Today on what would have been your 64th birthday I want to tell you some things. I don’t want to focus on the addiction that took you away from me, that kept you from ever knowing your grandson and only having the briefest glimpse of your granddaughter. I don’t want to dwell on the lies and pain that plagued our relationship during the last few years of your troubled life. I don’t want to enumerate for you the ways in which the dysfunction of my childhood has caused me to struggle through my adulthood. We spent far too much time rehashing each of those items in minute detail while you were still alive, and now I realize much of that to be time squandered before I realized how little there was left. Today I’d like to tell you about some of the wonderful things you taught me, lessons that are only now being revealed to me as a father and a husband.
First, I find strength in laughing with my children. Your sense of humor, your ability to laugh at yourself, the way we laughed so hard at the silliest things that we couldn’t breathe, these are all joys that I try to bring to my children. My daughter has a laugh that can fill the room, and my son’s impish grin helps us forget all the familial strife that a five-year-old boy can cause. When the normal pushing and pulling of parenting bring me to the edge, I try to let my kids’ smiles return me to normalcy because in light of all our troubles in the final years of your life, I still remember most vividly the times you and I would laugh together. And the last time I saw you, just a few weeks before you died, when you could barely hold your head upright and your failing liver caused you to fade in and out of reality, your smile at the sight of our then one-year-old daughter is the last image of you that I will always keep in my mind. I remember trying to talk with you about the gravity of your prognosis, and you smiled and told me, “Just slow down.” I think you knew that your time was limited; you were done dwelling on the darkness, and your smile let in some of the light.
You also taught me to be honest about my unabashed love and passion for my children. You wrestled your emotional demons for all of your 58 years I know, but you never let your struggles keep you from conveying to your only son in some way how much you loved him. Though it seemed time and again that you so often chose the bottle over me, I understand now that your disease and your love for me were two mutually exclusive aspects of your identity, although the former sometimes cast a long shadow over the latter. Now, when in the throes of some operatic struggle with my kids, I always take the time to calm myself down and explain my feelings. Even at their young ages, they seem to understand that when Daddy sometimes yells or slams a cupboard or asks them to leave him alone, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t love them, especially because when the storms have subsided inside me I sit down with them, hold them close, and talk through how I dealt with my feelings, and how I should have dealt with them. I remember one of the only times I screamed, “I hate you!” I was an early adolescent and it erupted forth during some stupid argument; once I had calmed down, I wanted to act like nothing had happened, but you sat me down to explain how hurt you were. A lesser parent might have been hesitant to reveal to a child just how much pain can be caused with such a simple word, but your honesty and tears that day have helped me understand the importance of being true and open with my feelings for my kids, both the good and the bad.
And one of the strangest gifts you provided me was an opportunity to connect with these two amazing adopted children in a way that is simultaneously wonderful and awful. Because each of them had parents that grappled with the very disease that took your life, I can empathize and identify with them in a way that has already given us the foundation for some honest, difficult, and healthy conversations. Even though they are young, they know what took you away from us, and they know their own mothers suffered from similar sicknesses. As they grow, the conversations will be more difficult as my husband and I fill in the gaps for them and they begin to see the vast differences in the choices each of our mothers made, but for now we have a similar vocabulary around the language of loss. I’d give anything to have you here and healthy and to take away all those years of drunken victimization, but since this is the way things ended I’m glad that some good can come from that loss as I help my children navigate their budding awareness of their own identities and background.
I still struggle with you being gone Mom. The constant ache isn’t ever present like it was in the beginning, but when I stop to think about you on days like today, the pain feels as raw as it did when you first left me. As I grow older and I see my children change and mature before me, seemingly instantaneously at times, I come to know more and more of the sacrifices you made and the ways in which you made me the man I am now. Today I celebrate all the good that came from your life, which includes the two grandchildren that you are helping shape even in your absence. I’ll admit that I still fight my own inner-battles as a result of our pained relationship, but today I’m not going to focus on that. Today is a day to remember your lovely smile, your unbridled emotions, and your tremendous strength in spite of your fate.