The dying of an estranged family member is at least as difficult as the dying of a close loved one. Emotions surface that we had suppressed or even repressed, and we have to make decisions under the influence of those emotions.
Uncle Phil’s recent, sudden illness and process of dying was no exception. Partially because of the relationship he and I had, and what I knew of him and other family members, and partially because Uncle Phil’s relationship circumstances reminded me of my biological father.
The last time I saw my father alive and well was the Sunday before Thanksgiving 1996. We hadn’t talked since the 50th anniversary party of his parents – I think it was 1986. I invited him to have dinner with me for the holiday. He agreed, but when the day arrived, he didn’t. I was heartbroken. No phone call that day or after. Troubled soul that he was, he avoided me and the rest of his family, including my sisters (his daughters) and his own mother, for the rest of his life. Until 2008.
Five years ago almost to this day, I learned my father was in a nursing home dying of testicular cancer. With a friend-schoolmate along for support, encouragement, and my physical safety, I went to see my father. To say hello. To ask why. To say goodbye. It was hard. Hard to walk up to his nursing home room’s doorway and see a man that more closely resembled my gentle, loving, recently-departed grandfather more than the trouble-finding, uncomfortable-with-reality father I remembered.
I was quiet a minute as I stood in his doorway, as I wrapped my mind around his aging physical body sitting in a wheel chair, and that this was not my grandfather, but my father. It was one of those spiritual moments when I assumed G-d caused my father to resemble Gramps so it would be easier for me to be warm to him. After all, if he still appeared to be the strong, healthy, 50-year-old who stood me up, it is likely I would have had a harder time making my next decision.
He spoke first: “Well, hello!” “Do you know who I am?” I asked. I honestly do not remember if he said my name, but I knew he knew me when he looked into my eyes and responded with all the enthusiasm his exhausted body could muster, “Yes! I do! Please come in.” My friend was right behind me, and when I determined my father was clearly no threat to me, I nodded for my friend to wait in the lobby.
I asked my father some hard questions, and I got a couple answers. Some answers made sense, others, not so much. The cancer had metastasized and was clearly affecting his brain. He spoke semi-coherently of minor events from my toddler years, and I recognized them as such only because my mother had told me those same stories long ago. His telling of these mini-stories helped me to feel connected with him, as if we actually had been family, if only in the beginning. My father and I made peace together there in the nursing home. Whatever his reason for choosing to abstain from family life, I forgave him. It was healing for me, and probably for him, as well.
Two days later, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving 2008, 12 years to the day after I invited him to Thanksgiving dinner the year he stood me up, his cancer-filled body died.
Before we made peace, I thought of my father every Thanksgiving as the anniversary of him standing me up. Since we made peace, I have remembered him at Thanksgiving in a much different way.
I am grateful my father and my mother conceived me and my sister Laura, and I am grateful he and Mavis, his third wife, conceived my sister Jayne. I am grateful that I chose to visit him in the nursing home. I am grateful I witnessed him and his mother also making peace.