With my head bowed, through my tears and grief, in a barely audible choking voice, I was finally talking with my dad. After years of those all too common conversations limited to talk about sports, the weather and gossip about relatives, I was finally telling him all the things I could never say. Things like, “Thank you for staying with mom when I know you wanted to leave”, and “Thank you for playing with me that one day when I was a kid”. I was, unconsciously, also wanting him to tell me all the things that I had waited forever to hear. Simple things, like “I love you”, and “I am proud of who you have become.”
That moment was one of those sacred moments that I have since come to treasure. All of my fellow therapy group members were crying, my therapist was crying, I was crying, we all were crying, or so I thought. But when I looked up, the man who was seated across from me, the man I had chosen to play the role of my father, sat there looking at me with a totally stoic look and demeanor. He then looked down at his watch as if to say, “Are you finished yet?”
I shook my head and thought to myself, that is exactly what my dad would do if he were here. With that recognition, I literally fell out of my chair and collapsed on to the floor. I went into a level of grief that I had never visited before. My body shook as convulsive sobs went through my body. I wondered if anyone had ever cried to death. If not, I was sure I would be the first to do so. I lay there for what seemed an eternity. Later, as the group was giving me feedback, the man who had played my father asked me, “Did I do something wrong?” I said, “You did nothing wrong. What you did may have been the best gift you could have ever given. You gave me the truth about my dad”.
What I meant was that in that moment of being totally unaffected by my tenderness and longing and by coldly and detachedly looking at his watch, I had realized that though still alive, my parents could never show up for me in a way the I had always wanted, certainly deserved, and still longed for. It had been an excruciating process, but I finally, through years of therapy, understood. What I understood was that no matter what I did or said they could not parent any better than they ever had. It became crystal clear that it was beyond their ability and more importantly, was nothing personal. I was 38 years old.
My life changed with that realization and though it is difficult to admit, in terms of my relationship with my parents, I became an adult for the first time that day. In some kind of spiritual way, I was able to release my mom and dad from their role as the mom and dad I had always wished for. At the time, I didn’t understand how this was supposed to help, but I was to find out.
Six months later I got a call from my mom that my dad was to go into the hospital to have his third hip replacement surgery. Now, my father did not have three legs, but he had been among the first to ever have that surgery, and at the time the process often needed to be repeated. My father and I had never expressed our love for each other in words, and for some reason, that call from my mom made me realize that. A voice inside me said, “You need to tell him you love him before it is too late.” By this time, finally, I had begun to know and trust that inner voice. I decided to drive the 300 miles to see him and tell him that I loved him.
For moral support, I took my wife and two children with me. We arrived at the hospital the day before the surgery was to take place. My mom and sister and brother were in the room when we arrived. Though I entered the room with great resolve, and I had told my kids and wife what I intended to do, when I opened my mouth, I couldn’t get the words out. My family lived in great denial about most things and the possibility of my 68-year-old father dying as a result of this surgery was never considered. After twenty minutes of small talk and repeated attempts to say those three little words with no success, I felt this overwhelming need to get out of the room. So I said my “goodbyes” and “good-lucks”, and left the room with my father’s echoing words of “It was foolish of you to drag those kids all this way just to see me in the hospital”. As I walked down the hospital corridor, I felt totally defeated. Then I heard this voice say as loudly and clearly as if it had been delivered over the hospital intercom “Just go tell him”.
I told my wife and kid’s “I’m just going to go tell him” (I didn’t tell them about the voice in my head that had commanded me to do that). They said what seemed to be in unison “We’ll wait here”. I had the feeling that they didn’t want to risk what they might witness.
I walked into my dad’s room and said “Dad, the reason I came was to make sure you knew that I love you”. He reared up in his hospital bed and began coughing. For a moment I feared that I had given him a heart attack. It wasn’t. As I turned around and walked out the door I felt victorious, saying to myself, “Yeah, I did it”. I had, for the first time in my life, said out loud, the words “I love you” to my dad. It was the first time ever that those words had ever been spoken between us. I look back at that moment as the first time in my life that I had ever acted as an adult with my father.
Six months later, on my next visit and as we were saying goodbye, I had the urge to give my dad a hug. In therapy groups I had been part of I had experienced for the first time being hugged by a man. The last time my father and I had touched in any way was some 33 years earlier. It was on my 5th birthday. He had carried me from the car (where I had pretended to fall asleep) and put me in my bed. I look back on that as my ‘pretending to fall asleep in the car trick’. I guess it was a way for me to be held and touched by my dad. On that fifth birthday, he said, “From now on if he falls asleep, he’ll just have to sleep in the car”. During all those ensuing years, through all of life’s adventures, both good and painful, we had never shaken hands, slapped each other on the back, or touched in any way. So, if I followed through on this urge to hug him it would represent a significant shift in how we did our relationship.
As I stepped up to him I said, for the second time in my life, “Dad I love you”, put my arms around him and gave him a hug. He got very rigid and actually began trembling. I think he was afraid that I had gone way over the edge. When I stepped back from him, I felt this surge of pride in knowing that I had actually reached out and got part of what I had always wanted from my dad.
If my dad would have said, “I don’t ever want you to touch me again”, or “I don’t ever want you to say that you love me again” I would have honored that, but he didn’t. A few months later when we parted I stepped up to hug him and his arms opened about four inches. That time as we stepped back, I choked up realizing that I was teaching my father how to touch his son. I realized at that moment, that those four inches of movement represented a gold nugget that my father was offering.
He became curious about my work, which had evolved into ownership of Onsite Workshops, a recovery workshop business created by codependency pioneers Sharon and Joe Cruse. He ended up coming to four of our week long programs, beginning when he was 72 years old. After he attended what was to be his last program, he called my son and I up to the front of the room beside him and said to the others who had attended the workshop with him, “I have come to believe that if Ted’s mom and I would have known what I have been able to learn doing these workshops, his and his children’s lives would have been very different”. Wow, another huge nugget.
Shortly after that, my dad fell ill with brain cancer. Through that battle there were many more rich nugget experiences. One time in particular stands out. After his first surgery, I happened to be with him when it came time for him to go to physical therapy. The nurse asked me if I would like to go with him and I said “Sure”. As my dad and I were working at putting rings on posts and putting balls in baskets, we were laughing and joking, I was taken back to that one day we had played together. Now there was a second day. That night as I stood before the motel mirror brushing my teeth, I was overcome with tears stemming from a sense of gratitude and fullness. It was confusing to me because I had just come from the nursing home with the clarity that my dad would never walk again. Then the words “unconditional love” came to me, and I realized that was what I had experienced with my dad that day. I had no expectations of him or him of me, we just were together.
The next few years with my father were filled with many, what I came to call, “gold nugget moments”. I continued to listen to that ‘voice’ in my head that said, “Go see your dad”. I always listened. Each and every time, he and I would have a golden moment of connecting. The final one was on the day of his last surgery. Just before he was taken to the operating room I had this overwhelming sense of being so proud of how he had lived his life. He taught me by example that it is never too late to learn, it is never too late to be open to change, and even how to die with grace. I blurted out “Dad you know I love you, and I am so proud of you.” He turned towards me and said “I don’t think I have ever told you how proud I am of you, the kind of life you have made for yourself. And I know I didn’t tell you often enough of my love for you”. I leaned over him and hugged him goodbye. When we finished, and pulled away, this time as I looked at him, through my tear-distorted eyes, I saw his rolling down his cheeks.
Those were the last words my father ever spoke. He died several months later. The gift that my willingness to let go of my idea of what and who my father “should” have been, gave me was the ability to realize that my father did not have gold bars to give, but there was a king’s ransom of wealth in the form of little gold nuggets that I would have missed had I not given up my sense of what I deserved and how it should be served up.