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January 22, 2021

How do we Grieve the Loss of a Parent who was Never There?

In memorial of Keith C. Nye, the father I never really knew. January 20, 1955–May 23, 2020

I found out that I lost my father today.

He died May 23, 2020—eight months ago. His birthday is next week. He would have been 66 years old. His obituary stated that he was an independent contractor. I state these facts but, the truth is, I barely knew the man. Only in adulthood did I find out (or possibly remembered) that his birthday was a week after my mother’s.

Our family tree’s fractured nature allowed for eight months to pass before I learned of his death. My lack of a relationship with the man who was in part responsible for the creation of my life complicates my ability to mourn in the traditional sense. I have always been at emotional odds with a father who, in life, I only ever really knew as a ghost.

I say I “lost my father” as if I had ever really known or found him. There are cloudy memories of him from my childhood that I have to replay in my mind, but I have always been angry with him.

I was angry with him when he came to take my sister and me to the state fair and had his girlfriend with him. I was angry when he picked my siblings and me up and dropped us off at his new wife’s house. I do not remember seeing him again for that visitation weekend.

I was angry when he was with my sister to pick me up from the airport, and he wanted us all to speak to his new girlfriend on the phone. I was angry when he wanted to introduce me to his girlfriend at my grandmother’s funeral. He was proud of his fledgling sobriety that day, and she had helped him through it.

And I was angry in 2018 when someone gave him my number, and he called me during the throws of my painful divorce. I cursed him out that day. I told him all the ways his poor life choices had negatively impacted mine, and he listened. He listened until he could bear my disrespect no more. Then he texted me to say that he was calling because his birthday was coming up. He wanted to let me know that he was thinking of me; he wanted me to know that he did love me—that he was there for me. I did not even remember that text until I just keyed these words.

What little I know of my father’s character was said to me by someone bitter and broken. I knew that he was an addict. I knew that his relationship with his own father was complicated and strained due to his addiction. I knew that he tried to have a relationship with me and my sisters but that his addicted, ruptured spirit would not allow for it. And of his preferences, I knew that he loved basketball—a rather uninspiring amount of knowledge about one’s father.

I forgave my father for his sins and lack of accountability sometime after the emotional release I had with him in 2018. I always believed that if he reached out to me again that we could have a civil conversation about life. As a child, I always thought it unjust that I forgave my parents their faults, and they never poured back into me their apologies for not doing the work to be better parents.

I can fully comprehend their inability to cope with their issues, but it never soothed me. As the years have gone by, and I have experienced enough of my own battles, I have developed a deeper understanding of how incredibly challenging life can be for someone struggling within themselves.

I can’t imagine having to guide children through a life you can barely manage mentally and emotionally. It would break you if you did not have an awareness of yourself to seek help where needed.

So, how does one grieve the loss of a troubled man known to them as their father by blood but not in any other way? I am not sure how to do this. My heart is broken that he did not seem to have the capacity to be a man, let alone a father.

I mourn the loss, not of someone I knew, but of a stranger whose brokenness consumed them and left its residue for his children to grapple with.

I wish I had known him better. I wish he were not an addict. I wish he had not died with his last memory of me being so angry. But that is not the hand that life has dealt me. I did not know him. He was an addict. He died knowing just how angry I was with the way he chose to live his life.

I do not know if he died alone. I do not know what he was an independent contractor of. I do not know if he died of COVID-19. And I do not know if he died remembering the awful way that I spoke to him or if he knew that I had forgiven him for it all.

How ironically poetic that his obituary made no mention of the children who survived him. But, as I said, I barely knew the man at all.

 

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