I Don’t Know My Own Father

I don’t know my own father. I have never actually known him. Growing up, he was just there among us. After high school, I wanted nothing more than to run far away from what we all grew up in, and I did for the most part. I don’t yet know how much I regret that. But nobody really knows what it was like growing up in our house. Nobody understands what we all tried to escape. My entire family has been on and off antidepressants for years with mental illness to one degree or another. I know that when my dad dies, I will do my best to remember the few good memories, almost all of which originated in elementary school and ended by middle school. I will offer a side to his story that his own siblings know little of. It’s not all bad, it’s just very complicated.

But as his health deteriorates, the chances that anything will be resolved between us become remote. In fact, there is no chance at all. I put twelve years of distance between us when I moved to North Carolina in 2005. Several years later early signs of dementia began to creep in. Twelve years later, there is no longer any way to resolve the problems we all faced growing up. Even if he could understand, I’m not yet able to put into words what I need to say to him because I don’t yet know what it is I want to say. I forgave him some time ago for an incident of physical abuse, though after it occurred we never spoke of it again. I know I was not innocent in provoking it either. I blame the overwhelming circumstances we were all living in at the time that contributed to it, like a powder keg, and which ultimately led to permanent estrangement that persists to this day. 

After he is gone I will need to come to terms with the overwhelming guilt and regret that has plagued me for years. I went a long time trying to figure out why things were the way they were. Why could I never develop a relationship with my own father, no matter how hard I tried or wanted it? What went wrong and when? What stood in the way? Was it me or him or both of us? Fortunately I have some answers to those questions now, but they came too late. The damage was long done. I don’t blame him anymore, and I try not to blame myself either. But the problem is that I see him in myself all the time. In everything I do, even down to the identical sounding way I laugh around other people. I see him in my actions and I see him in my failures, as I relive some of the same difficulties he faced. And as much as I wish I could shed his influence, I know I cannot do this. 

Some of the good memories I have are from when I was younger. He taught me things and fostered interests in things that I still have interest in to this day. Because of autism no social/emotional relationship ever really developed between us. I myself am unable to relate to people in this way, so I do not blame him for that at all. But this is a recent realization. For most of our lives, we grew up with no understanding at all of why he was the way he was. We saw a socially and emotionally distant father, sometimes may as well have been absent. There was a wall between us and none of us knew why. And ongoing marital conflict complicated everything further. I had both parents vying for my support, to back their side of the story over the other. Two parents who wished to pit us against the other. I didn’t know which side I was supposed to be on, but I turned on him anyway. That was an impossible situation to be forced into and I don’t know that any other kid would know how to deal with it any better. I’ll never let go of the regret I still live with for that even if I know it wasn’t my fault. 

After I went away to college for the first time, my dad did try to reach out to me via letter. I never responded to him. Of course I saw him in person after that, but I never responded because I didn’t know how to. And I will also never stop regretting that. Time and distance, perhaps a lot of it, were required for me to come to an understanding of what I couldn’t do at the time, because my focus was solely on escaping my childhood, my high school years. It is now too late for us to come to terms with any of it. And I will not try because it is far too difficult even now. I don’t know my dad and I never really will. I have never had a relationship with him and won’t ever now. He regrets this and I know it. He lives with far more regret than even I do. Even given his increasingly limited cognition he recalled an incident from Christmas many years ago involving my brother that I have no recollection of myself, but which he brought up in conversation to express his regret anyway. He very likely lives with much more weighing on his mind than anyone is aware. And because of his inability to communicate normally with any of us, will go to his grave never having resolved any of it. For that I can do nothing but say that I forgive everything and I’m sorry our lives worked out the way they did. 

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