July 18, 2012

What-Ifs and If-Onlys: Lessons & Regret After My Father’s Death. ~ Lynn Bonelli

My Dad

I had a falling out with my dad shortly before he was killed in a head-on collision which almost took my mom as well.

We had gone about a year without speaking and had only resumed phone interaction six months prior to the accident. In retrospect, six months of phone calls two or three times a month isn’t enough to say what needs to be said.

Our falling out started a long, long time ago. My dad was an alcoholic and although I always thought he was still a great dad, he had his demons—the ones who (I found out later) told him he was never good enough. The ones who made him sabotage his own successes, the very ones he inherited from his father and then passed down to his children (my sister and me).

Having an already strained relationship, things came to a head through a series of unfortunate misunderstandings. He had said some things to me which were inappropriate by anyone’s standards—and then, out of the blue, he sent me his 1986 convertible Corvette, all the way from Alabama to California. I’m not a car enthusiast. It was all too obvious that this was his way of apologizing.

Not much later he started emailing me some short stories he was working on about his childhood saying that he wanted my opinion and that I should feel free to edit his stories. I have always believed my dad to be an extremely intelligent man. I thought to myself that there was no way I could offer a critique when I am not a writer, nor am I qualified to edit his words.

A month later, I received a scathing email from him telling me what an awful person I was, selfish with a huge chip on my shoulder—obviously too busy to give a crap about his stupid little stories. I was a disappointment to him. In turn, I lashed back with my own hurtful words, digging up the past and hurling it at him knowing it would be devastating. I didn’t care. I hated that he felt I had forgiven him when I accepted that stupid Corvette—I never drove it anyway. In not so many words, he disowned me and we stopped speaking for almost a year.

When I got the phone call that there had been an accident, I flew to Alabama to be with mom and dad. He was in a coma for seven days before he died. My sister, who was living in Georgia at the time, was already there. All along I had thought I was going to be there to help my parents after they got home from the hospital, certain that my dad would recover from his injuries. When reality set in and the doctors stopped telling us of any small progresses and instead told us to get his affairs in order we set to the task of searching out account numbers, insurance paperwork, VA contacts, and the 400 things you never think about but need to do at times like this.

It was then that I came across his journal. I felt like an intruder, but as I read his words a different kind of understanding and sadness came over me. My dad, who by then was six months clean and sober, suffered more by his own view of himself than by anything I could have ever said to him.

I read about his insecurities. He hated his full lips (the kind that people pay to have now) and was so insecure about things I would have guessed him to have the utmost confidence—things for which he was already accomplished. One of them being his writing—the same stories he sent to me that I read and loved but never offered any feedback on—the ones I was sure he could get published.

He also talked about his disappointment that his family (meaning my mom, sister and me) had never spoken to him about his mood swings. Never offered help or intervention when (in his eyes) it was clear that he bipolar and depressed (he was under treatment for the last six months of his life for these). He felt we had ignored all of the signs and let him suffer alone. But then I remembered the story he had sent me about his own father, my Pop-Pop, who had passed away before I was born.

Everyone in the family, including me, was so used to his odd behavior that we all thought, or maybe hoped, it was normal, or at most a bit odd. But then all of a sudden his frenzied activity would come to a screeching halt and he’d isolate himself. He’d sit at the kitchen table for hours at a time with his head in his hands.

I can’t tell you how many times when I’d get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom when I was little and see him sitting at that old table. It was so routine that it somehow seemed normal. It wasn’t until the last couple of years of his life that I ever thought there might be something mentally off balance with my dad. Even then I couldn’t accept such a thing and felt guilty for even thinking it.

And so that’s how I remember my dad. To sum up, and maybe rationalize the reason I never talked about him, is that I could never admit, even to myself, that there could have been anything wrong with my dad. But then again maybe it was simply because you two never asked or showed any interest in him or any other of my relatives. Try to understand, my dad was two different people. When I was little I adored him and hung around him like a little puppy. But by the time I reached my teens he was another person. The funny, goofy guy that got a kick out of calling me Pickle Brine was gone. I’ve carried around guilt over my dad for quite a while. As often as I saw him sitting at that kitchen table with his head in his hands staring off into space I never once asked him what was wrong or how he was feeling. Not that it would have changed anything in the long run, but maybe, just maybe he would have looked up, messed my hair and said, “ Nothing Pickle Brine, now go on back to bed”, and we both would have felt a little bit better.

Pop Pop

He closed his story with the words:

As I sit here writing it’s June 27, 2009. I was born March 20, 1947. I am 62 years 3 months and 7 days old. My dad was born April 19, 1907. He died July 27, 1969. He was 62 years 3 months and 6 days old when he died. As of today, I have lived a grand total of one day longer than my dad. Love, Dad

My dad died on October 23, 2009, less than four months after he wrote this. He was 62 years, seven months and three days old.

I still feel much guilt over the things left unsaid.

Sadly, even though he speaks about his own father’s mental instability and his own inability to acknowledge the problem he didn’t give us the same benefit of the doubt, that my sister and I felt the same way about his behavior as he did about his own father’s behavior. To us, it was our normal—we didn’t really know there was a problem, or that all fathers didn’t act the same way. I can pretty much assure you that not many men would accept a diagnosis from his children claiming he has a mental issue without it causing some kind of family feud.

Do I wish it could have been different? Yes. Do I long for a do-over? Of course. On any given day I think about my dad and many times I catch myself picking up the phone to call him to tell him something I know he would love to hear or even to ask his advice. Some days are like Groundhog Day, where the realization that he is gone hits me like it is the first time I am learning about it. Many nights he appears in my dreams. I’ve heard that this really is him keeping contact with me from some afterlife, reminding me he is still with me and all is good between us. I don’t know. I want to believe that but it doesn’t always ease the pain of loss, and the feeling I get that I needed to reassure him in some way that he was good enough, the need to erase the misunderstandings somehow.

I know I can’t live with the guilt of words unspoken and the what-ifs and if-onlys. I can only write down the feelings in the hopes that I can let go little by little. In this way, perhaps I can look back on the happy memories, of which there were so many, rather than the few hurtful words that we exchanged when we were both unaware of exactly how similar we were—had we only known that we would have understood what each was trying to say. But perhaps by hanging on to this guilt I prove to myself that I too am not good enough and that my stories are not interesting while I continue to sabotage my own successes. At least three generations have been keeping the cycle going.

Life’s lessons are often heartbreaking, terrifying and even self-inflicted. In times like this, when I have that brief moment of clarity it is then I am given the opportunity to break that cycle. It is the ultimate gift to give yourself. I’ve kept all of my dad’s emails. Even the mean ones. But now I can read between the lines and see the true source of his pain. And even though the Corvette has been long sold, I can look back on that gesture and I see it was my dad’s own way of messing up my hair and telling me every thing’s okay and to go on back to bed—where I will see him again in my dreams.

Lynn Bonelli, born in Japan (although not Japanese), grew up an Air Force brat in the 70’s and 80’s. Spending half her life never really grounded she is often found rearranging her life, or at least her furniture, whenever she feels restless. Having recently met and married her soul-mate (third times the charm) she will soon be hitting the road as a full-time RVer on a quest to rediscover America and feed her restless heart. Read her blog at http://learningcurvesblog.blogspot.com
Editor: Ryan Pinkard

Like elephant family on Facebook.

Read 26 Comments and Reply

Read 26 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Elephant journal  |  Contribution: 1,375,490