It was your birthday this week. Facebook reminded me of that. You would have been 64. Aunt Janel reminded me of that. Two years ago, I commented on your Facebook page to wish you happy birthday and it got me thinking… how many years went by where I didn’t? No post on social media, no call, no card. Nothing. Because we spent so many years being such a ridiculous cliche- the father daughter combo who doesn’t speak.
On the flip side, I almost always got a card from you for my birthday. A year of silence, and then a card in the mail. Then another year, and another card. You would write “Wendy” on the inside of the card and you’d sign it with the same quotations… Love “Dad.” It always made me think of air quotes. Like supposedly that’s what we call each other. It made me laugh, even when I was mad to be receiving the card.
I was mad because it was your fault that we weren’t speaking, and the birthday card always made me feel like I should be the one to say something. But shouldn’t it be the adult? Even when I was 20, YOU were still the parent and I was still the kid.
I remember, as a child, that you’d take seriously deep naps on the couch. Naps we couldn’t wake you up from. Mom told us not to try. I remember you driving us to the country club to go swimming on the wrong side of the road. But I wasn’t 16, so I thought I might not know when that was allowed. I remember you yelling. You were a yeller. It scared my friends.
But I also remember that you would laugh seriously hard at most anything even kind of funny. You would laugh so hard that you’d start to cough- the hacking cough that always made me wonder why you smoked. It sounded terrible. But it was hard to NOT laugh when you laughed. And you were funny, so we laughed often. And I also remember that, for as big and scary as you could be, you were gentle. I’d way prefer to be swatted by you over Mom, because you would always try so hard not to hurt us, that it never hurt. I remember how you used to whistle incessantly. To this day, whenever I hear someone whistling, I think of you. Cadence loves to whistle…
When you left for the final time, I was 12. I’ll admit, I wanted you gone. Being 12 is hard, and you were hard. It seemed like it was easier to just have you out of the picture. I was very angry at the time, and I thought it was the very best gift to us that you never tried to get any sort of custody of my sister and I. Looking back, I still think that was a wonderful blessing. I don’t know how my life would be different had I have been forced to walk through a trial, more fighting, and forced visitations. So although it felt a little at the time like you didn’t ‘want’ us, I know now that you did. You were just making the best decision for us.
It was the best decision. I’m grateful. My life went on without you. It was as if the shades had just been drawn on that window in my life, but the house looked the same otherwise.
I was 14 when you tried to die for the first time.
I will never forget, I was at a wedding falling in love for the first time- true story- when we got the call that you had had a heart attack and we’re in the hospital. We hadn’t talked much in 2 years and honestly, I was so angry at you. I didn’t want to leave this new boy. I didn’t want to feel controlled by you. I felt like your heart attack was a manipulation.
I was 14. I’m sorry for that. Bad timing.
When we got to the hospital, we were made aware of the severity of your condition. You see, I thought that because you were at the hospital, and still alive, that the ‘heart attack’ wasn’t an actual diagnosis. You were in your early 40’s at the time, and I thought you were just being dramatic.
Walking into the hospital room was… terrible. There were so many cords, so many machines… and all of them led to you. You had always been larger than life to me- the life of the party. And seeing you in that bed, you didn’t look like life at all. You were in so many ways, dead.
But you recovered. Against all odds, you did. I was told that your heart stopped 4 times and they had to shock you back to life. I was also told that 4 times was the max amount of times doctors will do that. I was also told that you had been given a second chance. I didn’t believe in God then, but man, looking back I don’t know how or why you survived, except by the grace of our Father in Heaven.
I recently read that “grace” is getting what you don’t deserve. Not to say that you didn’t deserve life, you had just run yours into the ground so very much, the expectation is that yours would be shorter because of it. GOD’S grace allowed you more…
After the heart attack, you tried to make up for lost time as our dad. I remember a wonderful trip to Disney World and the Disney cruise to the Bahamas. One of my favorite trips to date. I was impressed, but felt like I didn’t even know you. I was 17 and we had spent so many years at odds, I didn’t know how to know the sober version of you. You were so unfamiliar to me then. Sober was quiet on you. Sober was introverted. It was unnerving- it wasn’t the you I knew.
Well, sober turned out to be not sober. Sometimes people are just too far gone I suppose.
When I was 19, after several years of avoiding questions, and looking the other way, I had to confront the truth about you: You weren’t in recovery. You never had been. You had been given another chance- something a million people pray for everyday- and you wasted it. I wrote you a letter and and asked you to make a choice- me or your addiction.
I thought the answer was simple.
But your silence defined me for a long time. That break still lingers in the deep parts of my heart, surfacing in strange insecurities and mistrust.
Then began the 5 years of ignored birthday cards. One a year, for 5 years- the only communication that passed between us. The same message every year:
I love you.
It wasn’t that I didn’t believe you loved me, I just knew you didn’t know what that really meant.
When I sent my wedding invites out, you were on the list out of obligation. I don’t mean that to be rude, I mean that to be true. You didn’t know me, you didn’t know my husband to be, you didn’t really have a tie to the wedding- other than a biological one. But you were the very first RSVP I received.
I got it in the mail and again, I was angry. I was angry at my mom for making me invite you. And I was angry at you for just responding ‘yes’ without even a phone call. Did you really expect to just show back up into my life on my wedding day? I mean, what kind of a plan is that? After five years, you wanted to just come to one of the most important days of my life?
It’s selfish, I see that now, but I didn’t think you had earned your place there.
The weekend before the wedding, I saw you at my sister’s college graduation. That was a great ice breaker, and I was grateful that you didn’t want to ‘talk.’ I wouldn’t have known what to say about five years of silence. But small talk suited us. It was fine. I was grateful, even though I felt you owed me some kind of explanation, I also knew I didn’t want to hear it.
“Maybe I could do this,” I thought. Maybe I could just do surface level, even if I knew what lied beneath.
And so we did.
You came to the wedding. You delivered a beautifully short, wonderful speech that I’ll never forget. It was perfect and honest and the only time I shed a tear the whole day.
In the end, I was very glad you were there for that day. And it was my pleasure to pull you onto the dance floor for a father daughter dance. An unexpected joy for both of us, I’m sure.
I guess I realized in that moment that sometimes you just don’t have to have all the right answers. Sometimes there are just answers, and they’re not right. And sometimes giving love and grace is far more important than answers anyway. I’m not perfect at this. As a matter of fact, I’m still learning this lesson the hard way all the time. But I knew then, like I know now, all you wanted was whatever I was willing to give you freely. You never wanted me to force it. And I never felt obligated to. Thank you for that. You never made me feel guilty for what I couldn’t give.
And so, the next few years were filled with grace and love, and no questions. We saw each other here and there. Always long enough to feel like I gave you what you wanted, and short enough to keep everything on the surface. You had said once that you were sober. I hadn’t taken it to heart. And I never asked again.
When you tried to die for the second time, something really changed in my heart. I got the call from my Aunt Janel that you were in the hospital, in a coma, again, and that it would likely be the last time. I was standing in my in law’s kitchen thinking ‘shame on me.’
You know that old saying… Fool me twice…
Just as I was on the verge of crying, I felt this veil of disconnect fall over me. It was so surreal and almost physical. It literally disconnected my heart from the hurt of this news. Right then and there, on the phone, in my in laws kitchen, I realized that I had already mourned you. Through the years and years of disconnecting, I had stopped putting hope into our relationship. I don’t know if that’s smart or just sad, but the result was this disconnect that protected me.
You had already gone in so many ways…
I went to the hospital again. And there you were, covered in cords and hooked to machines. Again. They said they had found you bloody and unconscious in your apartment. My husband was a firefighter at the time and he ran on guys like you all the time- guys who drank too much, and ended up in the hospital or in a cop car too much. The nurse told me you were in a coma to detox. She said it was more than just alcohol. This much I had always suspected, but had never confirmed.
But I had already mourned this.
But here is the thing about our Lord and savior… He puts hope in places there should be no hope. He gives grace, which is getting what you don’t deserve. And he also gives mercy, which is NOT getting what you DO deserve.
Again, He pulled you through. Against. All. Odds.
At this time in my life, I DID know the Lord and I prayed for you. I prayed for you often, but I also had to set firmer boundaries. I had hope, but caution. Hope for you, not necessarily for us. I saw you differently. I loved you, always, but I knew you were too sick. You didn’t value yourself. You didn’t value the blessing of life that had been given to you, not once- when you were given to this world. Not twice- when you survived the heart attack. But THREE TIMES. Three chances to do things the right way.
I have to say, as many alcoholics and addicts as I have lived with in my life, I will ever understand having the power to choose… and not choosing life. I know anyone fighting cancer, or a terminal disease, would give anything to have the cure in their hands.
You always had the cure in your hands.
I don’t mean to say that it would have been easy. It would have been the fight of your life. But what a beautiful thing worth fighting for. And again and again, I watched these people- you included, Dad- decide to give up. You didn’t grab ahold of the hope in your hands. You didn’t choose to fight day in and day out until you got to the other side.
I don’t understand that…
But here is the truth:
I forgive you. I forgive all of it. Every minute. All the hurts. All the disappointments. I can’t even say it was hard to do. I’m sad. Always sad. Always hurt. But I’m sad for what you didn’t get- not for what I didn’t get.
When I found out that you had died, we hadn’t spoken for several months. You had disappointed my kids with a broken promise, and although I forgave it, I couldn’t have it happen again. Boundaries are hard, but necessary sometimes. When I look back, it would be easy to say that I regret drawing a line in the sand and having our relationship end on that note… but I can’t say that I regret it. I know it was needed. I know you understood why. I’m sorry that was how it went, but again, when I found out you were gone, I sensed that I had always known that it would go that way.
I was out of town. I found out via a text from a high school friend who had seen it on Facebook.
Yes, I found out that you were dead via Facebook. That’s life, isn’t it?
What’s funny is, I knew you were going into the hospital but I didn’t think a thing about it. You had done it before. God had given grace AND mercy before. It was in God’s hands from the get. As I was coming home from a dinner that night, Gage- my third baby who you would never meet- strapped to my chest, I told my girlfriend that I wasn’t sure if I would even cry if you died. Not because I wasn’t sad, but because I had already said goodbye.
Less than an hour later, I cried as I discovered the news. I cried for my kids, because although I had already mourned you, they were just beginning to know you.
To this day, a year and a half later, Cadence still regularly announces that she misses Grandpa Kevin. Just out of the blue she’ll say it. And that makes me sad. Again, sad for you. Cadence will have so very few memories, and they will fade. But she is a wonder to behold, and I’m sad that you won’t know her. You won’t know Merit and how spirited he is. And you won’t know Gage and how confident he is.
You won’t know us.
You would have been 64 years old this week. For the rest of my life, there will always be the ‘would have beens.’ You would have been here, yes. But you could have been MORE than just here. You could have been SO much more.
For that, I will always be sad.
So happy birthday, Dad. I miss you. I miss what you were in the good moments. I miss who you could have been. I think of you often… when people whistle. When I hear Billy Joel. When I remember you laughing.
And when Cadence misses you. That’s when I miss you most.