What Happens When An Absent Parent Passes Away

Few people in their twenties remember the first four years of their lives. Most of my friends can only recall these years with great difficulty, if at all. 1994 was the year my parents divorced and my father moved across the country and somehow, even at four, I knew my memories with him up until that point were all I was ever going to have.

It’s funny how closely you hold certain things to your heart, even as a child, if you are told that you will never get more of them. Mundane days became cherished memories that were to be relived a thousand times over in both agony and euphoria. A photographic memory of my little hands pressed up against his and the vast difference in size became a home in which I felt safe and protected as ever.

My father was a free spirit entirely. Despite society and loved ones placing pressure on him to support his wife and child, my father did what he wanted, always. He would disappear for days on end, only to come back to my worried mother and me – forever gleaming in his presence no matter how long he’d been gone. I basked in his independence and listened, when he told me to always do anything I wanted.

With him, I could run as far and fast away as I could, to the point where he became a tiny spec in my little eyes. One of my fondest memories was me asking if I could brush his arms with my hairbrush. “If it’s what you want to do,” he said, “then go for it.” So many afternoons I’d spend on his shoulders, walking to the park or wherever we pleased. My father never had a plan; we just made decisions as they came.

Just as quickly as he won my heart, my father disappeared after the divorce – returning only once as a completely changed person. Worrying, chain smoking, and mostly yelling the entire weekend he was home. Then, again, he was gone and this time it was forever.
Throughout the years I struggled greatly with the absence of my father. His disappearance shaped my interactions with boys, and later on with men entirely but that is a topic for another day. Despite it all, I thought of him always and prayed that he was safe and happy, wherever he was in the world.

Fifteen years after he left, I received a phone call. I was 19, in college, and it was a Friday night. Finishing up the last of my make-up to go out, I received a phone call from a strange number. On the other line was a nurse who said my father had suffered two strokes and was in a vegetative state on life support. They found me through public records as his only relative in the States. That was just the first clause of this life bomb. Part two was that it was now up to me to take him off of life support or keep him on, though the chances of him waking up were slim to none.

My hands shook and my head began to feel like it was entirely dismantling. I asked for permission to call back, and spent the next thirty minutes thinking through every possibility of what could have lead to that phone call. Could they have made a mistake? Did somebody hurt him? Did anyone else know he was there?

I called the first person I could think of, and delivered the news to my mom. Calm as ever, she told me to continue on with my plans and that she would figure it all out. Being as naive and I was, I decided to go out that night but all I could think about was him.

Days later, my mom tracked down a first cousin of his who took over the matter. She took him off life support and arranged for his funeral. My mother urged me to go see him in the hospital one last time, but I could not replace all of my beautiful memories – with a memory of him frail and unconscious in a hospital bed. I attended his funeral, which followed Buddhist traditions, and I was placed in the middle of the room before his lifeless body in a white traditional Buddhist gown. All eyes were on me as I was instructed by monks to serve him rice for the afterlife. We all prayed for his safe journey into the next life.
I kneeled, knees weak, and placed my head forward onto the ground. I felt angry, resentful that he could leave this way without an explanation and without an effort to know me. Since he left I had become editor-in-chief of my high school paper and gone on to complete two semesters of straight A’s in my college courses.

As a child of an absent parent, you are always conflicted by feelings of confusion and self-entitlement. I felt deserving of a second parent to acknowledge my achievements, and now we could never speak again. Looking back now, perhaps I was selfish to think that way.

But something happened in that moment. A wave of gentleness passed over me and I suddenly forgave him for all that he had done. My father could not escape the free spirit that he was given, and I was lucky to have come out of it as a fiercely independent woman. He gave me the charisma, and complexities that others yearn to understand. I also inherited my father’s constant curiosity which allows me to connect to everyone I meet.

All of the sudden I understood. Despite his abrupt leaving and lingering in that other universe, he gave to me through memories the only thing I ever needed – the undoubting, irrefutable truth that my father loved me insurmountably. TC mark

image – A.D. Wheeler

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