Bring your own fork

February 18, 2007 - Sunday

 Long Live The Lizard King

My dad died today.

I’m not quite sure where to go from there — “My dad died” pretty much covers it pretty well. Seeing the words on the screen like that… Wrong, yet inevitable. I’m sad and numb and tired and … I don’t know. Dead inside, a little.

My relationship with my father has been long and strange and taxing and has felt very much one-sided for a long, long time. My parents split up about 30 years ago, and my brothers and sisters and I lived in California with our mother while my dad lived in Colorado and started a new family there. I have been the glue linking these two sects and practically the only open line of communication between them the entire time. It has been frustrating and tiring and taxing and thankless — and now it is over.

I’m feeling a lot of guilt and regret right now, but I think that’s inevitable, especially in estranged families like mine. I think the only way you could possibly have someone die and not feel any “I wish I’d done it differently” would be for them to drop dead while you were hugging them at the end of a marathon “I love you, let’s clear the air, here’s all the things I wish I’d said and all the apologies I wish I’d made” session. Which, let’s face it, just doesn’t happen. At least not without a murder charge to go along with it.

I’m feeling guilty because I sort of started turning my back on my dad over the last several months. After more than a decade of being the only one keeping the lines of communication open between him and my siblings — and doing it partially because I didn’t want them to regret not having had a relationship with him after he passed — I had finally gotten tired of it. I never did it for anyone to thank me or owe me anything for it, but in the end I did get tired of the thanklessness of it. My brothers didn’t appreciate it — I think they resented my making them feel guilty when I’d remind them of his birthday and urge them to call him, or telling them he was sick and he’d like to hear from them. My sister couldn’t care less, since she completely internalized my mother’s accounts of his many faults and wrong-doings and had written him off years before. And my dad… Well, there’s some resentment from me there…

I honestly can’t say that my father loved me. I like to think he did, but I don’t know it. I certainly never felt it. And toward the end, I started to wonder why I even bothered. In nearly every telephone conversation I had with him he would eventually turn the conversation toward my brothers and sister and basically complain that he hadn’t heard from them or that they hadn’t visited or that they hadn’t reached out to him in some way. There was always some almost petulant complaint and then a sigh and “Well, they know where I am if they want me…” Never any kind of thanks that I was making an effort to stay in his life, only regret that the others weren’t. And it was always me calling him. Practically the only time he ever called me was when he needed something. It was as if his phone was incapable of making outgoing calls — at least to California.

Phones only working one way: that’s how it always was with him. The mountain had to come to Mohammed. I was 13 when my parents split up, my brothers were 11, my sister 10. We were kids, and yet somehow it was incumbent upon us to maintain a relationship with him. And in later years, when there wasn’t a relationship, there was never any regret from him that he hadn’t done more to stay in touch with us or apologies for how he had shut us out of his life — only resentment that we hadn’t reached out more to him. He would complain to me that my brothers or sister hadn’t called him and I would bite my tongue — at least until the last year, when I started saying, “Well, your phone dials too, doesn’t it?” And he’d get quiet for a minute and then “Yeah, but…” and change the subject.

After the divorce he started a new family in Colorado, where he had two more daughters and ended up raising them himself. He was a completely different father to them than he was to me and my siblings. It was like night and day. Completely different. He doted on them and loved them unreservedly. He was, to put it bluntly, a model father to them. Everything he never gave us, he gave them in spades. It was almost as though he took all the love and care he never gave us and gave it to them, so they got two families’ worth of his Dadness.

I can remember an incident from when his “new” daughters were kids that illustrates this perfectly. After years of trying, I had finally brokered a breakfast between my dad and me and my brothers and my sister. He and my siblings had been completely estranged with no contact at all for five years or so, during which time he had had these two new daughters, and I had finally managed to cajole him into coming to California to visit and my brothers and sister to agree to have breakfast with him. I have a photo taken of all of us together that day — my dad, my siblings, his two new daughters — and I always refer to it as my proudest moment, the day I got them all together again.

Anyway, we’re all having breakfast at this coffee shop in Pasadena, and his two newest daughters who were probably 5 and 6 years old were all over him — climbing in his lap, crawling on and under the table, eating with their hands, eating off his plate … it was one of the most impressive displays I’ve ever seen of children with absolutely atrocious table manners and a doting parent letting them get away with murder. It was the kind of thing where if they were at the table next to you, you would have been muttering snarky comments about poor parenting and giving them dirty looks.

And me, I was utterly shocked at the display. When I was their age, my dad ruled the dinner table with — Well, I was about to say “an iron fist,” but that’s not true. He ruled it with a butter knife handle. Kids spoke only when spoken to. Your glass of milk could not be drunk until your plate was cleared. You did not get up from the table until your plate was cleared, and if you didn’t like what was served you ate it anyway. And the butter knife handle? If one of us kids reached for something rather than ask someone to please pass it, or if we put our elbows on the table… THOCK!!! He would whack us with the knife handle. And let me tell you, that shit hurts, especially if it hits a knuckle or the bony part of your elbow. That kind of thing will get your attention — and it’s why I have the excellent table manners I enjoy today. So I was absolutely stunned to see them getting away with such behavior. When I was a kid that kind of thing would have just about landed me in a full body cast, but these two girls were getting away with it with a smile.

I think the difference was that he loved these two girls, absolutely loved them. I don’t know why he was different with them, but he was. He loved them without question, but he had … well, nothing for me and mine. I don’t know why and I never asked. It was what it was.

But I don’t think I resented it — at least not until the last year or so of his life. And that’s where the guilt I’m feeling comes from. After playing the Good Son for so long, I basically ran out of gas in the last year. I got tired of the complaints about us never calling him — but never hearing regrets that he never called us. I got tired of the guilt trips for the rich life he imagined we had here while he lived in poverty there — especially after I asked him last year to come live with me and he never gave me an answer, just kept saying he was thinking about it.

And you know, I think that really is where things changed for me. His health was failing and he was living all alone, across the state from his daughters who he loved so much, and the Colorado winters and the altitude were really hard on him. He needed help, so I offered to move him out to California and have him live with me. He never really answered me; over the course of several months — and through another winter that was the whole point of my offer — he kept saying he was thinking about it, that he wasn’t ready to move yet, that he’d let me know. I thought it would help him live more comfortably and be a great way to bring the two factions of his families together and help him get to know his grandkids and yadda, yadda, yadda. It was an idealistic move on my part that he just couldn’t accept, and it eventually became clear to me that, as the song goes, “When you choose not to decide, you’ll still have made a choice.” He didn’t choose me. Instead, he chose to live out his days near his daughters in Colorado. Away from me, away from us, away again, still, always.

And that’s when I started shutting down towards him. After choosing not to make the California part of his family a part of his life time and time and time again, he made that choice one last time and it finally hit me. And I started shutting down. And now he’s gone and I regret it. I worked so hard for thirty-some years keeping the lines of communication open so that my brothers and sister wouldn’t regret not talking to him, and now he’s gone and it’s me who regrets not talking to him.

I wish I had sent him the pictures of Zoe that I never got around to sending. I wish I had taken Zoe to visit him like I had planned to do “someday.” I wish I had been closer to him and he closer to us.

I wish things could have been different.

Dad & Me
Charles Atkins
7/31/22 – 2/18/07


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I'm the guy your mother didn't bother to warn you about.

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