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January 20, 2021

How do you mourn the death of a parent who left you?

My father and I during happier times.

My daddy died when I was 10-years-old.

My father died two weeks ago.

Both are the same man.

I buried his memory in my heart 35 years ago, and I buried his body just 14 days ago.

I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel.

My father left my life when I was in fifth grade.

He and my mother had a contentious divorce that was highlighted for my brother and I with poverty and neglect. During the three years of the divorce’s legal battles, we saw him only four times and heard countless excuses about why he couldn’t see us – even though he lived rent-free with my grandfather just a few miles away. My mom did her best to support us with her mininum-wage jobs, but we still had to rely on food stamps, free school lunches, second-hand clothing, volunteer babysitters and pro-bono child therapists during that time.

When the divorce was finalized in the spring of 1980, we had to sell our house and give our dog away. Given my father’s lack of interest in seeing us, my mother moved us from New York to Minnesota, where she would have help from my aunt and uncle.  It was a difficult, but necessary, move.

Flash forward ten years. I’m a struggling college student. My father calls me out of the blue to let me know he is getting married. His fiance gets on the phone and introduces herself to me. She asks me to come to the wedding, but I can’t. I barely have enough money for groceries, let alone travel.

Five years later, I find myself visiting Buffalo with a friend. We meet my dad and his wife for lunch, and my dad begins talking about how much they want a baby girl. I’m sure he didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, but I felt tears welling up behind my eyes and my throat burned as I did my best to stuff emotional pain down deep into my gut. My heart kept screaming, “Your baby girl is right here!” as I anxiously prayed for the waiter to deliver the check.

I left the restaurant and left my dad’s life again. He told me he wanted to put his past behind him, and I obliged.

It hurt like hell.

It took a lot of time, prayer and therapy, but I was able to forgive him and move on. My childhood wounds healed, but there was always a part of me that still wanted my daddy. I graduated from college without my daddy there to congratulate me. I got married without my daddy there to give me away. I gave birth to my children without my daddy there to spoil them as grandpa.

With prompting from the Holy Spirit, I wrote to a letter of forgiveness to my father in 2005. I told him I wanted to rebuild a relationship with him, for the sake of my children – his grandchildren. I lied; the relationship was for me. I missed him. My father wrote back a few weeks later, and we began a letter and Christmas card relationship that lasted until he died just two weeks ago. Through our correspondence, I learned my father had two children, who were close in age to my own children. His wife, whom I later grew to adore, wrote many of the cards and letters, and she welcomed me with open arms.

My father called me two years ago after his first major health scare. He had spent many weeks in the hospital recovering from a heart attack, and his voice was weak and quavering when he said, “Hi, Kim. It’s Dad.” I cried. He apologized for the past. He told me about how special his wife was and how proud he was of his kids – all of us.  He told me he wanted to see me and asked if my family could visit him that summer. I said, “We’ll have to see.”

We never spoke again.

I was diagnosed with cancer nine months later, and thoughts of summer travel were eclipsed by medical visits. We managed to correspond via cards that Christmas, and eight weeks later, his wife called me to let me know he had passed away. Two days later I was in Buffalo.

As I stood over his body during the visitation, my eyes struggled to find some sign of the man I knew 35 years ago. He was an old man, his hair was solidly grey, and his face bore the wrinkles of 69 years. I didn’t see my daddy.

But then I touched his hands.

And everything came rushing back to me.

My daddy was in those hands.

Not the man who left my life when I was 10.

My daddy.

Those hands were the same ones that built a backyard ice skating rink for a 7-year-old girl. They were the same hands that played drums for the rock band that used to practice in my basement. They were the same hands that directed my own as I had my first music lesson on a keyboard.

I mourned his death at the funeral, and I mourned the life he and I could have had.

I miss you, Daddy.

I love you, Daddy.

I did then, and I do now.

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