My father stopped speaking to me in 2001. I remember that it was spring of 2001 because it was a few months before 9/11. His silence and apparent disregard for my existence after 9/11 was especially jarring and disappointing. Two months after 9/11, I went to spend Thanksgiving with my girlfriend’s family. They lived in Virginia, not far from my father, so I arranged—via my stepmother (because my father was not talking to me)—to have post-Thanksgiving day lunch with her family. She had said he would be there, but he left the house to avoid seeing me. That gesture felt especially hurtful after the trauma of 9/11, when everyone else seemed to be pulling together, finding and forming community even where none had formerly existed. No such luck in my family.
But that was his choice to make, and he continued to stick by it in the decade that followed. There was nothing I could do. I sent the occasional card, I wrote a heartfelt letter after his mother (my grandmother) died, but everything was met with silence. It was a one-way street.
I dealt with it the best way I could: with therapy and time. I got to the place where I was as okay with it as I could be. I accepted his choice. The years passed. It was as if he was dead. I would actually forget he was still alive.
And then, a few years ago, I heard from my stepmother that he had been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers. She suggested that I try to renew contact. I did. It seemed pointless to maintain a grudge. I don’t know if it was the disease or his personality, but he still did not seem interested. Communication fizzled out. She made vague promises to come visit so that I could see him, but nothing ever manifested. And she made sure to emphasize that it had been my fault all those years ago that he had cut off contact with me, forced to do so to protect her and her family. She never really explained why they needed protecting from me, but it was one of many reasons why things were my fault.
Her negativity was so unrelenting that contact with her provided futile. I was called a horrible person and a horrible daughter, and so, with my father not taking any initiative for contact (either because he would not or could not), I let things go. Again.
I thought I had made peace with it—or come to terms with it, as best as I could—until last week, when I found out that my father’s Alzheimer’s had so rapidly intensified that he could now no longer remember his last name.
I was devastated.
It was then that I realized how much I had been hanging onto a slim hope all these years that, one day, my father would realize how much I meant to him and would welcome me back into his life. I had had a fantasy that this would eventually take place, even if was on his deathbed. I hoped that there would be some life-changing moment that would make him realize the importance of family, that he would one day call me, or come visit, or send me an email. That we would chat and share things and he would tell me he was proud of me. That he would admit—explicitly or implicitly—that I had never been a bad daughter but, in fact, a good one. That even though I hadn’t chose the life path he had originally envisioned for me, he was still happy with the way things had turned out. That he loved me and was glad we were family.
Instead, I now have to come to terms with the fact that it is not simply that my father wants nothing to do with me, but that my father does not know who I am. That my father may not know who he is. That terms like family do not mean much anymore.
In the heartbreak that has followed these realizations, I have been forced to admit that I was never really okay with losing my father, I had just somehow accepted the fact that he was temporarily MIA. On a subconscious level, I always thought he would return. I never imagined the disappearance was permanent.
Alzheimer’s is a cruel beast because even though he may physically still exist, somewhere on the East Coast, mentally he is not my father. He may not consciously want nothing to do with me, but when his brain did still work properly, that was the decision he made, and now there was no way to change things. He may not have been my father for the last fifteen years, but part of me had always hoped he would someday be again. And now I have to figure out how to find peace with the loss all over again.