An abandoned child grows up and one day buries her estranged father
BY JOANN STEVELOS
MY COUSIN FOTI CALLED. It was about my father. “He’s living alone in a motel on Western Ave. Bob came up in conversation at a family gathering. I asked around and sure enough I found him. He’s in rough shape. Not well at all. He’s frail, quite malnourished,” Foti said, his old world formality made the news feel less dire, just factual. Foti took the time to ask me how I was, and how my family was fairing in the cold snap that had hit the Northeast. I’m fine. We’re fine.
I knew the hotel Foti spoke of. And I knew my father lived there as well. It was a six room motel behind a grungy diner. Each hovel had one small window and a dilapidated door that led into a place my imagination refused to go. It’s the same way I don’t want to go down cellar on a stormy night to fix the fuse box when a light blows. I passed this sediment of loneliness motel about three to four times per month. Sometimes I took the back route to avoid having to avoid thinking about my father sitting in a motel fatigued, hopeless, languishing alone. I was a passerby, I told myself. Just a passerby.
Foti told me he tried to persuade my father to move to St. Sophia’s Senior Housing, but he refused. “He’s unkempt and ornery,” Foti reported with a sigh. “He made poor choices, Jo. We’re intervening on behalf of our family allegiance to your grandparents who helped bring us to America. We’re helping him for Anastasia and Jorgi. I understand how much he has hurt all of you. It’s something that’s hard to forgive, yet necessary. But you know that.”
The next time I heard from my father’s side of the family was by text. My father was in the emergency room at Albany Medical Center. He had asked for me.
“I have your daughter on the phone Mr. Steve,” said a kind-sounding physician.
“Which one?” my father shouted.
“Jo—JoAnn. May I speak wither about your condition?”
“Yes, of course, she’s my daughter.”
My father’s voice was shallow, labored and agitated. His reclusive lifestyle surely didn’t mesh with the very public experience of being sick, very sick, in a hospital he only passed on the way to Off-Track-Betting. After the call, I retrieved a photo of him I always kept stashed in the top drawer of my dresser. He was young and fit. A handsome man with a deliberate smirk. He looked like Hogan of “Hogan’s Heroes”. How did the man in this photo become so vulnerable, a possible dialysis patient, and shouting his last wishes at doctor on a cell phone with his forsaken daughter trying to navigate the tender narrative unfolding?
“So your Dad is quite sick,” said the kind-sounding physician.
“Well, that’s the thing, he’s not my Dad—we’re estranged. I guess that is the correct word— estranged.”
“Sorry to hear that. Seems like a nice guy.
“I haven’t seen him in 25 years.”
“Well, Dad got here just in time.”
“I’d appreciate it if you’d stop calling him Dad. His name is Bob.”
“Bob got here just in time,” the kind sounding physician corrected himself, accepting my terms.
“What’s the plan?”
“There’s no plan, he should be on dialysis but…do you think he’d want to go on dialysis?” “I’ve no idea what he wants, or even who he is. I’m sure he doesn’t even know what day I was born.”
“Okay, I’ll talk to Dad—Bob—about his options.”
“Thank you. You’re the first person who has ever said anything kind about my father to me.”“I understand. Don’t worry.”
I didn’t worry. Instead I perseverated on every word I exchanged with the kind-sounding physician. Why was I trying to help my father? Would he do the same for me? He was my father. If my father truly loved me he would have stayed, or taken me with him. He would have protected me and kept me safe. When I began to understand that his actions did not have to be the voice in my head, my world shifted. When I chanted Om So Hum in yoga class it was true. I am. It was enough to be. I was enough.
I included my father in my Metta mediation everyday. May my father enjoy happiness and the root of happiness. May my father be free from suffering and the root of suffering. May my father always be near the great happiness and feel its warmth and light. May my father dwell in the great equanimity filled with abundance, prosperity, joy, happiness, health, love trust, dreams, and hope. I felt these words in the depths of my heart followed by gratitude which was often interrupted by this thought—wow, this takes such a fucking long time. I wish I could show you an easier path from rejection—to acceptance—to a place of peace, but I barely found the way myself. For me it looked like this. I adopted three different strategies over the years to cope with my father’s abandonment. First, I moved toward people and did so with little skill in understanding healthy boundaries. I was egoless. My main job everyday was to be nice enough, kind enough, low maintenance enough, so that no one would ever leave me—ever again. I sustained some important relationships by doing this but after being trampled, betrayed, and vulnerable to predatory behaviors, a roaring unapologetic force shattered the niceness. Suddenly I no longer wanted to accommodate, please, navigate, negotiate, persuade, or explain anything to anyone. I didn’t plan my second strategy, I crashed into it. I moved away—not physically but mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. I kept secrets. I scrounged for time alone where I could feel sad and not have to explain anyone why. I crossed boundaries with a dizzying speed. I upended relationships and hurt others so badly that I wince with the knowledge that I may never be wholly forgiven. I struggled to work, to be a good mother to my son, to be a sister, a friend.
Then I began running. Whole days were planned around when I would run, how long I could run for, and when would I run again. As a child I was always running away. I was the black sheep with a small voice, tiny dreams, but an inexplicable fondness for fighting back. The fire in me helped me with my final strategy, where I still reside. Fight back! I was fighting to love my father despite him.
I meditated on this—why do I want a guy to love me who had no interest in me? How much more heart break could I take? How much anger could I live with? My father was dying; do I have a right to still be furious with him? Where was my compassion? Where was my long tendency to practice loving kindness? Who was I to judge another?
He was in Albany Medical Center. Just five blocks from my house. He was suffering from a long list of co-morbidities that included: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cancer of some kind, end stage renal disease, and an aneurysm waiting to happen. Should I go to him? Should I have hung up on the doctor and told him to tell my father I was coming. I was coming. Your daughter Jo would be there soon. Would those words have comforted my father? Helped him die in peace and with his dignity? Would those words have helped his lost soul surge into a new energy stream? Would it have helped his karmic destiny—to be forgiven—to be tended to during his final hour despite his abandonment and lack of concern for four children he never provided for? These were questions that couldn’t be answered. They smashed up against the smallness of one man who tried his best to live his life on this Earth. I breathed like I had practiced—long deep breaths into my lungs. As if feeling my breath fill my body and leave my body was the answer. It wasn’t. But in my silent moments of prayer and meditation, I wish my dad well. I wished my dad free from sorrow. I wished my dad knew who I was so he could miss me too. I wished he felt the loss of not knowing each other the same way I did. Maybe he did. The loudness of his voice, his declaring me his daughter. This had not happened before. He had acknowledged that I was his daughter, but only when death loomed at his bedside.
My father died in the spring. He was 86 years old. He was stubborn and stoic, alone, in pain, and struggling to be understood. He was partially deaf with poor eyesight and was blessed with a kind caring physician who yelled loud enough so that my father could get the gist of what he was saying. He was moved from the ER to a nursing home that was ravaged with Covid-19. Bob got it. When did he understand that no one was coming for him? Did he languish in the realization that there weren’t going to be any final good byes, or acts of forgiveness?
One of three final calls came over Easter weekend, a nurse left a voicemail message. “I’m here with your Dad. You should come soon. I can help you make arrangements. He’s comfortable.” I didn’t visit. The next call came. I didn’t answer to hear that he had passed. Instead I went out for a run with my husband. Each footfall was a protest against the eternal news of his death. Each breath simmered with a sadness I had never experienced. My rage had a target now—kill the sentimentality seeping from my overwhelmed heart. I told my husband after our run, only because the third call had come. The funeral home wanted to make arrangements. “I don’t know him. Call his family.” For the next few weeks, I vacillated between grief, anger, sadness, and disbelief. A ritual I knew all too well.
Why did I grieve for him? Why, for the love of god, do I care that this man was dead? I asked this everyday as I prayed for him until I understood. I was grieving as a daughter grieves. I would never be anyone’s daughter again. A role I had always been infatuated with. When I saw dads with their daughters, I thought—how lucky to be protected, to be guided, to have a north star at the ready. Bob—my dad—my estranged father kept teaching me that we are hard-wired to love the people who created us, even if they hurt us more then anyone on earth. Time and time again, I let myself relearn that lesson, and each time it was harder, there never was a softer landing. I let myself feel like the fool that kept coming back for more. The fool who refused to learn, as Maya Angelou wisely advised, that when people show you who they are, believe them.
My brother John and I attended the graveside service. Like passersby, we buried our father, with a few cousins in attendance, and a priest who knew my father as a child. We threw couscous and flowers on the coffin and wished our father’s spirit a beautiful journey to heaven. The priest gave a brief eulogy that didn’t elevate our father’s character, nor diminish his time here on earth. He was a man. He made mistakes. We cannot judge. Let his spirit soar. Let forgiveness be his tailwind. Let us passersby rest.
My Buddhist Metta For All Of Us Who Have Lost Our Fathers Due to Estrangement, Neglect, Incarceration, Abuse, Alcoholism, Substance Abuse, Divorce & Death by Suicide
May all beings everywhere, whether near or far, whether known to me or unknown, be happy.
May they be well. May they be peaceful. May they be free.
About the Author
JoAnn Stevelos is a public health advisor, speaker, author and researcher. She is the author of Dream Alibis, a series of poems about finding hope in the aftermath of estrangement, lost love, loneliness, and emotional abuse. The poems segue into Little Red Wagon, a play about a family that has created a temporal divide from a political activist’s death by suicide to the present and explores the layers of grief that tethers the family to one another in conspiratorial silence. Little Red Wagon was performed on the Purple House Radio and as a live stage reading at the University Club. JoAnn’s fiction writing has been published in P.S.I Love You, The Writer, and Medium. Second, You Are Really Nigerian, was published in Arts and Understanding Literary Magazine and received an Honorable Mention Award from Glimmer Train and the Hudson Valley Writer’s Guild. JoAnn’s work has been performed by the Wit and Will Theater and at several artist residencies in collaboration with Ryder Cooley, JD Urban and many others. JoAnn’s nonfiction writing includes a blog for Psychology Today, Children at the Table among other health and wellness websites, magazines, and podcasts. She hold an MS in Bioethics from Albany Medical College, an MPH from the State University of New York, and a BA from Columbia University in Liberal Arts. JoAnn works with national and international organizations on a wide variety of health issues to help create healthier and happier environments for children to grow and learn.