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Column: Life without fathers
Tom Poland.jpg
Tom Poland

There’s something about being a writer that leads people to confide in you. Think about that a moment. Why tell a writer, a person who uses life itself as raw material your deepest secrets. But tell me they do, and sometimes their secrets break my heart.

I have come across at least 10 women who confided in me just how much they hated their father. They had reason, so they believe. Several told me how hard life was with an alcoholic father. Others talked about how abusive their dads were, and some just felt that their father never gave them all they expected, but maybe they expected too much.

The extent to which these women vilified their dad shocked me. One woman even changed her name legally so fervent was her hatred toward her dad. She told me she made up her mind to never speak to him again and never did. She didn’t even attend his funeral.

Another woman never missed a chance to put her dad down. No matter what you discussed, she would work the conversation around to a place where she could insult her dad. That stopped when he died. Only then did she begin to reflect on his life and consider that life had been tough on him. After all, life shapes us as surely as winds shape the dunes. Only after he died did she begin to realize that he had had a hard life, and for the first time, I saw tears in her eyes when she brought her dad up. It was too late to say, “I’m sorry” or “I love you” though. The doleful midnight train had left the station.

Another woman, a brunette with brilliant blue eyes, told me she had faked love for her dad her entire life. This admission shocked me, too, and I wasted no time contacting my daughters to see how they felt about me. Had they been pretending too? Of course, we were all right. We’re close and in touch constantly. “No,” they said, “We love you, dad.”

Today, none of the sad confidants have fathers. They’ve passed on, leaving damaged goods behind and who knows who’s to blame for that. I write about these sad women and their fathers because I think about my dad all the time. He died November 15, 2003 … nigh 16 years ago.

Unlike the women who felt compelled to pour scorn on their dads, I feel just the opposite. My father, I realize more than ever, gave me a wonderful life. He and my mom sacrificed so that I could get an education and I was able to achieve my goal of making a living as a writer. I don’t live in Biltmore House but I’m not in the poor house either. Compared to many, my life is easy and most of the time quite interesting. I look across the years with the knowledge that I was raised right and that I loved and respected my father. And I still do.

But some people hate their fathers. Hard to believe, isn’t it? No one ever said life is supposed to be easy, and one way or another, life dishes out a lot of pain. There’s the pain of living with a dad you don’t care for, I suppose, and there’s the pain of watching a dad you love die.

When the Earth’s travels around the sun bring me to November, I recall dad’s final days. As Charles Dickens wrote, “it was the worst of times.” As Harry Crews wrote of his childhood, “like living in a nightmare, just like a nightmare.” His death was a thing we could do little about, though we tried. We tried mightily but all the love in the world could not stem the awful tide that drowned the life out of my father inch by inch, day by day, and the long nights past midnight were the worst.

The horrors of cancer make you long for a case of selective amnesia. There’s only one thing you can do. Remember the good times. Not a day passes that I don’t see my dad in his yard working, in the kitchen with mom, sitting at the table, or driving our family through the mountains.

We take comfort in the good things life gives us and among those blessings are our parents and the memories they leave. And so I wonder how these women deal with their father’s death each time the anniversary rolls around. What do they remember? What do they think about on the day their dads passed away? Do they feel remorse? Do they wish they could see their father one more time? I wonder about them. I really do. And I feel for them.

There’s not a day goes by that I don’t remember my dad and the things he did for me and I would give anything to see him again. In the great heap of days that make up a year, four days jump off my calendar: my December 18, dad’s birthday, Father’s Day, November 15, and November 18, the day we laid him to rest. Bittersweet days. Those days will never again be the same for my family or me.

Gregg Allman recorded a song that lingers in the mind, “These Days.” Jackson Browne wrote the song and it’s about a man who knows a special relationship has died, and as he reflects, he realizes he could have done more for it: These days I seem to think a lot/About the things that I forgot to do/For you/And all the times I had the chance to.

I would love for the women who hated their dads to hear this song, realizing that it’s written for them. I’d like for them to think once more about the man who brought them into this world.

The women should remember that to err is human as they listen to the song’s sad conclusion. “Please don’t confront me with my failures/I’m aware of them.” Perhaps their dads would have discussed their failures if they’d just had a chance to talk without confrontation. Perhaps they could have settled things and come to an understanding.

Life without fathers is hard enough, but a life rife with guilt and things left unsaid is worse. If you’re reading this and you still have your dad but maybe things aren’t as they ought to be, do something about it. And if you’re a dad who has a child who’s drifted away, you need to act too. When that midnight train pulls out of the station and its lonely, mournful whistle trails off, it’s too late.