Family is a complicated thing. Life has taught me that family is what you make of it; maybe for you it’s direct relations or blood relatives or the like. Or maybe you’re like me and think that family is what you decide to make your family. Maybe it’s a mix of both, who knows. Like I said… complicated.
My father passed away at the beginning of November. It wasn’t unexpected; honestly, it was more shocking that he lived as long as he did. His health wasn’t great and there was a lot of history behind it. Let me be clear, I’m not saying this for consolation or anything like that. The experience at his funeral for me was more awkward than anything, with everyone offering condolences or talking about how hard it must be.
In truth… it wasn’t hard at all. I wasn’t broken up about it or even particularly sad. I haven’t been close to my parents for the majority of my life at this point. The reasons are many for that situation, most of them boring… but ultimately it all boils down to the fact that when the most important days and events came about in my life, they chose not to be part of them. The last time there was anything “family” between us is when they dropped me off for my freshman year of college in 1997.
Since that time, a great number of things have happened in my life. I graduated from college; they didn’t attend or make any attempt to attend. Perhaps because of medical reasons, which there were some rather big ones… I don’t know. They never bothered to talk to me about it or even say “sorry we can’t make it.” In truth, through my time at college, I could likely count on one hand the number of times they talked to me directly.
I also got married. I love my wife and I love her family; in truth, I’m far closer to my in-laws than I have ever been to my parents. My in-laws have also never met my parents. They were supposed to get together once for lunch, by the day before that was scheduled, my father told me that they won’t be attending my wedding. He gave a reason, which I won’t disclose, but let’s just say it was selfish and insulting, entirely with them. It angered me enough that I cancelled the lunch plans. My in-laws are far too good of people to have to deal with my parents.
One time, my family apparently got together for Christmas, but didn’t bother to invite us or even tell us it was happening. At the time, we lived in the same area. In fact, I lived in that same area for six years after college and can count on one fist the number of times we spent a holiday together. After college, while trying to get work and life and stuff like that straightened out, I lived in their house for a time. I moved out at the very first chance I had (and there were a number of motivations behind that), and once I was gone, I saw my father three or four more times in about five and a half years. Every one of those times were because he needed help fixing his computer. I saw my mother a couple more times because of a funeral and other things.
Once I left my hometown, that was about it. The only contact that ever happened was through things like Facebook or intermediaries. Every few years, I’d get a phone call or message telling me to come make peace or something because one or the other was dying. We once had dinner with my mom while we visited. The last time I saw my father was when we took our daughter up there after she was born. While my mom sends her gifts all the time, she has never received a note, card, or call from them (and obviously never will from my dad).
My in-laws send gift, sure, but more than that, they want to talk to her on the phone, they want to hug her and play with her and interact. They know about her, tell stories, and shape who she is and will be as a person. Chrissy does not understand that she has another set of grandparents; I’ve tried to explain it to her before, but she cannot understand the concept and I cannot blame her. She talked to my dad once, a month or two before he passed when he was going in for surgery… but she mostly said hello and looked at me confused.
The weirdest thing about all of this is that the person I knew as a father was completely different from the uncle that my cousins knew, or apparently from the brother-in-law that my aunts knew. It’s something that’s been hard to articulate to most people, but I’ll let my dad’s obituary do it for me. This is what was said about his life…
He enjoyed playing cards, coaching, Wii bowling even winning the tournament, and driving to look at trains and planes. He liked Black Friday and day after Christmas sales, which allowed him to be a generous uncle. He was known for making sticky rolls and carving water melon baskets for a sister-in-law, Deb who thought of him like a brother, and using a mallet when making mini meat loaves. He liked to fish with his dad in the local Crappiethon where they once won $50. Since 2010, PACE was such a blessing in his life. He was like a son to Mary’s parents, Laurell and Rosalie, helping them whenever they needed something. He had two nieces that were like daughters to us, Danielle and Jaci. Another niece, Emily, that faithfully visited and prayed for him when he was in Madonna. He remember a grandniece, Kaley, with a box of stuff every holiday.
Sounds like a pretty great guy, so you might be kind of shocked when the next paragraph outlines…
Survivors include his wife, Mary ; sons, Nick (Julie), and Brandon (Sydni); grandchildren…
My brother and I both laughed and shook our heads when we read it. I texted him shortly after I saw the thing. It wasn’t a surprise… it was more like yep. We were his kids, we had our families, but we were a damn afterthought. Like a “oh, and he had children” line in the whole thing. To be clear, this wasn’t caused by the rift that grew between him and me; my brother was closer to my parents and got the same treatment. Once upon a time I would have chalked it up to the death of my other brother (and Chrissy’s namesake), but that was twenty-eight years ago.
Memories shared by everyone at the memorial and funeral were all from my cousins and aunts. I got to hear about long emails and phone calls between them and my dad. The last email I got from either of them was in 2010, and that was just asking for contact info. The only one of substance, a paragraph when I asked how he was doing while in the hospital, was in 2009. There are responses from me who went unanswered. My email hasn’t changed in fourteen years and my phone number hasn’t changed in seven years, but apparently I was “hard to contact” or something.
My cousins were understandably heartbroken to lose an uncle that was obviously close to them. I feel for them, but still wonder what circumstances make it so one cares more about extended family than your own children. I won’t speak for my brother, but most of my life it felt more like we were just an inconvenience. Things like getting told not to come home if you’re out after curfew because they don’t want to deal with the cops, having to deal with your own transportation to and from everything, and only being talked to because one of your parents needs something will do that.
Who knows, maybe I was also a disappointment to him. I heard that there were complaints about me being “liberal brainwashed” in college, which isn’t true. I didn’t turn into an nonbeliever or a liberal until well after college when I entered that whole “real life” thing. What I did learn there is how to see people as just people, and set out on the general philosophy that I try to live my life by: be a good person and try and make the world better for who comes next. I don’t always do it, but I strive for it. Treat people like you want to be treated, and more importantly, treat them how they want to be treated. How someone else chooses to live their life, who they chose to love, who they want to marry, and how they go about it are not my business unless it directly affects me. And turns out, it never directly affects me.
What’s this have to do with my father (outside of the whole liberal brainwashing thing)? He chose to live his life a certain way, and that way involved having next to nothing to do with his children or their lives. I hit a point long ago where I had no interest in trying to build up that bridge and create some relationship between us, especially when it was very clear neither of my parents were interested in doing the same.
I know some of this probably comes off like speaking ill of the dead or something like that, but that was not my intent. I didn’t hate my dad; I more… felt nothing. It seems like that went both ways, since I can’t tell you any point in my life hearing anything like “I love you” or something similar. I won’t even say that I resented him, though I certainly can see how people could make that conclusion. It’s much more that I couldn’t understand the circumstances where you didn’t want to be part of your kids’ lives.
Maybe some day in the future I will regret that choice, but I doubt it. You cannot change the past, only learn for it. There’s no point in agonizing about things you cannot change. I just know that no matter what happens, I’m living my life in a way that my children won’t have to one day sit at my funeral and feel… nothing. I’m living my life knowing that family is what you make of it. The best families are the ones you choose.