I knew from an early age that our story would never end well but it was a July Saturday that you changed our lives forever.
That was the day you died. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself.
You’re supposed to be in your teenage years when you get your heart broken for the first time. You’re supposed to run home from school in tears that your relationship is over and your dad is supposed to be the one that threatens to ‘hurt him’ because he’s upset his daughter. You are not supposed to be 10 years old when your heart breaks for the first time and your father is not the one that’s supposed to break it for you; and yet you were. You agreed to come to Disneyworld with mum and I despite the fact that you were no longer married and I was over the moon to think I would have my first family holiday. Five days later, however, you changed your mind and you broke my heart; I remember that conversation like it was yesterday. You called me the following Tuesday, like you always did, but I was still too upset to speak to you; mum told you I didn’t want to talk and you hung up; you never rang back. It was 6 weeks later when I had to call you and apologise for my behaviour and listen to your mother tell me what I had put you through. I never got over it. That was the day I truly began to see you for what you were. Even writing this brings tears to my eyes and anger to my heart to think you could treat your daughter so callously. I wish I hadn’t missed you as much as I did and called you; I doubt you would have ever had the courage to call me back and I would have been free from you for all these years. Hindsight is a cruel mistress.
You are my shameful secret. If I don’t have to speak about you to anyone, I won’t. If you were anyone but my father, I would have walked out of your life when I started to see you for the manipulative and controlling monster you really were. Instead, you pushed everyone away and left me being the only person you had in the world despite the fact I wanted nothing to do with you. We, as a society, are told to look after our parents no matter what; ‘love unconditionally’ as they say but why? You have done nothing to deserve my respect, help or love and so I’m going against everything I’ve ever been taught and I’m walking away because I can’t carry you as my shameful secret any longer; I have no desire or energy to keep something so big, so quiet.
You are not the worst father in the world, I know that, but neither that does mean that I deserved everything you have put me through all these years either. I didn’t deserve to feel so frightened of you that we’ve never once had an argument in life because I worried that one day your fist would hurt me instead of your words. I didn’t deserve to physically turn into a woman and then suddenly become deathly afraid that you would start coming into my room at night. I didn’t deserve to spend my life apologising for you and your actions because of the awful way you had treated people. I didn’t deserve it; any of it.
For the past 10 years you’ve lived in Spain but since you mother died 6 years ago you’ve not coped and the more strained our relationship became, the less we spoke. We would go weeks or months without talking and whilst I knew that you were in trouble, I will admit that ignorance was bliss. I am no longer ignorant.
For on that Saturday I got a call from a man I shall call John and John changed my life. I’d never heard from him before but he rang me first thing in the morning to talk about you. He explained that he had taken you in for the past 4 months; that he had clothed and fed you for nothing and made sure you were okay; I was shocked but that wasn’t the worst thing he said; he told me that he had ‘found you on the side of the road’; that you were homeless. I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. My dad? Homeless? I knew the situation had been bad but I had no idea; you never said!
John continued to tell me that he had set you up with countless jobs but that you either turned up drunk or not at all. He said that you were stealing from anyone and everyone to get money for cigarettes and alcohol and that you were becoming too violent for him to handle. He even told me that you had somehow got money to fly back to the UK last year but that you were kicked out of the airport because you had tried to live there! I never knew. You never even called. John told me you didn’t answer my calls because you were afraid I would have ‘have a go at you’ about your situation; I knew you were a coward but I never realised it would mean ignoring your own daughter because of it.
That was the longest 20-minute conversation of my life and by the end I felt like my world had collapsed. I rushed into mum’s bedroom in tears and painfully tried to tell her the situation. I didn’t know if I wanted to throw up or faint. I spent the entire weekend in tears not knowing what to do. John was threatening to kick you out after you had taken advantage of his kind nature one too many times and becoming too violent and I didn’t even know where to begin in ‘sorting out’ the situation. Mum and I considered flying out to see you for a few days; to see what the situation was and take it from there but there was a problem with that. As much as I feared you weren’t mentally well; I KNEW I wasn’t well; certainly not well enough to see you in that state. Seeing you would do nothing but make me want to run away. I would end up getting incredibly sad seeing you in that state and then I would get angry at you for putting me through this after all the years you had already hurt me. John said ‘at least he isn’t dead’ but I wished you had been; it would have been so much easier. I would no longer have you in my life and you would finally end your life-long suffering. As cruel as it is to say that out loud, it’s even crueler that everyone that knows you agreed with my thought.
Do you know what happened on that Saturday night after the morning phone call? I considered killing myself. I went from one of the highest highs the week before to needing to gather up any pills and medication I had in my bedroom ranging from anti-histamines to Valium, put them in a bag and hide them in another room at 2am because it’s ALL I could think about. I wanted to run away from you forever and not deal with you. That’s what you did to me and you’ll never even know; or care.
Monday came around and I visited any Government office I could think of to get advice on your situation and even rang the British Consulate in Spain to see if there were any charities that could help but ultimately I knew that if you weren’t ready to accept help, there was nothing I could do and I wasn’t prepared to do anything more. This isn’t about revenge for all the years you’ve hurt me, I’d just come to realise that you can’t help everyone whether they’re your parent or not.
The problem was that over the next few days you had me questioning the very fibre of my being. For as long as I can remember I have been one of ‘life’s helpers’; I will go out of my way to be there for someone even if I am struggling myself and yet, here I was, turning my back on someone, society says, is the last person I should ever do that to. You had me question whether I was a nice person at all or if I’d been lying to myself all these years; just deluding myself. How could a ‘good girl’ leave her dad when he needed his daughter the most. And then I realised that you have never been my dad; you’ve never even earned the title of Father. Despite us keeping in contact throughout the years, I consider myself to be from a single-parent family; you have had no input on my parenting or the person I have become today and yet you have in the most horrible of ways.
I am my ‘father’s daughter’; I look like you, talk like you, have your mannerisms and I even have your family names and at times, throughout the years, I have hated myself for that. At times, even to this day, I HATE who I am simply because of who I came from. I hate that I am named after your uncle and grandmother. I hate that in certain photos, captured at the wrong angle or in the wrong light, I look at myself and feel physically sick because I look just like you. I hate that I fear I have a life marred by mental illness because of you. Mum can say that she at least got me out of her relationship with you but that comes as no consolation when I say or do something that reminds me so much of you. I spend my life terrified that I am turning into you; that I AM you and yet every time I have tried to change, I realise that despite all my faults because of you, I am still an infinitely better person than you could ever be.
I spent the next 2.5 weeks barely sleeping, alternating between tears and feeling sick with guilt at night, when I no longer have distractions, wondering what to do and yet, it appears to have all been for nothing. John rang me back today and we spoke for almost half an hour about you and the situation we all find ourselves in because of you. The more I heard, the less I wanted to hear. He told me that you were creeping women out because you’d strike up the most inappropriate conversations with them about hardcore porn, that you don’t care about ruining his apartment and practically live in your own dirt and that despite the fact you have nothing, you still think that the world owes you. You’ve always thought the world owes you something, despite not working in 24 years, so that came as no surprise but what John said next did. He asked you why you didn’t speak to your daughter and you replied with ‘because she owes me for all the years I looked after her and brought her up’ and it was at that exact point I realised that, to you, I am no longer your daughter; just another person that should ‘pay up’. The daughter you used to be ‘so proud of’ didn’t exist for you anymore and it broke my heart to hear you say that about me. You’ve broken it again Dad. You broke my heart aged 10 but it healed though I never forgot. 17 years later and you’ve broken it again; for the final time.
I can’t do this anymore. I have no doubt that you are mentally ill and so, to some extent, you can’t help yourself; I, of all people, can understand that but even when I was at my lowest, I still knew I needed help and accepted it when I could. You used to look exactly like Tony Soprano but by all accounts you are less than half the size you once were because you no longer eat; just drink alcohol and smoke and that in itself breaks my heart. You are 57 years old and you can’t even look after yourself in the most basic of ways; you don’t keep yourself clean or care what you look like and whilst that probably suggests you really are mentally unwell, I can’t help you even if I wanted to because you’re not ready to accept it and I’m not sure I’m ready to give you any.
I never thought I would be one of ‘those people’. A person that knew they had a homeless family member ‘somewhere out there’ but I’ve joined the secret society; the one no one wants to admit that they’re a member of. I always thought, naively, that the family hadn’t done enough to help that person or, if they were young people, that they had simply run away and didn’t know how to go back; I know differently now. As soon as your mother died and I began to tell you the truth about your situation, that you were rapidly running out of money and needed to get a job, our relationship changed for the worse and you began to show your true level of cowardice. You stopped answering my calls or wouldn’t speak to me for weeks at a time because you knew I was telling you the truth and you hated it. I told you the truth because you needed to hear it and I hoped it would help you sort yourself out but you went the other way and you pulled away from me. I tried to help when it mattered but now it’s too late for either of us.
You’re 57 years old and since John has kicked you out, you’re now homeless again. You’re an alcoholic, homeless, mentally ill man and you have now joined the ‘invisible nation’; people will pass you in the street and think you’re less than nothing, they won’t feed or clothe you or care who you used to be; they won’t see you as a human being and that reduces me to tears. You have nobody left to care for you in the world because you’ve spent your entire life pushing people away and my soul weeps for you; not because you are my father but because you are another human suffering so greatly.
What do I tell people in the future when I meet them and they ask about you? Am I supposed to say that we no longer talk? That you’ve died? Or that I walked away from you to allow you to be the homeless alcoholic you seemed so eager to be? How did it ever come to this Dad? I feel sick just thinking about it.
I spoke to so many people about you, everyone from family to strangers, in the hopes that someone would know and be able to tell me what to do but all I got was people telling me something that I already knew; that after years of your abuse I needed to finally walk away but I wanted different answers; one that didn’t include me walking away from you when you seemingly needed me the most; one that didn’t make me feel like the most horrible daughter and woman in the world and yet there is no denying it; the time has come to say goodbye no matter how soul-destroying it is or how empty, yet hurt, it makes me feel.
I write this to you as a goodbye letter because this is the only way I feel I will ever get it ‘out of my system’ despite the fact that you will never read this; you don’t even know I write because our ‘relationship’ has always been about you. And so, I write this for myself, to try and close a door shattered beyond repair hoping that this time, it will stay shut.
It hurts beyond words to think that we said goodbye without a single word shared between us and that ultimately, I may never know when you truly die. I said goodbye to a man I haven’t loved in years and yet it still hurts me beyond words to do it. I’m not upset because you are my Dad and I love you because as sad as it is to say it, I don’t love you; I’m upset because you have wilted away like a flower with no desire to fight for life.
I imagine a stranger will find your body with no I.D. on you and they will never know you have a daughter to tell but our relationship has already died.
My 28-year-old self knows that you can’t help someone that doesn’t want to be helped.
My 10-year-old self wants her Dad.
I don’t know which breaks my heart more.
I’m truly sorry for leaving you Dad; you will never know or understand how much this hurts.
You died today. You died.
Oh, Toni, thank you for this. Our stories are so similar, but I was deep in my 30’s before I drew a firm boundary with my father. After that he made my life even more of a living hell, including sending someone to threaten to kidnap my son. When he died I did the happiness dance. Wishing you deep healing and a long life full of love and happiness.
I’m not a writer so I don’t have the right words to explain how much this touched my heart. Thank you for reminding me I am not the only one to feel this way. I hope you find the peace you deserve and continue to share your feelings through writing because you probably have no idea the lives you are helping by doing so xo
I, myself am the daughter of a homeless, mentally ill, alcoholic father who is now deceased. He passed away 1 week after my 18 th b’day. Coping with his lifelong chemical addictions, mental illness and horrible alcohol induced death at a local homeless encampment has been a long uphill battle with many stages of grief. Alcoholism and mental illness is a b**ch. It is often unexplainable why our alcoholic parent can’t be the parent we need. Why would my dad choose to medicate his mental health issues with alcohol? Do you know how many times I asked this question of my single mother, my dad, youth counselors. There is no rhyme. I will forever miss the memory of what could have been… R.I.P. Scotty