While standing in the checkout line at the Olympic Training Center shop in Chula Vista, California, I noticed that I had missed calls and messages from one of my stepsisters. As anyone with family knows, multiple missed calls from a family member in a short period of time are never good news. I left my daughter in line to pay for our Team USA logoed goodies and went outside out to call my stepsister. I suspected that I knew what she was about to tell me. My father had periodic bouts of very poor health and was likely hospitalized again.
But that was not the message this time.
Instead, she tearfully told me that he died a few hours earlier. My legs stopped doing a good job of holding me up, and I sank onto a bench with tears streaming down my face. Those tears sprung from a mixture of emotion— sadness, shock, relief, confusion and probably several other conflicting feelings. I knew this day would come, but I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about it. You see, we weren’t close. We were, in fact, estranged. I’m lucky that my stepfamily even told me he died.
As Tolstoy once wrote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” We were certainly an unhappy family. Life with an abusive alcoholic is no picnic. As a child, you’re not necessarily aware that other kids aren’t treated like you are, that other mothers don’t get hit by their fathers and that the smell of daddy’s “aftershave” is really alcohol on his breath. It’s just your life with a hope that someday things will be better.
Things did get better for me. I was able to attend college and law school, funded by a mix of scholarships and multiple jobs. But the wounds never went away. Even as a grown-up with my own children, those wounds are still there. They’ve scarred over, but they are there. They are the reason I had fatherless Father’s Days well before my father died.
But back to those moments on the bench. It was June 5, just a few weeks before Father’s Day.
My youngest daughter found me crying, and I told her what had happened. She wrapped her arms around me and bustled me to our car, where I sat and cried for several more minutes. Realizing that I couldn’t just sit there and cry, I pulled myself together, and we started the first leg of our eighteen-hour drive home. At the hotel where we spent the first night, I lay awake for a long time trying to pull up happy memories with my dad. I admittedly had to go all the way back to my early childhood, back before I could remember that ever present smell of alcohol.
His funeral was remarkably fitting. First, the singer got lost while performing Hallelujah, added a few verses and ignored some others. Then, he moved in such a way as to knock over part of the display in front of him, which in turn knocked over the statue of the Virgin Mary, which fell to the ground with a crash. The singer was mortified, but to me, it was perfectly imperfect. An imperfect funeral for an imperfect man. (Which likely means that my own funeral will be absolute chaos. Sorry, Fam!)
June seemed to play some special role in my relationship with my father and not just because it houses Father’s Day.
Indeed, when I was 11 years old, my mother came home early from work a couple of days before Father’s Day to tell me that she and I were moving out and that my parents would be divorcing. At the time, I thought the timing very unfair. But whatever the timing, it was a blessing to be removed from that abusive home. I’ve admittedly looked with jealous eyes at social media from my friends who sing the praises of their fathers on Father’s Day. Not me. I cannot. In fact, I stepped away from social media over the years on Father’s Day just to avoid seeing those precious posts.
Fortunately, there is now someone in my life who makes me want to celebrate Father’s Day, my hubby and the father of my two children. So, while I won’t be celebrating Father’s Day with my own father, I will celebrate those dads who go to work every day to earn money to pay the bills so that their children have a place to live and food to eat. I will celebrate the dads who read the same bedtime book night after night because it’s a child’s favorite. I will celebrate the dads who learn how to braid hair for their children or who learn ballet dances or learn how to fix a bow or learn everything there is to know about lacrosse because that’s what their children need. Kudos to all of you. Keep up the most excellent work. The world needs you. Happy Father’s Day.