April 19th, 2016
When I was a little girl, I looked up to my dad the way most little girls look up to their fathers. I liked watching the way he’d cross his legs while he smoked his pipe in contemplation. I liked lifting my dumbbell while he lifted his barbell. I liked telling people that my ex-prison father could beat them up at a moment’s notice.
My parents split up when I was three, but I still saw my dad fairly regularly—until he moved three hours away when I was seven. It was when my dad moved back to our area at the start of middle school that he started to fall from his pedestal.
I began to notice inconsistencies in his behavior. He would make grand promises and rarely follow through with them. Soon, he would make 100 dollars a day. Soon, we would have a cat and a bird and a dog. Soon, he would be able to provide for me financially.
In reality, weekend plans with my dad were liable to be canceled at any minute. Sometimes, inexplicably to my young mind, I would find him passed out on the bed. Once age had taught me the cause, I started pouring his vodka down the sink in classic “fixer” form. I was 13.
As I grew older, it reached the point where years could go by between visits. My dad seemed to pull away from me once he felt me pull away from him, and he made his way back to Sacramento to be closer to his own extended, fragmented family.
Dad didn’t come to my high school graduation. He didn’t come to any of my school performances. He didn’t walk me down the aisle at my wedding, which took place just months before his lung cancer diagnosis.
I always envied girls who had fathers who gave them hugs at the end of 30-minute episodes as the credits rolled. These dads were often goofy, but they never didn’t show up, and they always offered sage advice right when the teenager or young adult needed it most.
Aside from a single two-hour visit two years before the diagnosis, I hadn’t seen my dad for almost five years. The break happened after he brought home an addicted woman my age from off the street and then tried to sleep with her as I watched TV in the living room. My dad was then 65.
Yet despite his flaws, I never forgot that big man I looked up to when I was little, and I wanted to keep touch with him in a way that didn’t make me feel unsafe. I began writing him letters when I was about 21, and he wrote me letters back. His pages reflected the eloquent and debonair man I had remembered—full of intellect and sage advice, and completely unable to disappoint me. I was disappointed only that he believed in my attending a four-year college even more than I did, although neither of us, at the time, knew how to make that dream a reality.
At 24 years old, I found myself flying to Sacramento from my then-hometown of Portland, Oregon. My dad had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer just a week or two earlier, and I arrived with the steady resolve to say goodbye. Since he was on hospice, and since he had no one else to care for him, my weekend visit turned into a two-week stay.
On that final trip to see my father, I watched him slowly lose control over his body. His six-foot frame shrank and he dropped down to 94 pounds. He stayed connected to his oxygen tank day and night, and we juggled between different medications and inhalers.
After a few days, he started pooping in his sheets. I wiped his bottom, and carried the poopy sheets to the garbage can and put on a fresh set, hoping we wouldn’t run out. I helped him pee into his plastic urinal so he wouldn’t have to make the trek to the bathroom. He ground his teeth. He saw demons. He stared into space for hours at a time.
Since taking care of my father necessitated seeing him in person—and I couldn’t know what new disappointment would spring from a face-to-face visit—my wall was so high that it’s as if I felt nothing. Yet despite this numbness to my dad’s plight, there was a piece of me that still longed for his approval and still hoped he would become that sitcom father. I also knew that if I walked away, I’d always regret losing those last few moments.
I’ve regretted other things in my life—or at least worried that my actions somehow reflected my dad’s.
When I left home after high school graduation, leaving behind my four-year-old sister, Lisa, it felt as if I were abandoning my own child. Before that point in my life, I was hardly ever without Lisa. I toted her everywhere, partly because my mom worked and my stepdad was busy in the garden, but mostly because I didn’t want to leave her the way my dad had left me.
Perhaps this is why I also couldn’t leave my father in the end. I knew abandonment all too well.
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My dad moved about 20 times in 20 years, and I’ve followed much the same course. Whenever my sister and I lived far from each other, I’d send her letters with what I felt to be asinine questions and sometimes-empty promises about seeing her soon. Sometimes we would go months without talking, as she was young, didn’t like the telephone, and text messaging hadn’t yet been invented.
A few months ago, during a cleaning streak, my sister sent me all the letters I’d written her during her childhood. As I glanced through them, I couldn’t help but fear that I’d followed in my dad’s footsteps. My words on the cards were filled with a palpable desire for connection between two individuals separated by so many miles and years.
My sister and I both moved back to the Bay Area about four years ago, and were able to visit frequently for the first time in over a decade. Two years ago my sister became a mother. But shortly after that I decided to move to Los Angeles. My heart ached at her sadness at my leaving, and I felt as though I were abandoning her—and another young child—all over again.
I’ve inherited my dad’s way with words, his love for physical strength and his ease at connecting with others. But there are still more aspects of my dad’s character that I’m always afraid I’ve picked up. While I didn’t inherit his alcoholism—something I discovered after I finally had my first drink, aged 26—I’m following his footsteps by living in chronic poverty, and in having difficulty standing still.
Over the past 15 years, since my father’s death, I’ve been almost obsessed in my desire to find out as much about him as I can. I’ve driven to houses on return envelopes, had countless conversations with a cousin who knew him well, and have even considered traveling to Kansas to see his penitentiary records, for time served before I was born.
What I’ve taken away from my investigations is that despite his alcoholism, despite his abandonment of me and his broken promises, he believed in me more than anyone.
Looking back at his letters, he was unflinching in his desire to see me pursue not just an undergraduate degree, but also a nontraditional life, filled with advanced learning and creative pursuits.
My dad wrestled with a lifelong problem that prevented him from being the father I needed. But as I get to know him in retrospect, I know I was his everything—no matter how many miles stretched out between us, and no matter how many times he reached for that liquor bottle.
As for Lisa, she attributes many of her parenting skills to the way I parented her. When I soak in her gratitude, it reminds me that I didn’t let her down as much as I feared, or maybe even not at all.
Shannon Luders-Manuel is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in xoJane, For Harriet and The Establishment. She is currently working on a memoir about her life with her father. You can follow her on Twitter: @Shannon_Luders.