would tell him when he was being an asshole. He would write me letters, even when we lived in the same house, just because neither of us ever got mail and he wanted to put a smile on my face.
I left to go to college in 2007. My dad and I would talk every day, multiple times a day as I went to and from class. His cancer was truly starting to get worse. When I was 18 or 19 he took this selfie:
It was shortly before he shaved his head. His hair had started falling out for the first time in his cancer journey. He knew the chemo wasn't working and didn't want to keep seeing the patches fall off. When he shaved his once thick silvery locks I cried when I saw him. It was the first time he truly looked sick. Things continued to worsen, he couldn't eat, he was in pain. He hated the drink they made him have before treatment sessions. I was scared.
He stopped chemo at some point when it officially wasn't working. His hair grew back, and his spirit came back, only a little sadder. He started to prepare for his death in a way. He called my aunt and grandma to see if they would be there for my mom and I when he died. He kept calling his sons. He kept telling me how proud he was. Other than this sadness, and constant talk about “when he was gone,” he stopped seeming sick again. He could live for another seven+ years the doctors said.
The day it changed
A short while later, the summer of 2009, my mom rushed into my room one morning panicked, “COME, ITS ROGER.” If you know me, you know I am not a morning person. I said “what” and grumbled as I looked at the clock and saw it wasn't even 7 am yet. She repeated hysterically, “you need to come now, he, he he! I don't know if he took too many sleeping pills I don't know I don't know, just go look...” she couldn't even get the words out.
Panicked, I leapt out of bed and to our back patio where my dad was sitting. I asked him what was going on, and he just looked at me spaced out, struggling to find words. Frustrated and hitting his knee. He pushed out some gibberish. My mom rushed out behind me, and said “who is this?” pointing at me. He said, “Cleo”. Cleo was his cat that he had since the mid 90s. My mom said, “no, who is this?” he said “Cleo” again.
Totally panicked, I pointed to Cleo and said, “who is that?” and he couldn't get any words out or said “Jason,” one of his sons. We immediately decided to go to the hospital. Once he was admitted, they ran some tests and discovered he had a stroke.
When I saw him later, he was flipping me the bird per usual and telling me to “fuck off” (a term of endearment in our home — Like I said, we had an interesting relationship). We left that night, thinking things were going to be okay. He had a stroke, but was recovering and we would figure it all out.
The next morning we went back to the hospital, only now he couldn't speak. He had a second stroke overnight. Possibly had a series of mini-strokes. The next few days are a blur. They intubated him. He couldn't move his left side, and eventually fell unconscious. My mom called my step-brothers and told them to get here, this was going to be it. It was a few more days until they arrived.
Preparing for death
During my freshman year in college, I had a therapist Cirlean. She was only my therapist for a semester or two, before she took a new position at a different school. During our last sessions, she shared with me how her own father had died the year prior. She told me that if I found myself with my dad on his death bed, to not hold anything back. To let every resentment, piece of anger, and loving thing come out. To feel everything, don't stuff a thing. Be a mess, be a beautiful mess. Get it all out. Don't hold a single thing back.
From the morning I went to the hospital, through the next two weeks, that's exactly what I did. I cried and cursed, and felt everything. It was the most painful experience I've ever gone through. I refused to leave the hospital except to sleep. I wouldn't leave until they made me and would arrive as early as possible. My step brothers, mom, and grandma were all worried. They thought I was too young at 19 to be there so much. I had a boyfriend, and a job, and coursework to be doing. But, I didn't care. I talked to my dad about everything those two weeks. I cursed him for leaving us so soon and cried as I thought about all the things he wouldn't be there for.
My mom and I decided to sign the “do not resuscitate” order. At that point, my dad was a vegetable. Even if he was ever able to breathe on is own, which was unlikely, he would never speak again and would have extremely limited motor movement. It would have killed my dad to live like that and we knew it's what he would've wanted.
After about two weeks, they moved him to Hospice. I remember the look in his eye when they put him on the stretcher and wheeled him into the ambulance. He looked lost and scared, and then he saw my face and I swear a smile and tear broke out on his face (as much as his facial muscles would allow a smile at the time).
He wasn't in Hospice for more than a couple days. I remember the last time we were in Hospice was when my grandpa died. I remember my dad and I getting pancakes while my mom stayed back after his passing. And here we were, only a few years later, only he was in the bed this time. My mom was staying with him over night at this point.
On June 1st, 2009 my step-brother drove me home for the night. As we pulled into the driveway my mom called, “this is it, he's going to pass.” My step-brother was dumbfounded and asked me what we should do. I told him we needed to go back ASAP.
We walked into the room, I gave my dad a big hug, and laid with him for a few minutes when the death rattle started. For those not familiar, the death rattle is a sound a person makes right before they pass. My mom and I hurried out to get the nurses. We don't think he knew that my step-brother was still in the room, because he told us that as soon as we left, is when he slipped away.
We immediately let the doors and windows open to let out his spirit, and they took him away. The next day, was all thunder and lightning. Lightening actually struck the gate right in front of our car as we tried to get into our neighborhood. We couldn't help but feel like it was dad. Angry that he had to leave us.
Twenty days later, June 21st, was my 20th birthday. It was also Father's Day that year. I think that's when I stopped making a big deal over my birthday. Every year now, Father's day gets close, and I have no desire to celebrate my birthday. I can't help but feel the pangs of resentment whenever I see a “Father's Day Gift Guide” floating around the blogosphere. I want to punch and yell and scream.
Why is it the one parent I've had, who I truly felt 100% unconditional love from, is the one parent that no longer walks this Earth? That source of unconditional love is something we all desire, and to lose it, it feels like a giant hole in the Universe at times. I know he would have loved Eric. I know he would be proud of me. I know it might be selfish, because I know what it's like to have shitty parents, and to have had Roger in my life, even for such a short period of time, is more than most people get. But I can't help but wish I could have had more.
To my dad:
I miss you more than words can ever do justice. The tear drops still fall, who am I kidding, they downpour, more days of the year than I can count. It seems that after eight years this grief is only more persistent. I wish you could've met Eric. I wish I could rest my head on your stomach as we watch TV. I wish I could hear your laugh. Oh your laugh… how you would laugh so hard you would start crying and cursing.
The memories and sounds fade a little more each year. I wish so deeply I could bottle them up and hold onto them forever, but that's not how the mind works. I wish you could have walked me down the aisle. I wish I could feel your presence a little more. I still sing “Runaway” at the top of my lungs and think of you whenever it comes on. You will always be my dad. I know you started to think your purpose in life was to raise children, and I can assure it was. You fixed me in so many ways that I hope you can see from wherever you are. I love you.
To the fatherless on Father's Day:
Whether you lost your dad from life or from death, I send you a hug. The loss of a parent, whether an actual parent, step parent, or even just the idea of a parent, is something I wish on nobody. If you've experienced it, know you are not alone. It's okay to be sad. It's okay to be angry. It's okay to wish for more. It's okay to take on surrogates to fill the role.
Try to let go of the anger. Know it will ebb and flow throughout your life. Whether he left by choice or something out of his control, it's easy to be angry. A source of love and light are gone. Dig deep and find forgiveness. Let love flow freely into your other relationships. Don't bottle it up and barricade it out of fear of getting hurt again. This pain you are feeling is what makes us human. Channel it into celebrating your life and encouraging others.
Losing a parent is lonely and dark, no matter what age it happens at. I am giving you a virtual hug and sending you lots of love today and every day. Take those lessons you've learned, whether from your dad or from his absence, and share them with the world.
You are special. You are perfect. You are a source of light for someone in your life.
Let us celebrate life. Let us not let standards of what it truly means to be a parent or a loved one fall to the way side or be lowered because of blood ties or absence of physical presence. Let us cherish one another and celebrate one another.
For those who still have a dad in their life, make sure to savor it. Love them. Cherish them. Celebrate them.