My dad died two weeks ago.
For two weeks I have been trying to unravel my feelings about my dad and our relationship. My dad lived far away from me, my brother and my kids for 20 years. He moved to the United States following a job and then other jobs. When he died he was living a ten hour drive away from us.
I am not and was not satisfied with the quality of the relationship I had with my dad. I would have loved to have him living closer so that we could see him more often. We only saw him an average of once a year due to the distance. My brother and I, my aunt and cousins all tried unsuccessfully to convince him to move closer to family.
In my efforts to move past the frustration I felt and feel about our relationship I started thinking about what I learned from him as I try to frame how I will remember him and talk about him with my kids, who never really got to know him as anything other than a man who made funny faces with them on Skype.
He Showed Me What an Engaged Dad Looks Like
My parents split up when I was nine. Initially we saw him very regularly, even though he was living in a different city. Every second weekend I think and a weekday evening every week or two, and then a couple of weeks in the summer. It may have been more or less than that, but I am trying to remember the set up from 30 years ago.
When we spent time with him as kids he was fully engaged. He was a great weekend dad. We went on camping trips and fishing. We went for hikes and road trips in the summer. During those times he was teaching and showing and listening and helping us to grow.
Unfortunately this didn’t last. He did, however, provide me with an example of what it looks like when a dad is engaged with his kids.
Absence Does Not Make the Heart Grow Fonder
As we got older he moved further away from us – always in following jobs. First he was an hour, then 45 minutes and then two hours away from us, all before he moved to the US and was anywhere from three to ten hours away depending on where he lived. The further away he moved, the less we saw him.
We stopped having weeknight visits and the weekend visits became less frequent. When we did see him those visits were still as good, there were just less of them. When he moved to the US, I was university age. My brother was in his mid-teens. Initially those visits were still good, but became much more rare. In the last 10 – 15 years I can probably sit down and count how many times I saw him and it would be less than 20 times. I think my brother could count the times he and my dad saw each other in the last decade on one hand.
In our case, absence did not make the heart grow fonder. It made us more frustrated. We wanted him around. We wanted him to get to know us as adults and engage with us. We wanted to know more about him and the things he was doing in his life. I wanted my daughters to grow up knowing their Poppa.
It was not to be.
I parent in opposition to his absence. I make the effort to be there for my kids. While it is always a challenge to balance the competing priorities of work and family and the rest of life, I always try to put my kids first. I am not always successful. I do always ask myself if what I am doing is more important than what they want to do with me and make decisions on what to do based on the answer.
At the end I didn’t know my dad as well as I wanted to and he certainly didn’t know me or my brother as well as we would have liked. I don’t want my kids to ever be able to say that about me.
There is No Such Thing As Men’s Work and Women’s Work
After my parents split up, they obviously each became single parents. Mum had more of the parenting work since we lived with her and only visited dad. Ignoring the fact that my mum got the stereotypical woman’s work of raising us kids, my mum and dad as single parents in their own rights each taught me that there is not men’s work and women’s work when it comes to housework. There is just work that needs to be done.
My dad was a good cook and whenever we spent time with him he cooked and cleaned and did his laundry and changed the sheets on our beds. He did all the regular household chores we all leave to get done on the weekend when we are working all week. Often he engaged us in those tasks and took the time to teach me how to cook what he was making.
So now I do what needs to be done. There are always things to be picked up, clothes to be washed, food to be cooked, kids to be comforted and grass to be cut. It is about priorities rather than who is supposed to do it. My dad taught me by his example.
The Importance of Communication
My dad was a Dale Carnegie Course instructor. He taught business people and others how to ‘win friends and influence people’. He taught people about leadership, management and communications. Ironically, he wasn’t great at communications in his personal life. He was not a fan of talking on the phone and when your relationship is based on phone calls due to distance, that can be an issue. He wasn’t good at communicating anything about himself and he wasn’t very good at communicating his feelings.
His inability to communicate in his personal life lead to two divorces and unsatisfactory relationships with his sons.
This is my biggest fear. I, too, studied communications and have taught people about interpersonal communications. I am also not great at communicating my feelings. I am a rational thinker and not so much a feelings person. Don’t get me wrong, I have lots of feelings, I just don’t think about them too much and I communicate them even less.
Fortunately for me I have a partner who is very feelings-oriented and she prods me to reveal what is going on in my head and I have to remind myself of the consequences of keeping everything to myself. I have my dad’s example to look to if ever I forget about the importance of communication in relationships.
We all learn from the examples set by those around us. This is what I learned from my dad.Click To Tweet
A Sense of Humour is Important
My dad struggled. He had financial challenges and health challenges. He wasn’t great at relationships and he chose to be physically isolated from his family. He had a mountain of medical bills that were depressing to sort through. He seems to have been a sucker for many get-rich-quick schemes and was willing to buy miracle cures from anybody who would sell him one for his physical ailments. During his final eight months he lived in a body where the left half didn’t really work, and as a result he spent much of his time in a wheelchair or in bed. He was frustrated by his situation.
In spite of his struggles and frustrations, or perhaps because of them, most people I have talked to who knew him have talked about his sense of humour. Almost universally they talk about how they will remember him as a joker. This isn’t a big part of my memories of my dad. For most other people, this is what they say about him. The staff at the nursing home where he lived for the past six months told me about how much they enjoyed having him there. The occupational therapist who was helping him to regain use of his arm and leg following his stroke in the fall told me about how he used humour even when he was in pain during therapy. When he died he was talking with a nurse and joking around and had a stroke in the midst of their conversation.
I am going to try to remember this. On days that I am struggling and days when things aren’t going my way I am going to remember that my dad, for all his challenges and stresses, died laughing.