Essays

Rethinking My Broken Relationship with My Troubled Dad, Now That He’s Dead

No matter how much I tried to be a good daughter, he will always be the man I was literally and figuratively running from.
May 15, 2018, 7:31pm
All images courtesy of author. 

My dad put me in a dumpster once.

He wasn’t like... throwing me out or anything. The large blue dumpster stood outside of our building in Stuyvesant Town and it was mostly loaded with discarded furniture. He thought it would be funny for him and my older sister. I remember standing there—you know, in a dumpster—as they pretended to walk away whilst giggling, thinking to myself in my 10-year-old brain, “I cannot believe this is my life.”

It was harmless and silly, two characteristics my dad embodied whenever he was at his best. He was a man made up of random superstitions and axioms. He was the most unpredictable person I had ever known.

He was the scariest looking dude you could imagine—over six feet tall, about 230 pounds, and the owner of a blue teardrop tattoo—and immensely intimidating. He had a six-inch scar spreading across the right side of his face (from a time a man attempt to slit his throat, separate from the time a man cut off part of his thumb in Cambridge, Massachusetts). He was always getting into fights. Sidewalks, movie theaters, train stations—if he was standing somewhere, unnecessary bloodshed was always on the table.

If you spent enough time with him, however, you’d also learned that he was quite sensitive. This was the man who when asked by a lawyer in 2015 “How many times have you been arrested?” responded with “I’m not sure,” but who called me in 2013, sobbing, asking me if I really wasn’t going to invite him to my college graduation.

I thought I had my dad figured out. I thought I had our relationship figured out. But when my estranged dad died three months ago, I quickly realized I had nothing figured out. I wasn’t prepared for my father’s death and all the sadness it would bring me.

Our relationship crumbled around the time I turned 19. There was always a naive part of me that hoped it would work itself out, though. Now that he’s dead, I know that’s never going to happen, and I now have to be a participant in a new and strange world where I miss the person who ultimately brought the most anxiety and sadness into my life.

My dad lived many lives. He trained as a boxer in his early 20s. He worked as a cab driver. He was a devoted and adept lieutenant of the Fire Department of New York. As a young fireman, he enjoyed beer, cocaine, and marching in the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in Manhattan. In his young adulthood, he was good looking, but did not seem to think much of himself. He lived as a son, a best friend, and later a father.

Growing up, this was the kind of man I knew. He bought Yankee tickets for the man who lived outside of McDonalds on First Avenue. He loved breakfast food. He threw his kids the best birthday parties. When I was a kid, he’d look me in the eye with the seriousness of a craniotomy, and exclaim, “I’D ROB A BANK FOR YOU.” And I always knew that he meant it.

He loved a good headbutt, which most people can agree is entirely fucking counterproductive and ridiculous. He never took the first issue of the _New York Pos_t when purchasing the newspaper at local corner stores. Same with Canada Dry ginger ales and boxes of Lorna Doones. Never the first. As kids, he informed my siblings and me that we were not to leave any hat on any bed, as the combination meant “someone was about to die.” He never explained how he reached this scientific conclusion. To this day, as a 26-year-old woman, if I walk into my apartment and see a hat on any bed, I yell “DO WE WANT SOMEONE TO DIE?” You know, as rational people do.

As a kid, he always intimidated me. I was his middle child, and he always treated me like I was a cadet in the John Tamola military school. I couldn’t wear nail polish, I couldn’t watch MTV, I was not allowed on St. Mark’s place, and that man put the fear of god into me so as to ensure that I would NEVER say a single curse word.

I knew my father abused drugs. I watched that man abuse drugs since I was five. I had memorized the shape and texture of the turquoise tiles of our old bathroom floor. I picked my unconscious father off of that tiled floor more than once. The weirdest part of his addiction was that he always managed to convince me that I was either misreading the situation or being too hard on him.

I didn’t have much time to pay attention to his addiction. My brother and I were sharing a room in a small apartment with my grandmother who had Alzheimer’s. I was in high school trying to pass statewide tests and find a boyfriend. Senior year of high school arrived, my parents separated, my grandma died, and I got ready to leave for college.

He used to call me all the time when I was in college. No longer living with my mom and brother, his world seemed shakier. The man who taught me how to pray was suddenly asking me if I believed in God. Other times he’d call me just to tell me he was depressed or that he was thinking or writing about death.

During every conversation, he was irrational and paranoid. He would tell me things that didn’t make sense. Seeing his name on my phone made me anxious. I was his kid and he was my dad but he was always, always the one looking to me for comfort. I could never make him feel better.

All throughout college, I tried to have patience. I felt bad for not having more patience. I’d tell myself over and over again—I only get one dad. My dad is alive and I only get one. I should be grateful for all that he is.

Right before the start of my senior year, we had one last stressful interaction that just threw me over the edge. He owed my mom money for my brother’s tuition, which I had been enlisted to collect. He told me he’d only give me the money if I used my phone to text people who supposedly owed him money. I begged him not to make me do it. I did it anyway. Whomever he made me text replied about 20 minutes later, urging me to tell my friend John to stop bothering them.

This was my breaking point, I guess. This wasn’t my friend—this was my father. Therapists, friends, and family members urged me to “take a break.” So I took the break. And it was essentially the end of our relationship.

My dad would still call me on holidays and my birthday. Our brief exchanges all had the same message: he was my father and I owed him a phone call. This was our cycle for years. I saw him three times in the past six years: first at my grandmother’s wake, second at my grandfather’s birthday, and third when he requested I drive him to my grandpa’s house in his ex-wife’s car.

I found out that my father had cancer on Christmas in 2016. I was at my then-boyfriends house, entranced in a world of familial normalcy and sugar cookies in rural Massachusetts. My sister called me and told me my dad was sick and that the doctors told him that he had about a year.

I called him when I got home and asked him if he wanted to get coffee with me. He said no.

When I found out my dad was sick, each day after that was a day when I was trying to get myself to snap out of my own apathy. I’d shoot him a text or try to call him, but I ultimately distracted myself with work and other people. I wanted to be a good daughter—I wanted to be a selfless daughter who dropped everything and ran to be by her father’s side.

That day never came. He was still the man I was terrified of. He was still the man who I was literally and figuratively running from.

I just kept throwing myself into my job. His responses to my texts were infrequent and cryptic, often telling me to save my prayers and well-wishes for sick children. He didn’t seem like a man who was dying. He also refused to give any specifics about his diagnosis—only telling me that he “knew where he was going” and that he had “made peace with it.”

Three months ago, I was at the Westminster dog show with my siblings, petting poodles and thriving. The next day, I was on the phone with one of his best friends who would say what I had been thinking later that day: “I didn’t know it was this bad.” My dad’s best friend didn’t know my dad was that sick. Neither did I.

His best friend called me that Sunday and I ran to the hospital. And there was my dad. The man in the hospital bed wasn’t the man I was terrified of.

He was entirely confused. Although he had liver cancer, he hadn’t been doing horribly the past couple of months. The reason he got so sick so quickly was because he had hip surgery and never attended follow-up appointments. He got an infection, his friends were called, I was called, and it was clear that the whole death thing was... actually going to happen.

He wouldn’t drink any ginger ale, he wouldn’t eat anything, and he would mostly come in and out of consciousness. Sometimes he’d yell out, yell from what sounded like the bottom of his soul. Just elongated groans. He seemed like he was in a world of physical and emotional pain.

This was Sunday. This would be his last Sunday. It was the last day I heard him produce any words.

It was obvious that it was bad. I knew I needed to hold his hand and tell him that I was sorry and that I loved him. So I did. And he said the exact same thing back to me and we cried together. And it was one of the most powerful moments of my life—and I hope each day that he heard me and that he knows that I truly meant every syllable of what I said.

Then he died. And death isn’t one of those things you just kinda do. When you die, you die all the way. You are gone and you are gone forever. It is the most annoyingly final thing in the entire world. I’m not going to run into him, he’s not going to ask me to buy him a box of cookies, and if I do something crazy like have my own children one day, he will never get to meet them. There’s so much he doesn’t get to do now. There’s so much we do not get to share. It’s annoying. It’s entirely fucking annoying.

One of the worst parts is the constant remembering. I have to bring my brain to a place where I remember my dad is dead and that we will never, ever mend our horrifically fragmented relationship.

In a perfect world, I would have gotten my shit together and I would have sucked it up and been there for him more through his cancer. That didn’t happen and there is truly nothing I can do about it now.

I’m more like my dad than I’ve ever cared to admit. He was super intense. He genuinely cared about whoever seemed like the most vulnerable populations—the sick, the elderly, kids. When it was your birthday, he bought you a cake. My dad did not half-ass anything, and he especially did not half-ass love. I want to believe that I too am these things.

Instead of being afraid of him, his unpredictability, and affinity for punching people in the face, I’m now sitting on my bed at the end of the day and I’m saying prayers to this man. I’m begging him to look out for the people I care about and to help me get my life together. I almost feel like I can rely on him now in a way that I couldn’t before.

My dad called me “Little Girl” more than he called me by my actual name. For better or for worse, I’ll always be his daughter. I’ll always be the girl in the dumpster, hoping my existence is bringing him some semblance of joy.

Follow Katie Tamola on Twitter.

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