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

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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

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anonymous Dec 12, 2014 1:23pm

What's happening to my comments??

    anonymous Dec 12, 2014 3:42pm

    I'm not sure – try again? – Ed.

anonymous Feb 16, 2014 1:06pm

REading your story I a m like wow! I reminds me of good lessons I have learned about opening myself up to other people's experiences and pain so I can learn form them, but also to give them a chance to share themselves.

anonymous Jan 21, 2013 2:58pm

[…] Fathers are like that. They show their love and strength largely through action, but when they do have something to say, it’s usually memorable and with fewer words spoken and deliberate forethought. […]

anonymous Aug 20, 2012 5:55am

[…] I know better than most that can be both torturous and cruel and I am determined to someday remove regret from my vocabulary. But, I think in order to grow into the future, sometimes we have to take a look […]

anonymous Jul 20, 2012 5:52am

Beautifully written, Lynn, So sorry for your loss. My dad is 77 and I've been fortunate to have had that time to better understand him and now feel closer to him. Of course, his edges have softened with age! Now inspired to make even more of an effort. Before it's too late. Thank you!

    anonymous Jul 20, 2012 7:58pm

    Lynn, thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment. I've been reading your blog and posts for quite some time. Very humbled to have you 'visit'. And I am so happy to hear that you will be spending more time with your own dad.

anonymous Jul 19, 2012 6:18pm

Not only would Dad be so proud of you right now, but I think he would have had the clarity of mind and spirit to tell you so. Good job Sis, M.lou

    anonymous Jul 19, 2012 11:30pm

    My sister…thank you, thank you…he would be proud of both of us. For all of the bad there was also good…and I am fortunate to have such a wonderful sister.

anonymous Jul 19, 2012 5:26pm

Thank you with tears on my cheeks.

anonymous Jul 19, 2012 12:32pm

What a powerful story! I hope this inspires people to reconnect with their loved ones, if they have (for whatever reason) not been available to the relationship. You just never know what could happen and when.

This article does a wonderful job of taking off any layers of a sugar coating. You tell it like it is, the good, bad, & ugly. Yet through this honesty you show the depth and strength of your family's spirit.

You and your father are kindred souls. Both of you are talented writers with an exceptional level of self-awareness, as well as a drive to seek truth amidst chaos. You chose a different path than your father, a healthier path. Your dad found this path in his last 6 months, and I am certain that your reconnection helped fuel his strength, as it sounds like learning more about his life has contributed to your own understanding of the world as well.

Thank you for sharing this experience with the rest of us.

    anonymous Jul 19, 2012 11:26pm

    It means a lot to read your words…and to be put on the same level as my dad. Whatever his own demons were he was still my dad and an amazing person. Thank you so much!

anonymous Jul 19, 2012 2:26am

I have much to say, but it may not mean anything. We (in my opinion) all go through this, some call it bipolar, fine – just different degrees. The reason, again in my opinion (and i won’t express this again) is that he like we all go through our own struggles interally, but no one ask. He probably had pride, as I do, and we deal with such in our own individual ways. Most prefer to ping pong ball it around at night when no one is around, trying to figure it out. He wanted you or someone he loved to ask, they didn’t because he was so strong for everyone else. I am so strong at the toughest times in life, until I know everyone I love is ok, then I reach the end of my rope, always alone, and break, cry, with tears like waterfalls, oftern having to pull to the side of the road to regain composure. It’s nothing you have done. It’s not about you. He know’s you loved him, it’s probably deeper, death, spirituality…what’s next? that is the question. My guess is He Loved You with all he is and will continue. It’s not your fauld. It’s not your fault.

My humble opinion is to sit, be quiet, you mind, heart and soul and let it go through you, a meditation of sorts, say your peace and move on with respect and love. We all are born and we all die, that is the only fact. The lights still come on in the morning. Love him…look to the brightest star closest to the moon, and he’ll be there in a better place, smiling wanting you to understand you were the best.

    anonymous Jul 19, 2012 12:40pm

    Oh Charles, this is so beautiful and heartbreaking all rolled into one. My dad was very proud but humble too. He was an amazing man inspite of these emotional obstacles. Yet, like you said, I am sure he had his moments, alone, when he too broke down and wished for some way out. In the last 6 months of his life he actually became sober and was being treated for bi-polar disorder. I was angry that his life was taken right when he finally got help and could feel true happiness but then I thought what a blessing that he at least had that time, however short. You write about making sure everyone is ok before you reach the end of your rope…it really struck a cord with me because it was after my dad woke up very briefly from a coma (after the accident) that he saw we were all there with him and that my mom was going to be okay that he slowly slipped away…as if he knew we were all okay and he could let go of that rope.

    Thank you so much for your open and honest words. You certainly brought tears to my eyes and touched my soul and I wish much peace and love for you.

anonymous Jul 19, 2012 2:25am

Oh goodness, so much to say, but I'll try to keep it brief. I hope that you'll slowly be able to release the guilt and regret. It's so hard because our parents' generation was raised by parents who didn't fully understand the impact of their words and deeds…and so on. In the last few years before my mother developed a terminal illness, she often said that she would have done things differently if she had been aware of the impact of her *own* mother…and her mother said similar things as well. We're all trying to do the best that we can, to varying degrees of success, but in the end "we are what we are." As you continue to process your relationship with your father, try to imagine a "worst case scenario" that helps to put your own experiences into perspective. So you had a falling out and were estranged. He didn't know how to treat you, and you didn't know how to respond. But in the end, you both made some sort of effort, even if it fell short of the Donna Reed fairytale. It could have been worse. I'm sure you can think of situations that would make your own relationship look pretty amazing in comparison. I've found that the exercise of imagining worse scenarios can help me to see things more realistically and lessen the regret. Best wishes on your journey…it's OK to wish things had been better, but it's also worth recognizing that it might have been the best possible situation under the circumstances.

    anonymous Jul 19, 2012 12:25pm

    Yes, you are so right! I like this idea and can certainly see that I was very fortunate to have an opportunity to reconcile with my dad to some degree. And to be able to see that he too went through something similar with his own father (not recognizing the illness until it was too late) was in a strange way comforting. It helped me understand that most parents really do the best they can but are products of their own experiences. Thank you so much for your comment, your words ring true to me and I will remember them as I continue to let go of the regret.

anonymous Jul 18, 2012 9:19pm

Lynn, This was beautiful and touching, I loved it!
Thank you for sharing so intimate and at the same time helping people be aware of the signs.
Gaby H.

    anonymous Jul 19, 2012 12:20pm

    Thank you Gaby. It's very healing for me to be able to share these things and it means a lot to hear that perhaps, in some small way, it can help someone else. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. <3

anonymous Jul 18, 2012 7:35pm

An understanding that we all have "something". Believe that everyone is imperfect, and most do not know the way to admit it. Very touching…hoping that the cycle is broken…very well said.

anonymous Jul 18, 2012 7:25pm

I (sort-of) unexpectedly lost my now-sober father almost two years ago and am just now beginning to write and process it. Thank you so much for having the bravery and honesty to share- it's a fucked up road to have to go down, but at least neither of us is alone. I'll be clicking through to follow your blog! <3

    anonymous Jul 18, 2012 7:39pm

    It took me about that long to want to revisit all of the hurt too. I'd find myself crying at the strangest things and mourning through Father's Day. We are not alone, I look forward to reading about your own experience and healing. Thanks for the kind words.

anonymous Jul 18, 2012 7:03pm

Lynn, you are an inspiration. I am so proud of you.

anonymous Jul 18, 2012 5:57pm

Lynn, your story has touched me. Sitting here and reflecting . I honestly barely know what to say, but I wanted to comment to let you know that I've been here. thank you for your story. xo0

    anonymous Jul 18, 2012 7:32pm

    Thank you so much for your kind words…it touches my heart to know I've touched your's. After all, we are all in this together.

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