Tag Archives: missing my dad

Losing Dads in Divorce

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My dad died when I was 21 years old. I was a freshman in college. And the loss nearly took me out too. While our relationship had been tumultuous, losing the opportunity to connect with him, forever, was devastating. The real story is, however, that I lost my dad when I was about six years old. My mom tells the story that she told him he could choose to continue drinking and lose his family, or he could stop drinking. I’m not 100% sure it went down that clearly, but I am sure of the fact that my father was an alcoholic.

He exited my life in a big way when he moved out of the house. Even before his divorce was final he was remarrying another alcoholic and the slide down into darkness was as swift as it was complete. I have no idea what his new wife felt about his kids, but it was clear that neither of them cared about their kids as much as they cared about partying together. I recall this period as one of estrangement. I could no longer get close to my dad. He was either drunk lamenting his divorce, or drunk celebrating his newfound love. But there was not a lot of love to go around. The love was for the bottle. I know it sounds cliché, but it’s more truth than myth.

What my dad missed from my 6’s on was everything. I was a star tennis player (as my dad was a tennis player) but he never hit with me. I was a successful football player but my dad made one game that I can remember, and he brought “her.” I was an awful baseball and basketball player, and today I can see how other kids dads were instrumental in helping them get over the fear and challenge of competitive sports. But my dad was nowhere to be found.

Sure, he was a hard worker. He was a successful doctor. And somehow he kept his schedule and his medical practice even as his vitality was going down the tubes. You’d think after his first heart attack he would start making changes in his life. You’d think. And maybe the second heart attack would really be a wake up call. But, in fact, my dad had three heart attacks before he was forced to quit drinking and smoking due to the chemotherapy that was required for his cancer treatments.

For the first time in my young life, from age 6 on, my dad got sober. It was a glorious and amazingly sad time. As his brain unpickled, he began to speak about “missing so much of your life.” He was dying, and yet he began to understand what he had lost in the 15+ years since the divorce.

I took all the time with him that I could. I spend weekends out at his condo, at the golf course, with him. I even tried to play golf with him, but he was still a tyrant and jerk about losing balls. Well, me losing balls. Him losing balls, no problem. I was satisfied riding in the cart with him and enjoying spending time with him. Even though his body was emaciated, he did his best to enjoy the last year of his life. But the poignancy of the loss was almost too much to bear.

On Sunday as I was about to drive back into town, he said, “I really want to do more of this with you.” We had spent the weekend playing cards, me watching him play golf, and essentially catching up on our lives. The next weekend he was admitted to the hospital for the last time. What glimpse I had of my real dad was short and sweet. He died about three months later, after a protracted withdrawal phase where he couldn’t speak or communicate by more than a squeeze of the hand.

I miss my father. I wish he had been around to see my kids, to know my kids, to enjoy my kids. But not if he had still been drinking. So maybe he did us all a favor, by allowing the alcoholism to cure and then kill him rather than prolong his agony and drunken stupor. I’m pretty pragmatic about drinking these days, I do it some, but more than two beers simply does nothing for me. Why blunt my experience of living.

My father was blunting his experience of loss. In his marriage he made the wrong decision. He chose to leave and lose the best family he could ever have imagined. And even as he tried to grandiosely celebrate his new wife and new adopted daughter, the real love of his original family escaped him. Until he was dying. Then we all came rallying to his bedside. All four kids spent the last few months in town, trying our best to be cheerful and supportive, but quietly crying with each other at what we had already lost and what we were losing.

Today I saw a dad and his kid on the baseball field. I wonder if I would’ve been a better baseball player if my dad had not been an alcoholic. I wonder if I could have played first string basketball if I’d had someone to shoot hoops with. As it was, I was left to playing horse in the driveway by myself. My mom tried, but she wasn’t all that sporty.

Dad’s fulfill a vital role in our lives. When that role is limited or eliminated the children suffer the consequences. Let’s put the balance back in parenting. And when divorce happens, let’s fight to make 50/50 the norm and not the exception. I don’t think it would’ve made any difference in my father’s case, he didn’t want 50/50, he wanted out, in some respect. But the out he was granted was final and absolute. And until he was dying he drank to keep himself from feeling the loss.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: father son, creative commons usage

Hey Dad, Fancy Meeting You Here 20-years After Your Death

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This morning I was on my merry way towards a productive day of business proposals, meetings, and getting things done. (GTD) And just as I was about to turn on my noise-canceling headphones, the crappy sound system here at my remote location brought my dad’s ghost up front and center with his cryin-in-his-whiskey song. The song that characterized my 5th and 6th years of life. I knew the song well, but Shazam confirmed the gristled face that came to represent the look and feel of my dad in divorce, and the sad sounds of Charlie Rich singing The Most Beautiful Girl.

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Boys will always attempt to connect with their dads. It’s a father and son thing. (Daughters too, but I can only speak about my experience.) Even as my dad drifted into some state between depression, anger, and a drunken stupor, I kept returning to his apartment on the appropriate weekends. My dad loved me.

But my dad completely fell apart when he was asked to leave the family home. My mom claims she put the options to him, “The alcohol or me.” My dad chose poorly and suffered for the rest of his life from his decision.

There’s no darker state for a divorced father than the days, months, years immediately following divorce.

A son’s love is strong and persistent, even if undeserved. There is always the hope that your dad will SEE you.

While my dad had all the resources at his disposal, and plenty of money to pay for them, he chose to move away from feeling, away from loving his family, and into some black place that was typified by this song. On weekends that we were together, by ten pm he would be drunk and crying to this song. Singing with tears in his eyes about “The most beautiful girl, who walked out on me…” As terrifying as it was, I tried to be there for him. I tried to say connected even as his rage could strike at any moment and I’d find myself on the receiving end of a tirade.

My dad was a successful physician. He was adored by his office staff and loved by his growing stream of patients. He was an astoundingly successful young doctor by 30.  But by 44 he had blown all of his hard-earned success in a choice away from self-examination and truth. He turned towards the bottle in his divorce. And within a few months of his second excommunication from the family house on the lake he was engaged to be married to a younger and drink-friendly woman with a young daughter.

Today my father showed up in my life in his crying and depressed state and I was able to process the pain and loss of him from my perspective as a divorced dad myself. Had he not been my father, but a friend in my life today, heading into divorce, I would’ve sobered his ass up quickly. “Dude, pull your act together. You’ve got everything. And now your flushing it all to keep the alcohol in your life.”

Throughout the rest of our relationship, as my father remarried, drank, and eventually succumbed to the disease and destruction of his life, I tried to reach out to him. I tried to maintain some attachment to a man who brought me only pain. I stumbled along as an adolescent with troubles at home, attempting not only to understand his destructive power but it’s rather potent effect on my life.

Several scenes come to mind to illustrate my unrequited commitment to my father.

The night he met his future wife I was with him at a local art festival. We stayed until they kicked us out. I had been laying under the stars with the other kids who’s parents were still drinking. The festival and music had been over for an hour, but they had more beer to sell. In the drive home, my father could hardly keep his fancy car on the road. I was terrified. On the last turn into his apartment complex, he missed the turn and drove right up into someone’s front yard. (Later his car would require several thousand dollars of repair costs that he yelled about for months.)

At that moment, at 7 years old, I made the decision never to ride in the car with my dad again. From then on my nights and occasional weekends with dad would be chauffeured by mom. A hard boundary for a kid to have to make with a parent. Shouldn’t it be the parents setting boundaries for the kids?

Many years later, a junior in high school, my father had built his ultimate dream palace on a hill overlooking our city. I lived down the street in a condo with my mom. Several times, when it was my night to have dinner with my dad, I would run several miles, virtually all uphill, to his house. I wanted him to see me as strong, healthy, and athletic. I wanted him to SEE me at all.

He quit trying to reach me as his divorce took everything out from under him. And rather than get help he got more rigid and set in his pattern of working hard and drinking harder.

Most of the time he was drunk before I even arrived. And his new wife was fueling the party and partying herself. They often became incoherent before I left. They seemed to be communicated with each other, but I could not understand a word of their drunken language. One of these nights my dad insisted that he would drive me down the hill to my house. I essentially had to run out of the house to prevent that from happening. Of course, the next time we talked he had no memory of the event.

I never forgot it, but I never stopped trying to run up the hill to meet my father at various points in his fatal trajectory. A son’s love is strong and persistent, even if undeserved. There is always the hope that your dad will SEE you. Even as he died at 53 (one year from my age now) he was only able to really recognize me in the final chemo-enforced sobriety months. He couldn’t drink. And as he came to his senses he finally got a snapshot of what he was missing by being so removed from my life.

“We need to do more of this,” he said, as I was leaving one Sunday morning, a month before he died. “Yes, dad, we do.” My dad’s sorrowful memory seeped into my bones from the sad song that he used to sing throughout the divorce process.

Today, in this moment as a divorced father, I know I am not repeating my father’s mistakes. My son and daughter hear from me all the time how much I see and love them. I try to meet them on their level, rather than making them adapt to mine. That’s a depth my father and I never had. He quit trying to reach me as his divorce took everything out from under him. And rather than get help he got more rigid and set in his pattern of working hard and drinking harder.

Love Always,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: the early mcelhenney family, john mcelhenney, cc 2014