Complicated Fathers

By Dr. Patricia L. Bay, Psy.D.
Published in W Magazine, June 2011

My relationship with my dad was complicated. I never fully realized just how convoluted it was until I wrote his eulogy. It was easy to expound on his honor, integrity, work ethic and his service to our country in the Navy. Harder to explain, was the challenge to understand what made him tick — to understand what made up the fabric of our relationship — father to daughter.

After my dad died following eight years of a decline into Alzheimer's, I found a letter I wrote 20 years ago to him on Father's Day. I don't know whether the letter made me cry because of what I wrote or because he kept it in his drawer all those years. The fact that it must have touched his heart in order for him to treasure it, astounded me on one level and made sense regarding the man I knew him to be.

The amazing thing about the letter was that I wrote, almost word-for-word, the things that I told my dad on his deathbed. The morning after a wonderful family dinner, where he was more present than we had experienced him in a year, my dad had a massive stroke. We kept him at home and he was dying in his bed surrounded by family.

I found myself alone with Dad as he lay dying. I remember leaning on the headboard, stroking Dad's hair and talking to him as his breath rattled in his chest. "You are a good man, Dad. You have always loved your family to the best of your ability and have been a wonderful provider. No, you haven't been perfect, but you have always been here. I know that you worry that you failed us in some way, but I'm telling you that is not true. It's not about being perfect. It's about showing up. It's about never giving up. Above all, we know that you loved us and know that we all love you, too. Die in peace, knowing you have been a good daddy."

Until that moment, Dad had seemed comatose. As I spoke those words to him, I watched a tear slide down his temple. He died 15 minutes later with all of us gathered around. I feel as though he took that final "letter" with him. Our relationship was complicated, yes, but the love was real.