Ten years ago on my 23rd birthday, I went to visit my father at his home. Rather than enjoy a slice of birthday cake or celebrate, I spent the night dealing with one of his drunken outbursts. I left in tears and from there, I had to make one of the hardest decision in my life: becoming estranged from my father. Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months and then years, and in no time, years had gone by.
All my life, I had looked up to this man. He took care of me, he made me laugh and would always plan the best adventures for us. I loved my dad, and I never thought that anything could ever change my opinions of him.
But when you’re young, it’s easy to be oblivious to the real issues. As I grew older, it became hard to ignore his bad behavior. From the clouds of cigarette smoke that billowed out of his living room to the excess of brown bottles that lined his kitchen, his vices made him unreasonable and unlovable. His actions made me sad and our separation was inevitable.
Estranged for seven years, the memories I had of my father were becoming, well, distant. It wasn’t until the phone rang in December 2014 that changed. On the phone was a voice I didn’t recognize. It was my aunt, and she rapidly explained my father was in the hospital. He was suffering from severe cardiovascular disease due to his excessive drinking and smoking. The doctors weren’t sure if he was going to pull through and she asked me to be there for him. Her words felt like an immediate gut punch as my mind raced through every emotion and cycling through the thought of what to do.
My immediate reaction not to run to his side and take care of him may seem callous or shallow. But for years, I had spent considerable time and effort to distance myself and create a boundary in order to have a healthy relationship with him. All these years, I had tried to make him admit his addiction issues, and I felt like he brought this on himself. I was angry that he never listened to me and sad because this didn’t have to happen. I cried for a solid day before I tried to figure out what to do.
But I knew that in that moment, the priority was to take care of my father. The confused, angry and guilt-ridden feelings I had were normal, but he needed me and I wanted to be there for him.
It took a lot of mental and emotional preparation to get myself to the hospital, but that snowy December afternoon before Christmas, I visited him. Frail and vulnerable, my father looked up at me as he lay in his hospital bed and meekly said hello to me. Nervously, I sat at the edge of his bed and tried to wrap my head around what was happening, when he grabbed my hand.
I looked over to him and said, “What’s up?” and he responded, “I just want to say I’m sorry, for everything.”
I didn’t know how to process his words, but I knew that him recognizing the damage he had inflicted meant something and I accepted.
My father appointed me — along with my aunt — power of attorney and made us his official caregivers. I carried the official paperwork I was given to document this around in my purse for months on end — just in case something happened.
Taking on the role of caregiver felt uniquely overwhelming and challenging at times — different doctors and weekly appointments where folks would have specific questions regarding his prior health history, his living situation and the future. I didn’t know how to handle these inquiries and I didn’t know if I felt capable of managing it or even worthy of being in this role.
But over the months, the relationship between the two of us began to grow and develop very organically. We talked at length about why his behavior hurt me and he told me, “I’m so proud of you. I’m sorry I’ve missed so much.”
The biggest change in our relationship was that he was sober and he explained to me that he understood why he needed to stay sober in order to survive. I wanted to support him in this and I wanted to help my father achieve the quality of life he deserved.
In the beginning, being there for my dad, mentally and emotionally, was more than enough. From the hours I spent listening to him to the times I spent hugging my dad’s frail body and letting him cry into my shoulder, consoling him and letting him know everything was going to be all right, gave him the strength he needed to carry on.
For the first time in my life, I felt like I had taken on the parenting role. I don’t know when exactly this role reversal took place, but my father was now the child, and our relationship became stronger. Eventually, my father did get better and spent two years undergoing rehabilitation and making changes to his lifestyle.
For people dealing with an estranged relationship, you’ll find yourself asking whether you can or should do this. The fact is, there is no one-size-fits-all answer in these situations. Only you will know what is good for you and your boundaries.
While I wish that it didn’t take a near-death experience to bring us together, I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to be there for my father when he needed me most. We have found closure on many of the issues we had. I don’t have any regrets about my decision, as difficult and overwhelming as it was. As long as I can care for him, I will. I’m going to be a better person when this is all done.