Life, Death, Forgiveness

On the afternoon of July 30, 2022, I was at the bike shop when my sister messaged me with the news our dad had passed. I remember thinking: “Well, I guess I’ll have to wait for them to be done with the work so that I can take my bike with me. I sure as hell won’t be able to pick it up for many days”. While I waited, I started putting together a to-do list: Get airplane tickets, tell mom, pack for the trip, email my boss, etc.

Of the five stages of grief, I think we all skipped right over the denial phase. I mean, the man had had Parkinson’s disease for more than twenty years. After a very recent episode where a respiratory arrest led to coma, tracheotomy, and getting a feeding tube, we knew it was a matter of time. Specially when the hospital decided to send him back to home hospice.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the anger phase.

First, Some Context

My relationship with dad started dying the very first few minutes of January 1st, 2010. The lifelong series of events that culminated on that fateful night are too long for this essay, but I’ll try to summarize. To massively understate it: dad was not an easy person to get along with. A stern, and at times abusive father during childhood, dealing with him became even more difficult after his divorce from mom. It wasn’t until many years later, sometimes in the mid-90’s that we eased into a sort of cordial cease-fire.

My younger brother had had a terminal fallout with him, and spent the next couple of decades clawing his way out of the poverty he grew up in because of the divorce, and building the successful career he has today. He remained estranged until dad’s coma, when he flew all the way from California to make his peace. With a sister born of my dad’s third wife, I did my best to keep some semblance of a relationship. The phone calls on holidays, birthdays, and Father’s Day; the visits every time we went back to Puerto Rico. This turned into a routine of acceptance of things as they were, with the occasional frustrations, disappointments, and continuous heartache that came with it.

Until the Eve of January 1st, 2010, that is.

My wife and I flew to Puerto Rico for the holidays, which are festive, big, loud and, given our broken families, insufferable. We somehow managed to squeeze some good times, but by the time New Year’s Eve came about, my wife opted to simply spend that evening with her family, quietly gathered as they usually do. My mom alone at church and then at her home, I joined my dad’s side of the family at my cousin’s party, all by myself.

Dad was already showing signs of Parkinson’s disease at that time. Some tremor in his hands and voice, but still very much capable of playing pool. As we played, I remember looking at him with compassion, thinking about the cruelty of that illness, the futility of any argument with him, and deciding to let bygones be bygones.

It was almost midnight when he asked me outside for a private conversation. You see, my wife and I weren’t exactly flush with cash at the time, and we needed to rent a minivan –we had many outings planned with all sides of our families on this trip. He offered and gave us the $600 it cost to rent one. Imagine my surprise when I found out the reason he pulled me outside for a private conversation was to tell me that “since we hadn’t bought any gift for my little sister for Christmas, even though we had left over money from the rental (we didn’t), he and his wife had bought a gift for us to hand to her as our own” . He then summoned us to dinner the next day for this ceremony.

I was floored. My mind raging, with the thought of the struggles of the previous twenty-three years, how we became house and food insecure, my career struggles and my limited ability to help my mom and brother, in short, a lifetime of awful memories caused directly or indirectly by him, so I let him have it. I don’t really remember the things I said, how loud I said them, or if he registered anything I said. I let out DECADES OF PAIN before leaving without saying goodbye to anyone. I cried as if that side of my family had died, because I knew it would be hard to see them again.

Back To The Anger

Three weeks after returning to Austin the recession that had started in 2008 caught up with me, and I was laid off on January 23, 2010. This was the end of a career right at the height of it, with a great job in environmental graphic design at a great local studio. The industry was destroyed. I was too shell-shocked to think about anything but my career, and how I could pivot into something with a future –which I somehow managed to do. For the better part of the decade that followed, I read everything I could about self help and improvement. I tried to identify what was “wrong with me”. Slowly, I learned to accept my past, without blame, and to look forward, to the life I could still have. It was only four years ago or so that my career finally turned for the better, and even less time time since I’ve started feeling at ease with it all.

And then, dad died. And for the next few days I was a mess. I was so out of it that I booked the wrong flight, and only found out hours before boarding (a very expensive mistake). I didn’t know what to pack or not. Indecisive, irritable, cynical, impatient.

I was resentful. 

All that resentment that I had worked so hard to overcome was right back there in my every thought. I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t kick it out either. I don’t think I did the bargaining phase, but yeah, I definitely did the depression phase. I was sad. Sad for all the could-have-beens, sad for the way the man died over a couple of decades, sad about how “sick dad” is all my sister knew through her teens and early adulthood. But mostly, I realized, I was resentful at it all. 

Lucky for me one of my cousins is a part-time angel, and thought to write to me about forgiveness. She shared with me very personal stories about her own experiences forgiving, and how important it has been in her life.

On the day of his burial, while still at the funeral home, I stood guard in front of dad’s open casket, looking at a body that barely resembled the strong man I grew up with. I though about the few stories I know about his own childhood and youth, his own struggles, and demons, and I think I was able to understand how he came to act the way he did, and I quietly forgave him as they closed the casket one last time.

At the cemetery, I reminded everyone about his many talents, his strong work ethic, and how that example endures in his sons and daughter lives. I then had the honor to help carry his coffin to his final resting place, relieved that neither one of us will suffer from all this anymore.