Happy Father’s Day?

Joey KennedyA hard reminder.

By Joey Kennedy 

Straight up, I’m not crazy about June. Too many bad memories.

My late mother’s birthday is June 12, and I miss her terribly. She died much too young, at age 63, a victim of cancer and a health insurance industry that refused, despite her ability to pay, to offer her the coverage she needed and deserved. Those were the days of being denied health insurance because of “pre-existing conditions.”

Father’s Day also falls in June (June 21 this year). Unlike so many who will celebrate their fathers, both living and gone, I can’t say I miss my father. I didn’t really know him, and Father’s Day is a hard reminder of that.

My sisters and I realized how little we knew my dad at his memorial service in 2009. Both my parents gave their bodies to medical research, so there are no graves to visit. That’s how they wanted it, and we’re OK with that. Unlike at my mother’s memorial service, I wasn’t asked to speak at my father’s, and that’s just as well. My eulogy would have been much different than what took place.

My eulogy would have been a downer.

I wasn’t very good at visiting my father when he was alive, and that’s on me. If I had visited more, perhaps I could have learned to know him better. Instead, I know him bitter.

Dad was an alcoholic. Alcoholism destroyed his marriage to my mother, after more than 20 years. It destroyed his relationship with his children. It destroyed his health. It destroyed his other two marriages. It got him shot. But Dad was a tough man. He lived almost 79 years before surrendering to pneumonia.

My broken relationship with my father was the subject of my master’s thesis at UAB. Several of the stories from that collection have been published in literary journals and magazines. Perhaps one day, the entire collection will be published. I’m proud of that memoir, but it’s not kind to my father—or me. As I was writing it in 2003, I thought it would be cathartic. It wasn’t.

My father suffered a brain-stem stroke in 1988. One of the first questions the doctor asked me when I arrived at the hospital was how long had my father been an alcoholic. The doctor said he could see the evidence on Dad’s CAT scan. If that kind of stroke doesn’t kill you, the doctor said, a strong recovery could be expected. But my father refused physical therapy. For him, the stroke was a godsend because it allowed him to get disability, which, in turn, allowed him to keep enough beer and liquor on hand to feed his habit. Dad spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

In January of 1995, after an evening of drinking and arguing in their tacky, government-subsidized apartment in Dayton, Texas, my father’s third wife shot him in the chest because he wouldn’t get up and walk. The bullet glanced off Dad’s breastbone, clipped the top of his right lung and exited under his right arm. He was flown to Hermann Hospital in Houston, where his life was saved. “Half an inch, and your father would be dead,” the doctor told me.

As fate would have it, my father’s three children ended up caring for him. He lived with Veronica and me in Birmingham for 11 months, and then moved on to south Louisiana where his care was transferred to my sisters. These were not happy times; these were not times of reconciliation. This was duty. My father was difficult and demanding and complained constantly. He wasn’t drinking anymore, but he was still a drunk. From what we saw, he wasn’t social and rarely left his apartment, despite our encouragement. I had never known my father to be racist, yet he would use the N-word around me and Veronica regularly, I think because he knew it would upset us.

One of the last face-to-face conversations I had with my father was in 2008, when he forbade me to vote for that N-word for president. I told him he couldn’t tell me who to vote for and stormed out of his apartment. He apologized the next day, but, really, we were far beyond apologies. After he died in 2009, there was a small memorial service at a Baptist church in Houma, Louisiana. Our family, of course, attended, but we were simply spectators. And though it was a small gathering, we were surprised by those who spoke of my father.

Former coworkers and friends from his apartment complex talked about a man we didn’t know, a man who was there when they needed him. They talked about a kind and generous man who was always grateful for their help and their visits. They talked about a man they could depend on to come through when it counted. My sisters and I looked at each other, questioning our ears. Afterward, people came up to us, hugging us, offering condolences for this stranger who had been in our midst. We nodded at them, hugged them back, and left the church baffled.

Our father was gone, and we knew him not. I don’t know how unique our experience is; I simply know it was our experience. Father’s Day is rightfully a time for folks to honor their fathers, living and dead. To honor them as they see fit.

Still, my sisters and I remain baffled.

8 Responses to “Happy Father’s Day?”

  1. Patti Meg says:

    And that is the past. And your father is a part of the past. Today is the day to start the new traditions and new memories and new happiness. You are now the dad of some awesome pups, foster dad to more, honorary dad to others, you are a role model for so many, a stand in dad for many.
    Celebrate Father’s Day as the patriarch you are! Enjoy it, celebrate it, remember the world needs good fathers, and good father figures- and here you are – a great father to your pups, a great father figure to many, a role model!
    So I will wish you a Happy Father’s Day! And I wish for a day of happiness for you! A day to start these new traditions! A day to love your pugs and see what a great dad you are!
    Happy Sunday Evening to a fabulous man! Hello to your Veronica and hugs and kisses for the pups! You inspire me every single day! Patti Meg

  2. Grace Rihner Sneed says:

    Dearest Joey,
    Thank you so very much for sharing. Both of my daughters will have to read this. It is so similar to what they experienced at their father’s funeral. Many people praised and respected Don Sneed, including you. My daughters and I wonder if he was such a great man and he treated us so badly, there must be something wrong with us. It must be possible to be a good man, but not a good father.

  3. RGD says:

    Joey, I sadly relate. And my father never touched a drop but he probably should have. We learn most of our family skills from our own parents, but that’s no excuse. I was told by my ex wife I treated other alcoholics better than I did her. strangely we often treat those we love worse than friends. I don’t think it’s intentional though if there’s any solace in that. Lastly alcohol is cunning baffling and powerful and patient. Your father wasn’t drinking out of sheer fun, he was drinking because that’s what gave him relief.

  4. Kathy Freeland says:

    Joey, I too have those same feelings. My Dad was a survivor of WWII and Korea but an alcoholic abandoning my sister, brother and me when I was 10. He was an alcoholic when he died. It left a hole in my heart. There was no reconciliation.

  5. Joey, I am so glad you wrote honestly….my father died without reconciliation and I did not cry a tear. I did shed some tears for my mother during that time as they were joined at the hip in their alcoholism ( not acknowledged by either of them ) and their mind-altering devotion to the Jehovah’s Witness religion. Enuf, enuf… about this. I just want to thank you for your honesty and integrity in all your writing. all the best, Rhonda

  6. Doug Gray says:

    i understand.

    Though not to the level of alienation you describe, I did deal with a distant man and came to meet someone , through friends and co-workers, after his death. Wish I had been introduced to the man they knew.

    Wonderful writing.

  7. Hello Joey, I dislike June and the reminder of an absent ( and times I wish he were absent) father, also. He’s an old man now, stubborn and bitter towards his children. I hope he may have a better life with strangers and former players from his coaching days. It took a long time for me to let my hurt and confusion go, too.

  8. Sharon Freeman says:

    I can identify with the writers feelings. They are raw and honest. There will never be clear answers to the crazy questions that are borne from our parents behavior.

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