THE BLOG

Gifts From the Father I Hardly Knew

06/16/2015 03:51 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016

I can't remember ever celebrating Father's Day with my dad. I never met the man my mother fell in love with and married. He was brilliant, had a love for learning, and was pursuing a PhD in Psychology. I have only vague memories of the man he transformed into after mental illness stole away his bright future. My parents divorced when I was 6-years-old and my sister and I visited our dad sporadically until I was 10. By that time his bi-polar disorder had robbed him of any chance to function as a parent. From age 10 to 39, I only saw my father once.

I grew up with a hole my father's absence had left on my heart. I often wondered what life would have been like had my dad been "normal." His mental illness was shrouded in secrecy, as was my diagnosis of scleroderma, which I received just months after our visits with him stopped (1985 was a banner year for me).

In September 2013, we learned that my father was dying of cancer. After a lot of soul searching, my sister, Heidi, and I decided we would visit him in the hospital. For most of my life, I thought I hadn't inherited anything from my dad. I didn't look like him, I wasn't scholarly like him, and from what I could gather, my personality was nothing like his. As far as I was concerned, all I shared with this man was his DNA.

When Heidi and I saw him in his hospital bed, it was as if I had entered another dimension. I thought I might recognize him, or feel some sense of connection, but there was nothing. Heidi, who had many more memories with my dad (she was 9 when my parents divorced), had maintained more of a relationship with our father. Throughout her early adulthood, she had tried on multiple occasions to forge a bond with him. None of her attempts had resulted in a relationship she had hoped to cultivate. Still, she immediately went to his bedside and started talking to him.

My dad had a tracheotomy and couldn't speak, but opened his eyes and was mouthing responses to my sister. I stood in the corner of the room and wept. I had nothing to say to this man who I had never really known. I wasn't angry with him, I just honestly could not come up with anything to say. Considering the fact that I usually can't shut up, this was quite upsetting.

I eventually went close to his bed and began to tell him about my husband and kids that he had never met. I showed him pictures of them as he held my gaze. We stared at each other for a while, and I caught a glimmer of something pierce my heart. A sense of familiarity washed over me, as foggy memories flickered into my consciousness. A sandbox in our backyard my dad had built us, my dad teaching me to tell time, and my dad sitting on the gold velour chair in our living room. Once upon a time, this dying stranger had been my father.

For the first time in my life, I felt fiercely connected to my dad. I looked at him with his garden of tubes sprouting from every orifice. The similarities between him and me were uncanny, down to the tracheotomy tube spilling from his neck. I spent most of 2006 lying in the exact same state as my father was currently. I too had been in the ICU fighting for my life, unable to eat, speak or move. I knew how thirsty he must be and spoke to the nurse about making sure they wet his lips regularly. I knew how frustrated he was being unable to talk and tried working out a communication system with him, using the alphabet that I hastily scribbled on paper. I knew how maddening it was to be locked in with his thoughts and started talking incessantly, trying to compensate for his inability to communicate.

Heidi and I left that day, September 7, 2013, thinking that would be the final visit with our dad. His cancer was everywhere and doctors were giving him days to live, but he clung to life with an obstinate grip. We visited him a few more times and watched him inch his way toward death. His resilience was unbelievable. My dad wanted to live with every fiber of his being, which is exactly what people said about me when I was on the brink of death in 2006. More than once, doctors told my family I had a slim chance of survival. Against all odds, I returned home in a wheelchair on December 1, 2006. Seven years later, on that exact same date, my father died. I can't help but think there is some significance to me sharing the date of my figurative re-entry into the world with my father's departure from it seven years later.

This Sunday, I will embark on the second Father's Day without my dad. To be honest, I never liked this holiday for obvious reasons. For the last 12 years, I've gotten to celebrate a great dad on Father's Day; my husband. He is an incredible father to our kids and we would be lost without him. Seeing him father our kids, has helped heal the wounds of growing up fatherless.

On Father's Day, if you are fortunate enough to have been raised by a great dad still here on earth, celebrate him with an extra dose of gratitude. If you've lost your dad, I know this day totally sucks. I hope you can take comfort in remembering the gifts he gave you while he was here. If you're like me, and grew up without a relationship with your father, this day doubly sucks. I do believe, if we search hard enough, we can still find slivers of positive influences from these men.

A stubborn will to live, appreciation for the preciousness of life, and a fighting spirit; these are the gifts I inherited from my dad.