My great aunt Helen passed away this past year. To think of all that she had experienced in her 103 years is wondrous. The year she was born was the first that a commercial airline took flight. Alive before penicillin, before women had the right to vote, before television, she also lived through the Great Depression, both World Wars, man’s first steps on the moon, and the advent of the internet.
It seems a shame she would not remember most of it. The last time I saw her in the nursing home she smiled as brightly as she always had, her hair perfectly coiffed with uneven painted red lips, but there was confusion settled beyond those dark brown eyes. She could not place me, and in its way, her dementia broke my heart. I held her hand and introduced her, again, to my children.
I had never known anyone so selfless. She could never say an unkind word. She always put others first. She volunteered for every church event and donated whatever she could. She attended every wedding, every funeral, every baptism. She gave of herself like no one I have ever known, and although she never had children of her own, she treated every child as a blessing, including her nephew.
It is why I struggle to forgive my father for what he did.
My father had a problem. He was an addict. It took me years and years, decades even, for me to admit it in public, not that everyone in his circle didn’t already know. The stigma behind his choices was my stigma too.
Growing up with an addict as a father is not easy, and I am certainly not the first person to experience it. You learn to expect the lies. You wait for the next manipulation. Your self-worth diminishes each time he puts his needs before your own, even when all you need is to be seen. Still, you love him.
When I was pregnant with my son, my father went to prison. I wrote him every month while he was there, and he wrote back. I hoped for change, that he would see the error of his ways, that he would take this opportunity to start over. I put my heart and soul into those letters, not telling him what to do (that would only push him away) but telling him how I felt (that, I hoped, would bring us together).
Looking back now, his replies never talked about us. It hurts me to say he never even asked about the baby. Instead, he used those letters to ask me to do things for him, and I naively fell back into doing just that. There was always hope for a new beginning.
When he was released from prison later that year, my great Aunt Helen took him in as a condition of his parole. I visited him at her home. My son was only months old at the time.
My father was under a car when we arrived, fixing up whatever needing fixing, not really understanding what needed fixing most. Instead of pulling out to lay eyes on his new grandson, he grunted and stayed under the bowels of the engine. Later, after my dad washed up, we sat awkwardly together over lunch, the letters between us somehow dissolved into thin air. The silence between bites was deafening. Still, I tried to pick up where we left off, tried to lighten the mood with stories about the baby and memories from times past. He would smile, he would laugh, but his eyes remained focused on something far off I would never see.
As we said our goodbyes, I said to him my last word, and I will always remember it, “Behave.” He laughed in that playful way that charmed so many people, and we hugged.
Months later, he robbed my great aunt. He took everything — her money, her jewelry, her memories, her sense of security — and broke her heart and mine with it.
My first instinct was to check on my great aunt. When I did, her instinct was to protect me with soft words that assured everything was alright despite all that had happened to her. That was until, widowed and alone, the pain he caused brought her to tears. “I don’t know what to do, Tanya. I am so scared. I don’t feel safe. He hurt me, he really hurt me.”
It was my tipping point.
The time had come to protect me and my family. Making one of the most difficult decisions in my life, I broke ties with my father and became the instant black sheep of the family. People judged me because I turned away from a family member. That is simply something you don’t do, but they did not know what my life had been like until then, what I had endured. Even with the good memories, I was broken inside.
I could no longer enable his bad choices. I had to step away from the lies. More than anything, I had to protect my own children from experiencing that kind of pain. I could not allow my own children to be betrayed or manipulated by their grandfather. He would have to prove himself worthy of that trust if he were to see them. By stepping back, I was honoring the legacy of my great aunt and giving myself room to heal.
I could love him but from a distance … or so I thought.
As it always does, time ran out. My father died from a drug overdose before we could make amends. My great aunt died two days before the anniversary of his death 8 years later.
Regret is a bitter pill.
I waited too long.
It gives me odd comfort that Aunt Helen’s dementia allowed her to forget about those days. Truth is, she may not have remembered him at all. Her disease was so advanced near the end that she would stare blankly ahead when I told her stories about her own brother, my father’s father. That is the tragedy of Alzheimer’s. It takes the good with the bad. What parts of a rich century-long life did she keep with her?
I can only hope that this amazing woman met her maker in peace and that somehow, even as I struggle with the losses of both my father and my great aunt, I too can find peace one day with all that has happened.