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Having a Wounded Relationship With My Father Doesn't Mean It Didn't Matter

Grieving and healing through my father's legacy

By Steffany RitchiePublished 10 months ago Updated 10 months ago 9 min read
Photo by Tatiana Syrikova:

When I saw the theme for this contest, my heart sank. "Not for me" I shrugged, defensively. I presumed what people want to read and write about are positive dad stories. 

I get it. But some of us don't have happy stories, and that's not something to be ashamed of or that doesn't also deserve to be heard.

My father died almost a year ago. We had been effectively estranged for most of my adult life. He was an alcoholic. I found out via a phone call from my Mom, who had been contacted by his apartment manager. 

His health had been in decline for some time. He had several long-standing physical ailments that were likely the result of his heavy drinking and smoking lifestyle. 

I felt terrible that he had been so unwell, and alone. I told myself I would have been there for him, regardless of our past, had I known. But I live in another country, and he wasn't online, and that's how estrangement ends for some of us. 

It was not how I imagined things would end up. Some part of me always held out hope we could reconnect someday, despite very little evidence to support this idea.

No amends were made, and no accountability was taken, for the various abuses he subjected my mother and me to. In fact, in death, he left a guilt trip of epic proportions, evidenced by his later life spent wallowing in self-pity. 

Various journals, notes, and camcorder recordings confirmed that he had never taken responsibility for the harm caused to me in the fourteen years I lived in his worsening spiraling cycle of drinking. He had in fact somehow twisted it all around to paint himself as a tragic, abandoned figure.

My dad had my contact information. He called me less than a handful of times in the past twenty years. I was always pleasant when we spoke, but I decided long ago that there was nothing I could do to fix our relationship if he wasn't going to make any effort to change or take accountability. We were frozen in time anytime we spoke, he still talked to me as if I was the same little girl he remembered. 

The last time I saw him I was eighteen years old. I had flown to visit him the summer after I graduated from high school. My Mom paid, even though he had never paid child support and she had worked two jobs the entire time I was in high school to support us. 

On that trip we hung out during the day, and went fishing, the usual things we used to do. He let me drive his truck to visit my childhood friends a few times. He gave me $150 so we could go to Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va. one day. I had grown up visiting the park with my parents, and he clearly still saw me as a kid.

Instead, I took my friend out to dinner at The Olive Garden and we went shopping at the mall. We had a blast. I bought myself a pair of Dr. Marten shoes  that I fell in love with. They were  a tri-color saddle shoe style that I thought would be great for the fall in college, which my dad was not paying a penny towards. Yet I still felt guilty. 

I lied to him when he asked how the theme park was - I am a terrible liar and felt sure that he could see right through me. I hid the shoes in my suitcase but he saw them one day. I felt ashamed, like my ruse was exposed. 

When I got home I returned the shoes at my local mall at a branch of the same store. I no longer wanted them. They had never seen a pair like them, but still took them. I took the cash and felt lingering discomfort.

That semester at college I was surprised in philosophy class one day to see there was a girl wearing the very same shoes. My shoes. She was pretty, and weirdly even looked kind of like me. I couldn't help myself staring at the shoes every time I saw her. They couldn't be? 

I felt irrationally angry at her for wearing them. She seemed like she didn't have a care in the world. She seemed like she stumbled on those shoes and thought it was her lucky day. No one had those shoes, anywhere. They were my shoes. 

Her hair was curly, like mine, but shiny, immaculate. She was always smiling and talking confidently to various guys in class. I found it impossible to concentrate on Kant or Nietzsche. I was having an actual existential crisis in the middle of class. Why was I so cursed? What had I done in a past life to deserve this?

I would sometimes stare at her despite myself. I couldn't help it. She seemed like a better version of me, wearing my shoes so brazenly. How dare she live so carelessly in shoes that had caused me such pain and guilt? Once or twice she caught me looking, and I would look away, embarrassed. I clearly didn't deserve those shoes.

When we went through my dad's things I was weirdly moved by his clothes and piles of pristinely boxed shoes. My dad had a specific fashion sense and had always taken pride in his presentation. He was handsome, tall, and thin. He had only gone up one pants size and had a wardrobe full of clothes that were more suited for a younger man. 

But I knew he would have pulled them off. He had that level of charm, that jazz in his step. 

He still went to concerts and by various accounts still had the gift of the gab. He was kind to some of the people in his apartment complex. The only reason they were alerted something was wrong was because two women were concerned they hadn't seen him in a few days. 

One day when I was alone in the apartment I kneeled down on the spot where he died, kissed it, and said "Goodbye Daddy, I love you". It was the only way I knew how to feel close to him one last time. 

There was no funeral as he had no one left where he lived, and his old friends and family live hundreds of miles away and he hadn't seen most of them in many years.

I was a daddy's girl as a child. My dad was the fun dad, the dad with candy and jokes and games, the dad who liked to play with and rile up the neighborhood kids. Everyone loved him, me most of all. 

He would braid my hair or twist it in kooky creations sometimes at night while we watched tv. He made watching movies an event, he encouraged my love of music, and made me feel special and loved many times.

We would eat late-night snacks of cheese and crackers, or his favorite, these cheap pecan twist pastries that you get in multipacks. He still had some in his pantry, it was literally the last piece of Tupperware I threw away. I opened it and there they were, and I started sobbing. 

Any child of an alcoholic knows we cling to the positive memories to try in vain to erase the bad ones. We wish our parent could have been the good and kind person we experienced sometimes. We wish they chose us over alcohol. But sometimes they don't, and sometimes we are forced or choose to live the rest of our lives without them. 

It doesn't mean we didn't love them or don't wish we could fix it. But it's not on us. I have had to tell myself this countless times since my dad's passing. The desperate wish to rewrite history, to have the happy times succeed in overcoming the bad, is a double whammy of heartache during the intense first months of grief especially. 

It doesn't matter if he forgave me or not. If he didn't understand it was me who was owed forgiveness that is also not my fault. Grief has forced me to own and understand so much of my pain and trauma was real and deserved to be recognized. I buried it deep, for years. 

It's ok if grief is about your own healing journey, especially in a complicated relationship with a parent. It's ok if your parent didn't love you the way you deserved to be loved and it takes you a very long time to let go of feeling responsible for that. 

It's ok if Father's Day makes you sad and you don't deserve to feel as left out as you have for however long you have from the happy stories of others, with their good dads and their nurturing upbringing. They don't understand your pain and maybe they never will, and that's ok too. 

I have had some wonderful mentors who were surrogate paternal figures in my life. They meant more to me than they maybe should have, but that's understandable I guess. 

My high school English teacher, my friend's dad, and a college writing professor were all terribly kind and encouraging at a time when I needed it most. I have been lucky to have these positive reinforcements - they didn't replace my dad, but they certainly helped me. 

It's a beautiful and appreciated thing for many kids without dads. They might not know how to say thank you or express how even a small gesture meant the world to them, but it does. Dads are important, in their many shapes and forms.

I am grateful for the good times with my dad, but I refuse to whitewash the pain he caused me, even in death. I wouldn't be who I am without the struggles I have faced as a result of this father wound in my life. 

Do I wish I had been a perfect seeming girl who wore expensive shoes bought by her dad who did not have all of the issues of a child of an alcoholic? Sure. 

I know I loved those shoes more than she did. I can still picture them. I let them go out of shame. I didn't know then that I deserved them just as much as anyone, but I do now.


About the Creator

Steffany Ritchie

Hi, I mostly write memoir, essays and pop culture things. I am a long-time American expat in Scotland.

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Nice work

Very well written. Keep up the good work!

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  1. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

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  • L.C. Schäfer8 months ago

    This sounds so familiar. My friend is going through almost the exact same - the dad in that situation is still alive, but he drinks so much and doesn't take any care of himself. Every year is a surprise. He also has abused loved ones, and refused to be accountable. It seems to be a pattern with alcohol abuse? I know you know it isn't you, but I wanted to reinforce that message anyway.

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