My Father’s Legacy
My father died a week ago. He had been chronically ill, but stable, for a long time. Then he became acutely ill quite suddenly and deteriorated quickly. In about 10 days he went from being lucid and communicative to essentially a coma state. Myself, my 2 brothers, 2 sisters and 2 of his granddaughters were by his bedside in a hospice house when he just calmly stopped breathing and left us. I also like to think that our other sister, who died 3 years ago, was there.
My father’s death has left me with a pit of unresolved issues deep inside me.
Our family tree is punctuated with strong, obsessive personalities. Addiction genes course freely through our veins and many of my family members turn to alcohol, drugs and other addictions to make it through life. My father was no exception. In fact, I think my father was the epitome of a highly intelligent person who battled undiagnosed mental issues by self-medicating with alcohol. Even though I think this with my brain, my heart can’t put together the two fathers that I knew.
I was the lucky one in my family. I was born much later than the rest of my siblings. My father didn’t drink during most of my early childhood and age had tempered his personality.
My father spent a lot of time with me. When he was the dog officer in town I would go on his calls with him, he took me fishing all the time, he indulged my love of animals and had me care for cows, chickens, goats and eventually horses, and when I got older, I worked for him in his building business. He taught me how to lay insulation, mix and pour cement, paint and varnish. He played the saxophone for me, lovely haunting songs that I could listen to for hours.
I worshipped him and would try to do anything to get his attention. When I was around 6 years old, my father liked to drink a pretty disgusting soda called Moxie. It has a bitter, pungent taste and was originally sold as a medicine. I made myself learn to like that drink because it always made my father laugh to see me drinking it.
I was proud of the good things my dad did. He donated land and helped build and start-up the Kimi Nichols Center, a school for special needs children. An array of people came and went at our house – people who my father was “helping”. Alcoholics that my father was trying to sober up and young boys without fathers that my dad had work around our house. He also ferried many families to church on Sundays when he was actively religious.
I loved my dad.
But there was another side to my dad. Many things that I didn’t pick up on or understand until I was older.
My father was emotionally abusive to my mother and us. He made fun of my mother in front of me all the time. When I was young I thought it was all in good fun. Now that I am older I recognize it for what it was and I sometimes hate myself for the times that I laughed along with him.
He had a well of anger that could bubble over at any time and he controlled our home environment. I tried hard not to disturb that well because I instinctively knew that it was terrible. It was mostly under control when I was growing up – I don’t think it was when my siblings were young.
My father destroyed our family financially over and over again. Before I was born he would go on long drinking binges and disappear taking all the money with him. When I was a teenager he would become obsessed with some item and would spend thousands of dollars collecting it – one year it was die-cast model cars, another year it was porcelain dolls, later he collected coins.
When I was a teenager I found a love note that my dad had written to a woman who was not my mother. I hid it away and tried to forget about it but was left with an awful feeling inside when I thought about it. I never told anyone about it. It didn’t matter. It became obvious that he was drinking and carousing again later that year. My parents divorced, but my father didn’t leave our lives. For the rest of his life he maintained a very complicated relationship with my mother that eventually led to remarriage (to my mother) and a second divorce.
At my father’s funeral the priest, who did not know my dad, had picked up on the essence of the man that he was and gave a very good homily. He talked about people who were searchers throughout their entire lives. He told us that once the grieving was over, we had homework to do. That we had to try to understand our relationship with our dad.
Right now, I can’t resolve the two facets of my dad. It is just like when I was a kid hearing the stories my siblings told about growing up on the farm. I wished so hard that I could have been a part of those “good old days,” but my brothers and sisters would insist they weren’t good. I couldn’t fathom how having all of those animals and being together wasn’t good. I couldn’t understand why their lives weren’t filled with fun.
My dad told me once that the most important thing in life was family – but I can’t understand why he spent most of his life destroying ours. I can only go on hoping that I do a better job with my family, passing on to my children only the good aspects of my dad. And maybe eventually I will be able to make peace with him.