BANG! BANG! BANG! (Mom is pounding on the door.)
Mom: “Matt! Get up now! The hospital just called, and Dad has taken a turn for the worse.”
Me: (Disoriented) “Wha, what Mom? But… what does that mean?”
Mom: “I don’t know, just get up, we have to go… Now!”
I was just 13 years old. I don’t really remember much over the next 10 years or so. Of course, I “have” memories. But EVERYTHING is hazy. It’s cloudy. Because my sunlight had been stripped away from me. My innocence, essentially, was gone forever. It took me years to realize I’d been filled with an unhealthy amount of self-doubt, fear of abandonment, and constant reminders of inadequacy. Things I would destructively hold onto for many years. Although I never had any suicidal tendencies. I felt like I was insignificant, and had nothing to live for.
The hospital left us waiting for nearly 5 hours after that phone call. I’m not sure if their cowardice was due to fear of malpractice, or they were just busy determining who would have to break the bad news to us, through a competitive exchange of rock-paper-scissors. Either way, it felt very wrong.
We were several floors up from the ground. I remember firmly pressing my forehead against the window, wondering what would happen if the glass would just cave in. Would this go away? Would my pain just go away? While I peered down, thinking these morbid thoughts, I looked at the people walking in and out of the hospital entrance. I found myself wondering what those strangers had been through that day, or about to go through… and realizing, unknowingly, how many people I’ve walked by in the midst of the worst day of their lives. Just pointlessly carrying on and worrying about my small and insignificant problems. For the first time in my life, and on my worst day, I stopped to think about others, albeit selfishly.
This only child, was now the child of an only parent. Mom would try to overcome many hurdles. Sometimes she failed. But her priorities were certainly never in question. She’s always been a good role model – and she did the best job she could trying to be a Mom and a Dad at the same time.
Mom was overwhelmed. I was overwhelmed for only for myself. She was overwhelmed for both. I can’t imagine what she went through. If something happened to my wife Dawn, I question if I’d be strong enough to keep shit together for the sake of our girls. I’d have to. But I would fail in comparison (to my Mom). And I guess that would be okay as long as I kept trying and never gave up. I’ve heard too many stories of fathers that gave up on their families. I’ve often found myself in the conversation of which is worse: Losing a parent to an illness and they’re gone forever? Or losing one to selfishness and sporadic involvement? Both are forms of abandonment, but one is a choice. I can’t imagine how much that hurts.
Dad died the year I hit puberty. I never got the birds and the bees talk. If you read my first blog post, you probably thought I was joking about Eazy-E. I wasn’t. It was a disaster!
So many mistakes were made. Mom wouldn’t let me play football. She said I was too skinny. (Oops! She really got that one wrong!) I blew off my education, and actually resented it. I sabotaged both my entrance exams to two private high schools because I didn’t want Mom to carry the financial burden. I was so angry at Dad for being gone. Rumor was he requested a priest for last rites. I’m not sure if this is true. But for years I was furious he didn’t ask for ME, for US, so we could say goodbye to HIM. I was also angry at Mom. But for no real reason – other than she was the only good target. My hormonal state made simple communication nearly impossible. I’m sorry for that. We are always young and ignorant. It’s taken me becoming a parent to realize what she went through. I suppose it’s a parental rite of passage. That inevitable moment when we realize we regret many actions from our ignorant youth. And realize our own children will help even the score.
After so much loneliness, sadness, desperation, acting out, and time, I was able to find some happy moments. I’ve learned a lot from these happy moments. I’ve learned to cherish, take pictures, talk about them, and recreate them. But I also found some darkness hidden in the new-found happiness. Happiness highlights our deepest, darkest sorrows. And it reminds us of lifelong regrets. I’m sad every time I look at my wedding pictures. Because Dad wasn’t there. Every time my daughter tells me she loves me. I’m sad Dad isn’t there. I’m reminded that I was robbed of THIS time with him. Since he’s passed away, every time I have a feeling of happiness, it’s compounded with extreme sadness. Like when I talk with Maria about her Papa. I think he would’ve liked her calling him Papa. But soon she’ll be asking where he is. She’ll be asking better questions. I’ll share with her (and Lena) pictures along with my faded memories. I’ll kiss them both, and reassure them that I’ll never leave. A promise, that I know will be broken. You know that. And I know that. But for now – and for a long time to come – I don’t want THEM to know that. I just want them to remain innocent.
My wedding really was the catalyst of my “happy” life. My BEAUTIFUL wife has dedicated her life to representing everything in a mother, that her mother wasn’t. Our backgrounds are very different. We all learn good and bad habits from our parents. Unfortunately, for her as a child, she learned from her parents a lot of what not to do. And she’s churned out an undying motivation to making what a loving family SHOULD be. She is seriously – and not just because she’s reading this – is the strongest, sweetest, toughest, softest, most bad-ass, loving, hardest-working, nurturing, shit-kicking, caring mother in the WHOLE WORLD. I know it’s cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less true. We are so lucky to have her. She runs circles around me and I’m in awe of her daily.
So What does it mean to be Dad? Protection? Perhaps. What does it mean to protect? To provide shelter, food, clothes, and love? What about protection from loss of innocence? We know it’s there, and that it’s important. But we don’t emphasize it the same way we do shelter and food. It’s rarely discussed. As if “innocence” isn’t essential for healthy long-term survival in our culture. Innocence needs to be nurtured and protected. It’s the fuel that drives a young soul. Without it, we’re lost.
I haven’t yet directly answered how I learned to be a dad without having one. Perhaps I’m avoiding the answer, as I’m still molding the clay. I suppose I learned a little bit from every dad and every mom I’ve ever met. Especially my own. It’s been 23 years since I saw my Dad. The memories are hazy, but I remember he loved me very much. If he were here, I’d certainly be a better father. As long as there’s Love I suppose everything else falls into place.
Take care of yourself mentally AND physically. Your family needs you. Maybe we aren’t really all that insignificant after all. Most of my readers are parents. They’re somebody’s hero. I certainly don’t want history to repeat itself. Some day, I want MY grandchildren to be reading these words. With me right next to them. Laughing at the younger, much more ignorant me.
Here’s the song I danced to with Mom on my wedding day: Dance with My Father by Luther Vandross. Tears every time.