How My Father Became the Mother I Didn’t Have

(Left) Me and my Dad at a family celebration; (Right) The two of us take flight via helicopter, one of Dad’s favorite aircraft. (Photos courtesy Jody Jones; collage by Anette Earling/TueNight)

Father’s Day (and Mother’s Day). Ugh. For those of who have lost parents and aren’t parents, these days can really suck.

And while we should be celebrating what we once had (assuming we had something wonderful), it’s hard not to wallow in their absence, and what we will never have again. I sometimes wish I believed in heaven or the afterlife or reincarnation. Seems like it would make things a lot more palatable, though probably not any easier. They’re still gone.

Mom got sick when I was about 11 — I have very few memories of my life before she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Through chemo, hair loss, remissions and the returns of the beast, I was always afraid I’d lose my mom, but never really accepted that it would happen. There was a lot of sadness and dread and anger in my formative years, which resulted in life-long fear of abandonment, as well as depression and codependence.

Add to that a father who wasn’t really around. He was busy starting his own small business, working 12 or more hours a day. When he was present, he was pretty harsh about my performance in school, my lack of motivation, or the state of my messy bedroom. (He once told me, “If you want to be a garbage man when you grow up, fine.”) I was never complimented; I couldn’t do anything right. It wasn’t just my room that was messy; according to him, I was a mess. That said, I was never really disciplined — I was just ignored. No yelling, no hitting, no grounding, no nothing. Just shut out for weeks or months at a time. That’s pretty rough on a kid.

Dad and I never talked, we had very few common interests (as far as I could tell) — really not much of a relationship at all.

My siblings recall Dad’s pre-me military days and his tough persona as well. For example, when my oldest sis was learning to drive, Dad made her read a tank operations manual as part of her education. My other sis remembers being forced to learn to fix a toilet at age 14. She also has vivid memories of incidents of gentleness he displayed, because they happened so rarely.

I had these incredible folks (they were deeply loved and highly regarded by all their friends) who weren’t really the parents I (we?) needed them to be. As we say in therapy, they did the best they could.

Mom died when I was in college. After all she (and we) had been through, I actually wanted her to go in the end. She was receiving hospice care at home. She was off treatment and on heavy pain meds. Nurses had wheeled in a hospital bed for her so it could be placed next to Dad’s new twin bed in their room. There was a portable toilet in the corner of their bedroom, and Dad had to carry her to it and help her use it. “This isn’t fair!” Dad would scream. About a week before she died, she stopped talking and making eye contact. Mom was gone.

Since Dad was a decorated Army officer and pilot, and a war vet, Mom was buried in Arlington Cemetery. The last thing I recall seeing at the cemetery was Dad saluting her gravesite. I didn’t think my heart could break any more over Mom, but it did in that moment. After all, he was still my dad.

It was just Dad and I living in the house after she left. We formed a sort of lonely camaraderie, going about our own business, but sharing the space and some dinners together. Maybe Dad started to transform, maybe I did, probably we both did. In any case, I started to see him as the parent I was looking for, the Dad he always had in him.

He agreed to go to grief therapy with me, and I like to think it was good for both of us. He opened up in ways he never had before, telling me about Vietnam and his struggles with Mom. And he said how proud he was of me, which had profound effects. More and more, I was proud of him, too.

He was steady and sure, interested and engaged, and there with advice when I needed it or when he thought I might.

Dad became more tolerant of my seven-year college education plan (depression does a number on your ability to focus and handle even the smallest loads), though I’m sure he still didn’t like it much. He trusted me to open and run one of his businesses, and when it was time for me to go, he sent me off with love (and some cash, too, which helped me buy my first car and house). I knew I would miss him as I took off for the next stage of my life.

He loved talking to me about work. Dad educated himself on the latest technology, and asked me my opinions on media and Internet stuff and corporate America. We were peers in a way, but he was always a guiding force when it came to decisions, great or small. He was steady and sure, interested and engaged, and there with advice when I needed it or when he thought I might.

Dad even talked to me about my love life, all Mom-like. He didn’t judge when I cried and said I was in love with a married man. He just consoled me for my pain.

Watching him with my nieces and nephews was awesome. Some of them never knew Mom, and it seemed he was making up for that — being both grandparents all rolled up into one. He went to Barbie’s ballet recitals, not a typical dude thing. He hit soccer tourneys and volleyball games and family picnics and whatever else we cooked up. He was — dare I say — jolly and happy with them and with all of us… most of the time, anyway. And damn was he protective of those kids. Perhaps too much so, sometimes.

One year, I surprised Dad at church on Mother’s Day Sunday. During the sharing of joys and concerns (hippie Unitarian stuff, but something we treasure as a community), I stood up and told the congregation that Dad had become a mother to me; that I was so grateful and amazed to have this fabulous man as my “parents.” Ever the emotional Irishman, Dad cried.

He died one night in September, sixteen years after Mom had, rather suddenly. He had what he thought was a stomach virus, but it escalated quickly — in a day. Pancreatitis. I didn’t make it to the hospital in Virginia from NYC until after he had the “heart incident” that left him without the ability to communicate. When I got there, from what my siblings said, his blood pressure went up (in a good way) and he seemed to know I had arrived. He grabbed my hand and squeezed. Later that evening he passed away.

I guess it would have been worse for him if he had suffered through a prolonged illness like Mom had. But it seemed so much worse for us. Where had our patriarch gone, so suddenly? How could we go on?

We kind of didn’t for a while. My siblings and I were in a tailspin, just trying to get out of bed each day, to put one foot in front of the other. We were orphans, too soon. How do you recover from that? It takes a lifetime of grieving and coping, I suppose.

After Mom died I thought I had been through the worst life had to offer, and that nothing else could ever hurt me more.

I was wrong.

LTC. Charles R. Jones, I salute you back.

And happy Father’s Day, Daddy.

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