“It all started at the ocean for him,” my mother said as we stood barefoot, arm in arm, staring out at the vast Atlantic. She had forced me to come to the beach – I spent the 45-minute car ride staring resolutely into my lap, not daring to look at the shore. “It’ll be closure,” she told me. “You need this.” I fought her every step of the way – I am an adult, goddamnit, and I think I know where my emotional boundaries lie. I didn’t think it was unreasonable, I told myself, to avoid the ocean for the rest of my life.
Six months before that day, my father drove to the beach and left his wallet, keys and phone in the car. Trailing cigarette butts and his own blood toward the rocks, he flung his body in the ocean, leaving nothing but a paragraph behind on his iPhone, a thoroughly modern suicide note telling us that he was sorry for his cowardice and that he hoped he’d come back as a better person in his next life.
If you had told me when I was seven, ten, fourteen, even nineteen, that I would miss my father when he died, I would have told you that you were insane. I spent the vast majority of my life hating him for the way he treated my mother, my brother and me. Every time he called me a fat piece of shit, an ungrateful bitch, a fucking idiot, I wished he would die. Every time he picked me up by my ponytail and slammed me against a wall or threw me down a flight of stairs, I wished he would die. Every time he called my mother a paranoid fucking cunt, smashed her head into the oven door, made her bleed, told me I was stupid and would amount to nothing, I wished he would die. And when he told my sweet, thoughtful little brother that he was a pussy because he didn’t want to play football or learn to chop wood, I wished that I could kill him.
Emotional manipulation is a funny thing. One moment you’re enjoying a summer evening with your family and the next you’re staring into the eyes of a monster. It’s enough to drive anyone crazy – where is the trigger? What’s going to set him off? If I’m smart, funny, helpful, he’ll love me and never hit me again. If I make the basketball team, he’ll stop drinking. If I pretend to like his favorite band, he won’t call me names.
The day he moved out was a happy day for my family. I got to see my mother, normally a timid, tightly-wound ball of nerves and anger unwind a bit. Slowly but surely, she bloomed into a confident, resourceful woman who didn’t take shit from anyone. To think that this strong, independent woman had her resolve beaten down by a weak man with a deadly temper infuriated me. I watched my brother, a bright and kind boy with a killer sense of humor, blossom into an incredibly smart, motivated young man. There was no question about it – my father’s departure meant nothing but good things for us.
But deep down, I missed having a father. I missed the good times – though they were few and far between, I missed driving around with him, blasting Elton John, the Cranberries and the Counting Crows. I missed discussing the latest episode of SNL (when he wasn’t busy beating the shit out of me, he was a huge fan of SNL). In retrospect, I thought that his exit would change our relationship – maybe, without the strain of juggling multiple women on the side and hitting his wife and kids in places no one could find bruises, he could finally learn to be happy and to value what he had lost.
Sure, it changed him – but it changed me more. As you can imagine, I had deep trust issues that ruined many a relationship and friendship. I was volatile, angry and rude. But more than anything, I was driven to succeed. All those years of being told that I would amount to nothing certainly did take a toll on me – I planned for my future relentlessly, studying two hours a night for the SATs and parading each college admission letter and scholarship acceptance in front of my mother, begging for approval.
I woke up one morning, just a few months before I was leaving to move across the country for college, and I knew that I had to start forgiving my father. Sure, he made me miserable… but I was making myself miserable by harboring anger, hurt and pain. I knew that in order to fully embrace the next step of my life, I had to move forward in all aspects possible. So I called him. He was living three hours and two states away, and he drove 180 miles to have coffee with me. After almost two years of silence, he was thrilled that his only daughter had finally decided to speak with him. He made the trip once a week – he drove six hours round trip to sit at Panera and have coffee with me.
When I graduated from high school, he gave me a card telling me how proud he was of me. I put it with my other graduation cards and left it in my childhood bedroom in a drawer.
Three months after his death, and on what would have been his 56th birthday, I got a line from the card tattooed on my back in his handwriting. “You inspire me. Love, Dad.” After giving me years of physical and emotional scars, I made the decision to mark myself with his words forever – on my terms.
My mother and I stood together at the beach that afternoon and she held me as I wept loudly and openly. I wept for my father – the asshole who ruined my life and the daddy who taught me how to make a pizza crust from scratch. I looked out to the ocean and I remembered a flicker of a memory – my father and I driving out to the beach before sunrise with two chairs and a Frisbee. “He loved the beach,” I sobbed into my mother’s shoulder. “It makes sense that he’d want to be there at the end.”
Rest in peace, Dad.