The last time I saw my father for Father’s Day he was at the bar. That was the place to find him. I didn’t like going in there, but I went in to say Happy Father’s Day. I don’t remember his reaction or what I did after.
In a way, I never really felt like I had a father. I never lived with him. Most of the time I spent with him was out of obligation. His presence wasn’t comforting, it ranged from awkward to threatening. I knew how much he had hurt my family.
As a kid, it was black and white for me. I didn’t see the nuances of how some people become bad people, I just knew they were bad. There were many times of wishing he was different, wishing we could be like other families. At one point I hated him.
But there were good times. He taught me how to draw, how to paint, how to play chess, how to identify animal tracks. He’d record home videos where I’d pretend to be a news presenter. He’d tickle me to make me laugh and he’d let me paint on his back with sharpies. He showed me his small collection of fossils and he took me to the little mountains bordering our town to show me the marks previous water currents had left on the rocks. He taught me not to litter the countryside. He taught me to leave bugs alone even if they scare me.
When he was kind, he was kind.
When I found out he had taken his own life, I couldn’t cry. I felt numb for a long time. I was also told not to discuss this with anyone because suicide is something shameful, so no one should know. I was alone with my already existing suicidal thoughts and now my father’s suicide, while the ones who should’ve supported me instead questioned my ability to care about or to love people.
It took me a couple of years to actually start grieving. At this point I was around 16 and I blamed myself for my lack of previous grieving, for my lack of understanding the complexities of his personality and his actions, for not trying to build a relationship with him. I still haven’t entirely forgiven myself for not reaching out when I did feel like reaching out but felt it was the wrong thing to do, or felt it went against what was expected of me. But I was a child and I can’t blame myself for not looking past his abusive behaviour to see the childhood trauma, the alcoholism, the mental illness.
It was only after my own diagnosis that I found out he most likely had bipolar disorder too. I didn’t know him well enough, or long enough, to notice this.
From the moment he died, I was certain that would be how I go as well. It was the moments I was the most suicidal in my 20s that made me feel closer to him, experiencing first-hand the suffering and desperation that pushes a person to that point in a way I couldn’t fully understand in my teens, despite already having suicidal thoughts.
I would never justify any of the bad things he did, or convince myself it was inevitable for him to end up that way because of his upbringing, that he had no choice in doing the things he did. But as many people with mental health issues do, he never had appropriate support or help to move towards more positive and healthier behaviours.
I wish I could go back and talk to him, try to have a relationship with him. The people he hurt forgave him, it’s not up to me to carry that resentment when it wasn’t mine in the first place. Maybe I’m fooling myself, but I really think there was a potential for him to move past his bad actions and become a better person.
He left no note for me. I have very few memories with him, and so many of them are negative. I only have two pictures of him from when I was very little. I knew him, but I didn’t know him. At times it felt like I hadn’t lost anyone at all. Can you lose someone who wasn’t there?
I now hold on to the good memories I have, and I let the negative ones remind me of who I don’t want to become. I may have inherited this dysfunctional, self-destructive brain, but I don’t have to become the same person. I hold on to the knowledge that he was ill just as I have been, that just as I was emotionally neglected as a child, he had a probably even worse childhood. It just so happened that life took us down different paths through our illness.
I still have frequent dreams where it turns out he’s been alive all along. But the past is what it is, and I can’t go back and fix it. I don’t know if I can miss someone who wasn’t that present in my life, or if I just miss the ideal of him, or the ideal of a father.
I just wish things could have been better for him. Not just for me to have a father, but for him to have a good life.