Even When My Father Was Dying, We Couldn't Talk About Our Feelings

Instead of saying "I love you," he told me about a cousin who had expressed an interest in buying his car.
Publish date:
November 2, 2016
fathers, communication, fathers and daughters, family

Since I was a kid, I haven’t been close to my father. He’s never shown much interest in my life or my sister’s life, and growing up it was clear that he viewed raising us as solely our mother’s responsibility. His responsibility began and ended with (fairly begrudgingly) supporting us financially. However, he didn’t contribute a cent to my college education, informing me that it was a waste of time because I’d just end up married and having babies anyway. As soon as I graduated, he started telling everyone in my hometown how he paid to put me through.

Dad and I really only call each other for Christmas and birthdays. He doesn’t visit me. I visit him once every few years. He didn’t meet my husband until after we were married and didn’t meet my son until he was 4 years old. He hasn’t been to my house. I can’t bear to send Father’s Day cards. It’s not quite estrangement, but it's obviously not a great relationship.

Despite all this, I was there for my dad when he was admitted to hospital in my city. Although he has a big support network back home, there wasn’t anyone else close to the hospital, and it didn’t feel right to leave him there without regular visitors or someone to talk to the doctors, keep him company, and run errands.

Once he was in hospital, Dad deteriorated rapidly. What was supposed to be a straightforward procedure turned into an escalating sequence of procedures that failed, one after the other. He lost a lot of blood, reacted badly to the drugs, and then began to show signs of organ failure. It became clear that he might not make it.

With what looked to be very little time left, I tried to figure out how to make things right between us.

But I didn’t know how. What do you say that will fix things with someone who might be dying? How do you discuss the past 35 years or so without accusing and laying blame on someone who is now just a very sick old man? Taking a step back, how fair is it to blame him at all when a lot of the way he treated us might have just been passed down from his relationship with his own father?

I sat down to figure out what I wanted to say and found it really difficult, so I thought I’d write things down. I wrote him a letter, but it was way too bitter and angry — and I tore it up. Then I wrote another more reasonable, toned-down letter to take with me to the hospital.

When I went in to visit the next afternoon, I found him looking worse than ever. He said he needed to talk to me in case he didn’t make it, and I braced myself for a long, emotional conversation. However, that’s not what happened.

Dad told me about a guy he owed money to for fixing his roof. He told me about a cousin who had expressed an interest in buying his car. He told me about details I should discuss with his solicitor.

All the while, we were both sitting there unsuccessfully holding back tears. We both wanted to say more but couldn’t find the words. He didn’t take the opportunity to tell me he was proud of me. (Which, if I’m honest with myself, is all I’d ever wanted from him.) I couldn’t bring up anything I’d put in that letter, and none of it seemed that important anymore. We couldn’t even say we loved each other. It was absolute emotional paralysis.

Thankfully, over the next week, Dad turned the corner. Twelve months later, he’s almost back to his old self with just a limp to show for the whole ordeal. We’ve seen each other a bit more since he’s been released from hospital. I know he appreciates me being there for him, although, true to form, he hasn’t said it out loud. And even though we still haven’t put it into words, the relationship feels better.

Every time I speak to him, I think we should use the second chance we’ve been given and take the opportunity to talk properly and deal with a few things. Although he’s not easy to read, I’m pretty sure that Dad is thinking the same thing. We haven’t managed it so far, but I’m still hopeful that we’ll have the time we need to get there. He’s in his late 70s now, and I want to make sure that, when his time comes, I end up grieving for the relationship we had rather than the opportunities we missed.

Everything that we went through has also given me a better perspective on the rest of my life. I’m a much less angry person and don’t focus as much on the past. I can see how much my dad’s inability to communicate is a thread that has run through his entire life, and I can see not only what it has done to our relationship but everything else it has cost him. It has made me even more grateful to have a husband who I can talk to about everything and a close relationship with my son. I have come to realise people can’t give more than they are capable of and that we all have to do the best we can with our damaged selves every day.