Growing up with a disabled dad.
I’m sitting alone in a bar in Austin at 10:30 AM on a rainy Sunday. Waiting for a little bit of bacon, waffles, and diced red potatoes. It’s Father’s Day. I’ve already had more than enough coffee, so water is my sole companion as I wait.
I’m tired. I just finished a day of being “on”, participating in a debate followed by a panel at a high energy conference with broken air conditioning and not enough food and water. I talked to people all day, often near shouting over loud, energetic music. It was good. I’m doing what I care about and talking about things that matter deeply to me. How to be free. How to create your own path. How to live fully alive. How to rebel against stagnant mindsets and institutions.
I’m not big on Father’s Day and other Hallmark holidays, but this calm, humid Sunday morning it got to me. My dad. How am I supposed to feel? Thankful to him for being there? He’s always been there, but in a wheelchair with a closed head-injury and needing more care than he could give. All things considered, he’s a great dad. It’s one of the things that sometimes makes it hard.
A lot of people grew up without fathers. Tragedy, abandonment, death, and divorce have thrown many a kid gut-wrenching curveballs I can’t imagine. They’ve got to learn to cope, but also to grieve. To feel the anger, resentment, or deep sadness of the hole in their life. But what am I supposed to do? My dad was always there, kind, impossible not to love, and also unable to walk, remember anything of consequence, or be independent at all.
I can’t grieve his absence. That would be an affront to his unmistakable and warm presence. Still, those few memories I retain from before his accident — rushing upstairs to play “Jumping on the Bed Fred” when he got home from work, him lying on the couch in sweatpants watching football or Star Trek, him helping me in to the hot vinyl seats of our old car — give me glassy eyes.
My waffles are here. Give me a minute.
OK, I’m back.
Several years ago I was lying awake in bed and it came to me. A fictionalized account of what happened with my dad after his car accident all those years ago. A few years later I put it up as one of the first posts on this blog. I’m glad it was so early on, when I had no readers. Fiction is a format I’m really unfamiliar with as a writer, and it feels a little bit awkward. Still, it was the first time I had ever written anything besides a vague adolescent poem or two about the subject of my dad. It was the only form that allowed me to. I guess today I’m taking a more direct approach, which feels equally odd.
I like to write about my ideas, not my feelings. Yet on the topic of my dad, his accident, and my life growing up with and without him, I don’t really have any ideas. I only have feelings, and even those aren’t that well-processed.
One of the strangest things, which I imagine must be far stranger for my mother, is that I actually have two dads. I have the one who gave me his genetic material, who set the foundation for our family, and who held me and played with me those first three years. He’s still alive in my memory, and mostly in romanticized legends I’ve pieced together from stories about him. Then there’s my dad who’s with us today. By all accounts a funny (in an ironic, playful sort of way), kind, caring, compassionate guy who never says a negative word about anyone, and whose occasional agitation has an endearing quality. He’s not one of those people I’ve met in some nursing homes who, when faced with physical or mental disabilities vent nothing but pent-up anger (perhaps partially because they’re in nursing homes). He’s the farthest thing from that you can imagine. He requires 24 hour care, but even though it can take a toll physically, he’s not someone you can get mad at. Well, sometimes you can, when he keeps asking the same question every five minutes due to short term memory loss, but even then, it’s my lack of patience and not any intended malice on his part.
I love both of my dads. My relationship with my head-injured dad is actually great, and makes me smile just to think about it. I miss that old pup (his term, not mine). I called him today. It’s not a complicated relationship. In fact, it’s probably easier than any other relationship in my life. He loves me unconditionally and is always proud of me, even though he usually forgets what I’m up to, how old I am, whether I live at home, and whether or not he really owes me a million dollars (I have fun with that one). He’s easy for me to love as well. His soul shines through and reveals my own flimsy attempts at compassion and joy in contrast to his.
It’s my other dad that makes things complicated. I didn’t have time to get to know him. I never had the joy of being coached by him in baseball, or beating him on the basketball court, or arguing over things that dads and sons argue about. It’s really hard to miss him and feel ripped off because of his absence. That feels like it would be a slight to the dad that’s still here. But I do miss him.
It’s hard to build an accurate picture of who he was, and sometimes I’m not even sure I want to.
He was probably a lot less amazing than I imagine he was or would have been had the accident never happened. Who knows? Maybe I’d think he was a big stick-in-the-mud. Maybe we’d fight about everything. I’ll never know. I know he wasn’t perfect, and I even believe that I’ve gained a great many good qualities due to the unique way my siblings and I were raised, with lots of independence by necessity. Still, I wonder a lot. I know his financial decisions allowed us to live a safe, comfortable life even after he could no longer work. I know his decision with my mom to homeschool us changed my life in ways I’m more thankful for every day. I know his beliefs, regardless of how well his actions did or did not mirror them, created a sound foundation that I value and that has served me well.
My waffles are almost done. The bacon is gone, and most of the potatoes. It feels like time to wrap this up. I’m not really sure what else to say. I don’t feel bad for myself. I grieve sometimes. I started crying a little bit at the table here while writing this, which mercifully warded off the waitress and bought me a little more time. One day it really hit me hard, when I was first trying to get Praxis off the ground and getting thrashed by roadblock after roadblock, I just broke down in an airport and asked God why in hell I didn’t have a dad to bounce things off of.
Yet, my dad is here. I look at my wife, whose father died two years ago, far too young, and I cannot deny she is experiencing a deeper loss than I know. I’m still trying to figure out the best way to process this complex situation.
For anyone else out there who grew up with a dad who was present, but handicapped in some way, I know it’s a little weird. I know my dad loved me, loves me, and I’m so glad for his presence in my life. I guess this is my card this year. Happy Father’s Day dad. Thank you. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go smoke a cigar to pay homage to the time before I was born when you snuck outside of church for a cigarillo, you rebel you.
Originally published on my personal blog in 2015.