The last thing he took from me
How to reconcile loss and find peace in the absence
April 11, 2022
This is not entirely about the affect the subject of this story had on me, the hope is to use this one event as an example of how to move on, or at least move forward. The hardest thing to understand when dealing with trauma is: life comes from you, not at you.
First things first
This is not intended to be a biographical snippet. I'm happy to talk about my life in person, and perhaps I'll write more about it over the coming years. This is just an event that happened last year, and as I wrestled with the enormity of it, I found myself struggling with a lot of things I didn't expect. I want to share this so that anyone who happens upon this article and finds themselves in a similar place, they can hopefully not feel so alone.
One random Friday
It was a day like most others. Post pandemic. Friday March 11, 2022. I was working from my house. In my little office. In the basement. Not a damp dark basement, it was a place I created for inspiration. Littered with paintings of artists I love, skateboards, musical instruments I hope to one day learn to play. On this random Friday, a seemingly unexceptional Friday I was in the middle of an exceptionally unexceptional video call.
My phone vibrated with a notification. New message from uncle Steve. This string of characters seemingly wouldn't be that unusual except, I haven't spoken to uncle Steve in 3 years. Spoken to him isn't accurate. About 3 years ago he reached out to connect over Facebook. We messaged 2 or 3 times and that was it, before that I hadn't heard from him since my grandfather died 25 years earlier.
The message was brief … "Hey can you give me a call? we really need to talk."
He left his number as well and I replied with "I'm in a meeting, call you in half an hour or so." When the unexceptional meeting on that unexceptional day ended, I dialed the number my uncle had sent. My phone, now on speaker, rang a couple times and then finally the answer "This is Steve."
The (brief) back story
There is something deep inside me that finds peace in the sound of my dad's family's voices. The men all have a slight rasp and an undeniable upstate New York accent. While it's such a small part of the timeline of my youth, there is a feeling of home when I hear it.
My father left when I was about a year old. This is not unusual nor is it special, but it will play a part in the rest of the story.
While my father wasn't an integral part of my youth, his parents tried to be. I have a little sister as well (this will come into play too.) I don't want to be too specific with most of these details because it will limit it to my experience. The hope is to apply some of the things I went through beyond just my situation.
Me and my sister would spend summers with my father's parents. Their home, just outside of Buffalo NY, was a wonderland. It was filled with; music, happy laughter, and what felt like absolute, simple, kindness. My father had 2 brothers and a sister. His sister had a couple of kids near my age. They had the same funny upstate NY accent. They smelled of a hearty wood burning stove.
I don't know if the last part was true, but there was a wood burning stove at my grandparents' house and I just associate that smell with all things related to my father's family. My grandparents were kind people. They were simple people in the most wonderful of ways. They lived in a small town with a population of what couldn't be more than 2,000. It was the kind of town that if you close your eyes to think about it, it could only be depicted as black and white. like if it were in a movie. In my memories, Bedford Falls (the little town in the movie It's a wonderful life,) would have been a big city compared to this little slice of heaven.
On occasion when we would visit, my father would show up for an hour or so. That's an exaggeration. 3 times he showed up for what felt like a couple of hours, it was most likely a couple of minutes. One of those times he brought his new family. He had remarried and with the new wife came a son and a daughter, not me and my sister.
I could spend time here talking about the abandonment issues that came with that, but I won't, that is not the point of this story. I won't go into how awkward that made the next couple of summers. The way that it had somehow tarnished this small town sanctuary.
The last time I saw my father was when his father was dying. My sister and I went up to see our grandfather in the hospital and my father was there. He was drunk. I should mention that he was always drunk. My memories of everyone in his family is blanketed in this warm scent of wood burning stove except for him. My memories of him are shrouded in the scent of stale beer.
At one point during our visit to say good bye to a man who we loved so dearly, our father pulled us aside and gave a heart felt apology for how things turned out between us. How he wanted to be better moving forward. How we deserved more and with tears in his eyes he promised that he would be part of our lives. We never heard from him again.
Back to that random Friday …
"This is Steve" the voice on speaker said. "Hey, it's Jason" I said. My uncle with an uncomfortable sadness went on to tell me that my father was dead, and that as his oldest child and next of kin I had to make arrangements for the body. I needed to tell my sister and my mom. On this seemingly unexceptional day, my life changed, and in a way I wasn't expecting it to.
I called my sister, then I called my mom. Before that I told my wife. I called the police department that had found the body, and tried to make arrangements as best I could. I told my boss. Everyone replied with the same sentiment … "This must be so hard for you right now, we're so sorry for your loss." I responded with "Thanks, I barely knew the guy."
Here's the thing. I did know him. I was him.
All the same mistakes, all the same vices, all the same behavioral issues. I was the spitting image of my father. I looked like him, I talked like him, I reasoned like him, I drank like him, I drugged like him. I was him. The difference was and is, I'm sober. My life took a left where his kept trudging forward.
The point is
Here's where I hope we can transcend the event above. Here's where I hope we can unpack a universal truth, or at least a circumstantial truth.
What I didn't realize until it was too late was this: Somewhere, some part of me, hoped that I would have an opportunity to let this man know I found a way out. I forgave him superficially a long time ago, but I truly forgave him a couple years ago as I made my amends, as I worked the steps.
As I sat with the passing of my father I realized that for so long I saw him as the man that took. He took his presence from me as a child, he took the ability to trust from me and my sister, he took the ability to form relationships from me, he took the safety and security that comes from having a man around.
In recovery we have this prayer, the serenity prayer. It goes like this "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. The courage to change the things I can. The wisdom to know the difference." For a long time I thought it was about discernment. It was about having wisdom to know when to be courageous. It was dualistic. Black and white. Can I change it, or can I not.
After a little time I came to realize that it's not about that. In every situation I am presented with how I respond to the situation. The only thing I can change or not is myself. My response. I can't change the past, I can't change what happened, I can't change what will happen. What I can change is how I respond to it. Will I be the one that things are happening to, or will I be the man that presents himself to the situation.
As I sorted through the details of his passing, I was able to reconnect with his family. I was able to rekindle that smell of wood burning stove. I went up to the place I once loved as a child and had dinner with his sister and her family. There was something magical that happened. The villain of my story became the hero and villain of his. I never had the chance to know the good about my father, but I asked the table to tell me their favorite stories about this man I both knew like the back of my hand and at the same time knew nothing about.
I was able to speak life into a situation that left many people in pain. The last thing my father took from me was the fear to be better, and I'm grateful for that.