My father died on Christmas Eve.
My relationship with him was complicated. To see us together, you’d say we had a great rapport – we bantered, busted on each other, and had an easy time laughing.
But his actions spoke louder than his words. He left my mom (and me) When I was 12 years old and my mom was recovering from a near-fatal bout with brain cancer. He began an affair with a younger co-worker while my mom fought for her life, and he ultimately left her (and me) for this other woman, who discouraged him from maintaining a close relationship with me.
My dad showed little interest in me or my life after that. He rarely called. He almost never visited – he traveled to me only four times over the twenty years I have lived in White Plains, and all but one of those visits were for my wedding (he skipped the party) and my sons’ baptisms.
He had three kids with his new wife, only one of whom I am at all close to. His wife treated me terribly and acted as a gatekeeper between us. I decided in my early twenties that I was willing to put all the effort into maintaining my relationship with my dad because I knew this day would come and I didn’t want to feel guilty when it did.
My father smoked heavily for 40 years. It finally caught up with him shortly after his 80th birthday last January. The day of his birthday party, I stupidly stood up into an overhead cabinet door in my home office, suffering a bad gash on my head. I got four staples at an urgent care facility and still made the trip to his party with Lisa.
I went to his party despite the fact that my dad blew off my own 50th birthday party. He said he was coming, but I knew better. I told Lisa all week that he’d ultimately cancel. True to form, a couple days before the party he told me he was not coming because he “had been sick” earlier in the week. He wasn’t sick now, but it was somehow reason enough for him. At least, given his long list of disappointments over the preceding decades, I was not surprised.
My dad fought cancer throughout much of 2018. It looked like the treatments were going well, but things turned for the worse around early December. I visited him a few times in December – with my boys, with Lisa, alone. He was very lucid and not in too much pain for most of this time.
We spoke on the phone a week before he died. And on that call, for the only time in our lives, he acknowledged that he had “been a terrible father to” me. As if those few words could undo decades of inexcusable behavior.
His wife called on December 23rd to say that he was in bad shape. It appeared the end was near. I excused myself from Lisa’s family Christmas dinner and drove down to Old Bridge, New Jersey to see him. He was unable to speak for the most part, but I had a long time to speak with him in privacy, and I could see that he was hearing me. I got a lot of stuff off my chest – stuff that should have been out in the open all along.
I left at 8 p.m. and got a call at 6 a.m. the following morning, Christmas Eve, that he had died sometime in the past couple of hours. I can’t ignore my feeling that what I said to him brought some form of closure for us and almost gave him permission to go.
Later that morning, his newly-widowed wife called to report that they would be making funeral arrangements that day. I told her that anything after Friday would be fine for us, as I didn’t have my boys until then and I had plans to go to D.C. with Lisa and her kids to visit her cousin’s family.
In a final “screw you,” she scheduled the wake and funeral for Thursday evening and Friday morning, completely ignoring my conflicts with those dates. She just did whatever she wanted to do. Dejectedly, I told Lisa I would not be able to make our trip, and I prepared to engage with my boys’ narcissist mother to see if our access schedule could be changed.
On Christmas afternoon, Lisa spoke with me about a conversation she had had with her aunt, who basically said, “Why is Chris scrambling to get to the wake and funeral? Funerals are for the living. His father is gone. Why is he canceling plans with you and jumping through hoops to please this woman who completely disregards him all the time?”
And, you know what? She was 100% right. My dad was gone. I did what I needed to do for him – far more than he deserved, actually – in the short term when we had that last conversation, as well as over many years.
I changed my mind. I went away with Lisa and her kids. I missed both the wake and funeral. Since my dad isn’t here any longer, I don’t have to walk on eggshells with his wife. The truth is, I’m beginning to see that I never should have given her any power at all.
When my dad essentially abandoned me as a 12-year-old, it caused a lot of issues for me that I only recently came to understand. Ah, the value of a good therapist. I missed a ton of school in sixth and seventh grades. Previously, I thought I had missed all this school because of my parents’ divorce, but now I see that the larger issue was his withdrawal from my life.
As I grew up, I continued to choose to have a one-sided relationship with him. I knew if I didn’t put the lion’s share of effort into it, the relationship would end. Somehow, I convinced myself that this was okay. I neglected to revisit this policy over the years as I gained emotional maturity and experience in life. As I became older and wiser, I never questioned whether this man deserved my efforts.
Over the years, I became the kind of person who would invest in relationships that were not worth it (which is not to say I haven’t had numerous healthy relationships as well.) I became a people-pleaser. I put my needs second to others’. I allowed people to treat me unacceptably. I didn’t securely believe that I fundamentally deserved to be loved in a healthy way.
All of this would eventually come home to roost, as I became the kind of person who was the perfect target for the narcissist I would eventually marry.
Many recovering victims of narcissistic abuse beat themselves up for falling prey to these master manipulators. They ask themselves, “How could I have been so stupid?!?”
That’s one thing I’ve never really dwelled on. Any time I go down the path of having regrets about falling victim to the severe malignant narcissist I married, I get only as far as thinking about my sons. Without the marriage, they wouldn’t exist, and I love them more than anything.
But I have always been a pretty introspective person, and I think it’s somewhat comforting to understand how my experience with my father in childhood and also as an adult factored in who I became as a person. Especially in how I became the kind of person who allowed a narcissist to reduce me to a shell of a human being for more than a decade.
The journey of recovery from narcissistic abuse is long and challenging, but ultimately very rewarding in so many ways. One of my rewards is that, now that I more clearly understand the impact that my relationship with my father had on me, I no longer have to ask how I could have been so stupid!
I am grateful you had the realization to skip his funeral and go someplace with someone who loves and respects you. Such a loss for your dad (and many parents) to only have some humility and clarity as they are dying. Your boys have been gifted an outstanding human being for a father. Keep your chin up Chris, and may your healing journey continue.