What It’s Like When A Parent Who Wasn’t Really There Dies

Last year, I wrote an article for Thought Catalog called “Living with Daddy Issues.” While the essay encompassed my feelings on the unfairness of being targeted as a woman with daddy issues, I wrote extensively about my memories of my father’s presence — or rather, lack of presence — in my life. The comments that were left on the page soothed me, mostly because I found that there were so many out there like me. Some had abandonment issues themselves, noting that that they too were perceived as automatically having similar hang-ups and easily recognized the unfairness of it all. After its publication, I found some solace in others’ experience and was grateful to have touched so many with my honesty.

But now, I have a different story to tell. Whenever I mention my family life to anyone who is not a close friend and I reference my parents, I always note that they include my mother and stepfather.

“Where’s your dad?” is the assertive question that often follows.

“Oh, he passed away,” I say. A big change from what I have been saying since the early 90s, when my mother and father divorced. But, that has to be my answer now.

This year’s Cinco de Mayo celebrations found my friends partying at their work neighborhood’s nearest Mexican haunt, carelessly downing margarita after margarita and coating their stomachs with nachos with extra cheese. I wasn’t there with them. This year’s Cinco de Mayo turned me into a child who lost a parent. My father died late that afternoon from complications due to alcoholism.

I had spoken with my uncle, my father’s brother, on Easter Sunday. The conversation consisted of the standard how-are-you-doing-what’s-new small talk, when he threw the pitch.

“I know you two are estranged and don’t have the best relationship,” he said. “But your father’s in the CCU in Little Rock and he’s been intubated.” He used his psychiatrist’s voice, simple and very direct, emotionless.

I waited a few seconds before responding. My father’s addiction had taken a severe turn in the early 90s, and he’d had several chances with death and had come out fine. This felt different, final.

“So, this is it, then,” I said.

“His situation is tenuous,” my uncle said. “We just have to wait. I’ll keep you updated. Can you tell your brother?”

I was —  and wasn’t — shocked. I always knew my father would die like this, but needless to say, the news ruined my Easter. I relayed my younger brother all the news I’d received, and together we began the process of accepting the finality with back and forth texting throughout the day. For the following two weeks, I texted with my uncle daily to check in on my father’s health. The answers were never good: intubation turned into a tracheotomy, followed by failed swallow tests and bleak hope for any type of future that existed outside of assisted living.

My anxiety ended on May 5th. The last call my uncle made about my father’s state was to tell me he had just died.

“Have you talked to anyone today?” he asked.

“Just my mom. She told me he flat lined yesterday and is on a ventilator,” I said.

“Well…”

That week, my father was cremated. A bleak, purely fact-driven obituary was printed in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. There was no funeral, no ceremony of any kind. My uncle traveled from South Carolina to Little Rock and cleared out my father’s apartment. He delivered the ashes to my grandmother. In seven days, it was all over. Like nothing happened.

A few days before the Fourth of July, I came home from work to find that a large FedEx box had been delivered to my apartment. It was for me, from another Dwyer: my uncle. After I hauled the heavy package to my room and opened it, I was greeted with the revolting smell of stale smoke and mothballs. I poured out the crumpled up newspaper my uncle used to pack the empty spaces. The box held three jackets: a black leather, a light blue Dallas Cowboys puffy coat, and a dark blue New York Yankees letterman-style jacket. Inside the Cowboys coat was a tightly wrapped and taped-up piece of newspaper containing my father’s cheap black aviator sunglasses. I dug deeper and found all four of his high school yearbooks, from 1972 to 1976. More wrapped items: a plaster of Paris print of his hands, at age 5. His silver baby cup, now completely tarnished and begging to be polished. There was a framed satin banner of our last name in purple and gold and a small, circular pillow bearing the number 32: my father’s high school basketball number.

I sat on the floor, littered with newspaper, and the only thing I could think was, “Great, now I have to deal with all this.” Then my eyes came to the bottom of the box where the proverbial loaded gun sat. There was a stack of photos, which weren’t held together by anything, and they were splayed everywhere. I fingered through each one, most of them featuring my father, my mother, and me as a very small child, all posing on a couch or in front of a Christmas tree.

In none of the photos is my father holding me. It’s always my mother, or one of my grandparents, or I’m sitting alone on a chair, smiling as I’m holding my grandmother’s cat. I grew up believing that my father’s love for me had gone away, only to be replaced by the bottle. It was an accepted fact, retold to inquisitive friends and prospective relationships and undoubtedly supported now by these photos.

Then, in this group of pictures, I came across a postcard with a penguin on it. I turned it over and saw my 8 year old handwriting on it. It was a postcard I had sent my father, shortly after his divorce from my stepmother, dated 1995. The address was my grandparents’, where my father was living after his second divorce. I had addressed it to “Daddy.” As I read through the short message I had written to him nearly 20 years before the day I held it in my hand again, I felt stunned. I couldn’t believe he’d held onto it for so long. Until I received the box, I’d imagined him to have lived the past two decades as some kind of vagrant, a wanderer with only one small suitcase full of the essentials, leaving behind the superfluous.

Me. To him, I was the superfluous.

As the box still remains in my room, and has been for weeks, I turned on my computer one day and decided to reread the “Living with Daddy Issues” essay. I found it eerie how only a year before my father’s death, my brother and I had speculated on how we’d feel once he died. Sure enough, my brother kept his word and drank a can of cheap beer in the man’s honor. I was the one who ended up making all the calls — I called my brother and my father’s two ex-wives, my mother and stepmother, to give them the news. I called my employers to tell them what had happened, and to reassure them that I’d be at work on time the next morning. I sent out a mass text to all my friends. I never cried; what’s there to cry about, really?

Since then, I’ve had to succumb to so many scrunched-up faces full of sympathy, bear the condolences as if they meant something. All these people do have their hearts in the right places, their reactions are only human. But these small bursts of empathy are easy: it’s how we cope with the shock of the terrible news of others. What’s worse is having to explain that there is nothing to feel sorry for, that I wasn’t sad, that I felt next to nothing. Other peoples’ kindness is sincere; my apathy makes them uncomfortable.

The question that lingers with me, even now, is, “Am I still marked?” The “daddy issue” is the box with all its contents: real things, not intangible thoughts and emotions, to be either sent to my brother or gingerly hidden in my room, so no one has to see, including myself. The answer to the where-is-your-dad question is much easier now, as people are left to their own assumptions of how he died. I’m able to accept sympathy and let the awkward moments pass. Even though good logic tells me that the truly altruistic would understand the truth beneath the stickiness of my explanations, I feel like the ugliness of the daddy facts are like a birthmark I can never cover up enough.

My brother has more control over his emotions. “He wasn’t always bad,” he said. “Yes, he was a piece of shit, but I know there was a time when he made Mom and our stepmom happy. There was a time when you, Meagan, were happy to see him. When I reflect on him, I just try to look at the good, even though I have to squint and use a magnifying glass.”

“You and your brother are probably the two good things your father ever did with his life,” my mother said on the phone after I told her of his death. “I think, really, that’s a fine legacy.”

Even these words seemed trite to me at the moment, though perhaps with enough time I can learn to accept it as a possible truth. But, through all the echoes of consoling voices and the vision of the box that sits in my bedroom, partially unpacked, I feel vindicated. I can be free of this. And now, when I look over my first essay about my father, I know those who felt similarly can be free too. It just comes with one final trauma, and then it’s over.

When I start my days, I brush my hair and apply my makeup in front of a large vanity mirror. On the upper left side of the mirror, I taped up two photos of my parents, taken in the Fall and used as past Christmas card stuffers. My parents: my mom and my stepdad. No one else. “You’re free now,” I say to myself when I look at their faces, which are both splayed with big smiles. TC mark

featured image – Alyssa L. Miller

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