Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Fitting Life

Does your life fit you? If it were an outfit, would it make you feel beautiful or frumpy? Is it the right size, or did it long ago become too tight or begin to swallow you up like an over-sized tent?

I’m thinking about the “fit” of life because I got word that my father died early this morning.

My father and I had been estranged for almost 20 years when I got an e-mail from my cousin telling me that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. I didn’t feel any responsibility to go, but Dear Friend really wanted to meet my dad and he urged me to make the trip to my hometown. So we went to visit my dad the week before Thanksgiving. It was the first time I had seen him since Christmas Eve, 1989.

Twenty years is a long time in a human life. Twenty years ago, my dad was the age I am now--46. His hair was still dark then, though it was beginning to thin on top, and his beard was shot through with white. His eyes always twinkled mischievously--and you could bet he was up to something.

My dad was cocky--he wasn’t a large man, but he walked with a swagger and was quick with a joke. He was part con man, part gangster--and he was always the life of the party. He was the kind of “hail fellow, well met” whose glass is half-full and who is forever on the hunt for the main chance.

But when I saw him in November, that man had disappeared. My dad was dying, and he looked like he was 90 years old--frail, with a belly swollen by the cancerous liver and lungs that killed him today. He was in a great deal of pain, and the medications he was taking were clouding his brain. I am not sure that he really even knew who I was.

Which, in a way, was...fitting.

We ended our relationship in much the same way we had lived it--on opposite sides of a seemingly impenetrable divide.

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My dad and I had a complicated history. My parents split up when I was 6--not a very common thing in 1969. My dad was a sporadic part of my life for the next few years, but disappeared for nearly 10 years about the time I was 11 or 12.

He popped back in while I was in college--mostly because he wanted me to do something for him. And that was fine--we ended up engaging in a trade of sorts. I helped him out, and he helped me finish college. I will always be grateful for that.

After I went to grad school, however, we had a falling-out. In that conflict, both of us were armed and dangerous. Harsh words were exchanged. Old grievances were aired.

And that, as they say, was that.

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For many years, both before and after the clash that ended our relationship, I felt bewildered and angry with my dad. The realization that the man who contributed half my DNA wasn’t interested in being my father left a scar. His absence from my life--both as child and adult--has formed me in ways that I still don’t always recognize or understand.

Mostly I couldn’t understand how he could have two children but not want to be a part of their day-to-day lives. Even now, this aspect puzzles me. As a mother, I simply cannot imagine choosing not to know my children--or my grandkids. My children are my father’s only grandchildren, but he never met them.

I have spent much of my life trying NOT to be my father. Trying to be respectable, responsible, and dependable. Trying to be a good parent.

But...

Almost five years ago, my life was turned upside down by a crippling depression that nearly killed me. My breakdown was rooted in the fact that I was trying to live a life that didn’t fit me. It was a life that was filled with all the world’s markers of success--marriage, children, big house in the suburbs, mountains of “things”--but I experienced it as an arid, colorless, and endless wasteland. My dogged and desperate attempts to remain in that life eventually made death look preferable to enduring it any longer.

I was lucky. I believe God showed me a way out of that life--and pointed me to the miracle that is my life now.

And in that process, God enabled me to do something else. God enabled me to forgive my father--melting my anger and confusion and turning them into something approaching understanding.

I will never know why my dad made the choices he did, because we never had that conversation. But in the wreckage of my old life, I discovered that my dad and I might not be so different after all--and I found some empathy I didn’t know I had.

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Of course I could be wrong, but I came to believe that my dad ran away from a life that didn’t fit him. Given my own history, I’m extremely wary of appearing to excuse the breaking of commitments in the search for some hedonistic form of happiness. But I honestly believe that my dad was probably never meant to be married or to have children. I think he recognized that too, after the fact--as evidenced by the fact that he never remarried and never (to my knowledge anyway) had any other children. He was simply born at a time when you got married at 19 or 20 and had kids. No questions allowed.

How many of us have fallen victim to similar expectations from our families and our culture? How many of us have woken up one day to discover that we are living someone else's life, and asked ourselves "How the hell did I get here?!"

But sometimes we get lucky. Sometimes we are given second, third, and even more chances. It is up to us to decide what we will make of them.

I am doing my best to make my extra chances count--and I think my dad did too. I have reason to believe that my dad was happy with the life he ultimately chose. For the last number of years, he ran a bar on the beach in Playa del Carmen on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. I know that he attracted a sizable--and very loyal--group of American expatriates who made the bar their home-away-from-home and who loved my dad in the less-complicated way that “chosen families” often do.

In the photos I have seen of him, he looks like a grizzled old pirate--and he’s always laughing.

Having finally found a life that fits me--a life filled with love and laughter--I’m glad my dad found his own “fitting” life. We both made some pretty major mistakes in life, and I am grateful that our poor choices didn’t doom us to misery forever. There is a part of me that wishes we could have reconciled, but some things are just not possible in this life. By the end, there was simply too much distance between us and not enough time or energy to undo a lifetime of missteps.

But I left my visit with him with a deep sense of peace, because I could finally say that I was no longer angry with him. That will have to suffice for now.

I believe in a life beyond death, however, and in a merciful God who will make all things right in the end. So I also believe that--one day--my dad and I will have a chance to mend our broken relationship. Until that day, I have this image of my dad pouring a beer for Jesus and telling him some raucous joke--and Jesus rolling his eyes and laughing.

Rest in peace and rise in glory, Dad. The next time we see each other, the questions will all be answered and we'll be able start over again. We'll know how to love each other better next time...