Sunday, August 7, 2022

Thoughts on losing my dad...

 

                                                           I lost my father yesterday.

     He passed away at 79 years old. He would have been 80 in November.
The truth of the matter is…I lost him before I was even born.
I’ll spare you the details, but the thumbnail is this; He was 20 and my mother was 19. They met while he was home from college on Christmas break. They dated a bit, did the deed and I was born the following September.
     He had no desire to marry my mother, something for which I have never blamed him.
My guess is he had no desire to be eternally connected to someone so toxic. I wouldn’t have married her either and I told him so in the only conversation we ever had, 43 years after I was born.
     He chose, instead, to drop out of college and join the Army. He decided that the hell of Vietnam was better than the hell she was putting him through. I know how she is. I can completely understand choosing a likely death in war over a life with her.
My father did two tours. When he enlisted, tours were 18 months then they were cut down to 12. He did one of each. He spent thirty months in country, was wounded twice and won three Purple Hearts. He was a hero.
     He came home and within ten days was hit with a court order from my mother, requesting he terminate his parental rights. She was getting married and had convinced her husband (I don’t like to use the term “stepfather” when describing him. A stepfather, to me, is one who “steps in” and at least tries to be a father to a child. Tom didn’t even like me, much less try to be fatherly.) to adopt me.
My gut feeling is she was still in love with my father and was hoping this would shake him up and he’d marry her instead.
     My father, instead, called her bluff yet again and signed me over. He agreed to pay the $700 adoption fees in exchange for being rid of this blemish on his life once and for all.
I never knew any of this, of course, since I was five when this all happened. I was simply told that Tom was my father. Bob was never mentioned at all, until I was 21.
I asked my mother once why I had no memories of “dad” (Tom) until I was 5. She said it was because he sailed on oil tankers and was never home. This was actually true…but it had nothing to do with why I don’t remember him. It’s because he didn’t meet my mother until I was almost five. But lying to me about my father was sort of the rule of the house by that point.
     Fast forward to Christmas 1984. I was a freshman in college and was home for Christmas break. I had bought my parents an anniversary card because their anniversary was December 10. I was sitting in the rec room talking to my mother. I told her I didn’t know if it was their 22nd or 23rd anniversary so I didn’t get one of those specific cards. I was 21, so I figured they had to have been married at least 22 years.
My mother says, “It’s our 17th.” And starts crying.
     She immediately starts telling me how Tom isn’t my father, and my real father was Bob and she filled me in on as much as she knew about him. I was in disbelief and had to drive to Philly and confirm it with my grandmother before I would believe it. When my grandmother started to cry as soon as I told her what happened…I knew it was true.
     I was 21. I immediately felt relief. At least Tom wasn’t my father. At least now I understand why my father hates me…he’s not actually my father.  But then I felt something else. I didn’t know I was feeling it, but I felt it. I felt betrayed. I felt like I was the subject of the biggest con job in the world. I doubted everything I knew about myself from that moment on. Who I was. What I was. My mother had lied to me about my father…what else did she lie to me about?
     I tell people it’s like you go to work on Monday morning and find out someone reached into your laptop and ripped out the hard drive while you were working on an important document. And to make it worse…they replaced your Windows operating system with an Apple. It won’t even work. You’d have to sort out code and wires just to get it to boot up. Your files are all gone. Everything on your memory cards is now “corrupted” by doubt. Nothing you “saved” can be trusted. Including everything you thought you knew about yourself.
Six years.
     It took me six years to sort through that enough to even try contacting Bob. Six years of figuring out who I really was. Things I thought I “got from my father” that I didn’t. Things about me that were so very different from my siblings, that I often wondered about but wrote off as me just being different.
     Underneath all of it, I was scavenging for anything I could find out about my father. In those days, before the internet, there wasn’t any real way of researching someone. Unless you had mutual acquaintances or they had made the papers somehow, you had no chance of learning about them.
     I did manage to get his address. He was in the Pennsylvania phone book. I drove by his house two or three times one summer. Each time I thought about knocking on the door. Each time I was too afraid.
My father was intimidating to me, and I had never even met him.
I wondered if he somehow had been keeping tabs on me. Would he be proud of me. Would he be embarrassed?
I couldn’t bring myself to knock on the door.
     It was six years before I wrote him the first letter. I don’t remember what I said. I just told him who I was. Who my mother was. And I was explicit in my position that I wanted nothing from him financially. I wasn’t looking for money or a claim to the estate. I told him I would sign any legal waiver stating that. I just wanted to know my dad. I wanted to know who I was and who he was. Who my family was. I needed to know the other half of me.
I mailed the letter in Spring of 1989. In August of that year, I came home to his voice on my answering machine. I was almost 27 and was hearing my dad’s voice for the first time.
“Hi Craig. It’s Bob. I got your letter. Just calling to check on you. I’ll call again.”
My knees went weak, and I sat in a chair with tears in my eyes. “That’s my dad…” I said to my girlfriend at the time, who was with me that day for a Phillies game and came over for dinner afterward.
     I talked to him about a week later. He called me on a Sunday evening. I guess it was surreal at first…I was 27 and hearing my father’s voice for the first time. He filled me in on his side of things. He refused to speak ill of my mother…something I always respected him for. Even though I told him how I felt and that I never blamed him for not marrying her. I wouldn’t have married her either. I know her. He tried to convince me not to feel that way, but I reminded him I had been with her all my life…I know her. I know what she is capable of, and I can only imagine what sort of hell she put him through. To his credit…he never said a harsh word about her, even when I gave him permission to do so.
     We had one cobbled attempt at a face to face meeting when I was thirty. And that failed We both showed up at the restaurant we had decided upon, but in typical man fashion, neither of us described ourselves to the other and since we had no idea who we were looking for, we both left thinking the other had stood them up. In reality, we were about ten feet apart, waiting for a face we would not recognize because we never described ourselves.
     After that, something changed. He stopped taking calls from me…infrequent as they were. I put it on the back burner until I got married. I think I needed my dad to know I was getting married. I was a man. Taking a wife. Maybe he’d be proud of me. Maybe he’d have some nugget of wisdom. But he wouldn’t answer when I called.
     I got married. We moved to Nashville. A year later we found out we were pregnant. “Maybe now…” I thought. “Maybe now my dad will want a relationship. He’s about to have a granddaughter.” I called him the day after Daisy was born. I told him about his granddaughter, and he told me “Well you’re on an island now. Just you and your wife and your daughter. Nobody is there for you but you.”
That was it. Not “Congratulations” not “I’m happy for you” not “Send me some pictures of her.” Nothing. His rejection now included his own granddaughter.
And still I couldn’t hate him, and still he intimidated me and still I wanted a relationship with him.
     I waited nine more years. Some events within my family, some of whom I had come to know and love by this point, caused me to reach out one more time. This time, though, I forced his hand. He finally called me. He actually drove from Pennsylvania to Franklin TN where I lived. We met and talked for three hours. I was elated. I felt like I had finally met my dad. He made it clear I didn’t need to be ashamed anymore. I was welcome at family events (He was one of 14 children and family gatherings were huge affairs) I was free to claim who I was. (I had changed my name back to “Daliessio” in 1997 before my daughter was born. That was my name at birth and for the first five years of my life. I didn’t want to perpetuate the lie for another generation)
     And then…almost inexplicably, he turned on me again. He began denying he was my father. He demanded a DNA paternity test…but he would never actually submit to one. I scheduled a test at least six times and he never showed.
He would tell everyone I wasn’t his son but would never take a single step to prove it. To me this was simple. If someone is claiming to be your child and you are that sure you are not his father…you take the test! But he would not.
     From 2007 until 2012 I pursued him and the test. I finally gave up.
I called him the summer of 2012. I knew he wouldn’t answer the phone, but I called anyway. I left him a voice message. I told him; “Bob this is Craig. I want you to know I am done. Done with you and your bullshit (I was pretty upset).” “I don’t care about the test anymore. I know the truth. And you know it too, or else you’d get the damned test done and prove me wrong. I want you to know, you missed out on a wonderful granddaughter. Neither of us wanted a thing from you, only a connection. To me, you’re no hero. You’re not a great man. Your medals and your honors and your Doctoral degree are all bullshit. You’re a coward in my eyes. I’m more of a man than you’ll ever be, and it has nothing to do with you. I know how that test will turn out and you do too. Or else you’d get it done. I know you’re my father and YOU know you’re my father. And I don’t even care anymore. It’s YOUR turn to hide. YOUR turn to be embarrassed at family get togethers. I’m not going to hide in the shadows anymore, afraid of you and afraid of making you uncomfortable. I’ve been uncomfortable for 25 years now. I’m done.”
I hung up.
I’d love to tell you I felt better but I didn’t. I felt like it was final. I felt like I said my peace. But it still hurt.
     The truth is I still needed my dad. I’ve never seen him smile. I never told a joke and made him laugh. I would have liked to have heard him tell me, just one time, that he was proud of me. That I was a great dad. That my ex-wife was wrong. That I was doing well.
My dad was a college football player. I played hockey in college. There were times I would instinctively look in the stands for a fleeting second, hoping to see my father there, watching me play.
     I wanted him to know my daughter. To hear her amazing singing voice. To bestow some sort of blessing on her. To let her know she too was part of this family. But none of this happened. In fact, on two occasions he went out of his way to reject us openly in front of the rest of the family.  Once was just me. But the second time, my daughter was there too. That was as close as I came to hating him. Reject me all you want, but don’t reject her. Don’t embarrass my daughter.
We never spoke again. Not after that three hour conversation in Tennessee.
He died yesterday.
     I would like to tell you it doesn’t matter. One of my friends said “Why do you care? He had no impact on your life.” But he did. He impacted me from before I was even born.
He is half of who I am. The half I had to discover at age 21. His absence left me lonely for a father figure. My stepfather never wanted that job. I barely existed in his eyes. They say you can’t miss what you never had. But you can. You do. I missed my dad every day of my life.
     When I was alone at Little League games without a parent in the stands. When I was funny, and gregarious, and intellectual and intelligent…all the things my father was. All the things I was not allowed to be in the home I grew up in. I missed him when I had a burning desire to go to college, like he did, but it was forbidden in my home. (I had to wait until I was 21 and go without my parents blessing)
     I missed him telling me I was a good dad. Giving me marriage advice or fatherhood advice or lawn care advice. I missed having him watch an Eagles game with me or going out for a beer and talking about life.
I missed seeing him smile. I never heard my dad tell me he loves me. Not once.
I missed seeing him grow old. I missed his war stories. I never saw him be a grandfather to my daughter. I missed those things.
I’ve chased his ghost since I was 21.
Now he’s gone and I fear I’ll chase his ghost until I, myself, an a ghost.
I have it in perspective. I long ago stopped thinking his rejection was because of anything I did. That helps a little. But not much.
I’d always hoped that something would happen…some event would shake him from his tree and make him reach out and we’d have the relationship a 59 year old man has with his 79 year old father. Whatever that looks like. But that isn’t coming. Not ever.
     I could hate him if I was so inclined and let myself be bitter. But I know bitter people and it takes more out of you than it does the person who is the object of your bitterness. So, I never hated my dad. I never spoke evil of him. I was mad at him for the way he treated me these last year’s especially. But I never hated him. And I still don’t.
I prayed for him when I found out he was sick. I forgave him and I prayed that God would make sure he was right with Him. Maybe we can have a relationship in Heaven one day.
     My dad did impact me. His rejection of me and the gaping hole he left in me, is what drove me to be a great dad to my daughter. It’s why I loved coaching. It’s why I still have a deep tenderness for fatherless children…especially fatherless boys. I look at my daughter and I see what an impact I had on her life, simply by being there. Being involved. Making sure she knew…come hell or highwater…her daddy loved her, and he would fight hell itself for her.
     I shudder to think of what might have happened had I chosen to be the dad my father was to me. The world is frightening. It’s even more so without your dad.
So, if he left me a legacy, it was the determination to be a better dad than he was. And I think I did the job. And I think it makes me a better man than he was too.
The funny thing is, It still hurts.
Rest in peace, dad. I forgive you. You didn’t break me. But you did hurt me. I forgive you for that too.
Because I’m the better man.