December 21, 2016

Unfinished People: a reflection 15 years after my dad's passing

My dad was wonderful. Ask anyone: His friends, his patients, his students, his family. He is my hero and my inspiration. I’ve written about him here before, but there’s one part of the story that I haven’t shared.

I disappointed him.

Growing up, I was my dad’s girl. We were bookish, inquisitive, and awkward in the same ways. I even looked like him. I have fond memories of reading the encyclopedia together, of Pizza Hut lunches on Sundays, of quizzing each other with my older brother’s SAT vocabulary flashcards.

I was in high school when things began to come apart. I was self-absorbed, deeply sensitive, and determined to establish an identity distinct from my parents. I was a teenager.

My parents picked my college, hoping Carleton would prepare me for law school and a lucrative career. Instead, I fell in love with liberal arts ideals like “Follow your passion” and “Money isn’t everything.” I dyed my hair bright colors, took up smoking, declared an English major, and said I wanted to be a writer. It was a fairly tame rebellion, truth be told. I graduated with honors and I only got tattoos in discreet, easily covered locations, but to my parents I was rejecting their sacrifices and lighting my future on fire. 

Having immigrant parents is like having your life story half-written. Mine begins with, “Her parents fled Communist Poland, risking their lives so that Monica could ____.”

A story like that needs a great ending.

I wasn’t ready to write it when I was 23. 
Sam and I were engaged and lived in a cheap apartment behind the Olive Garden in Reno. I liked my entry-level corporate job, and I felt like I had plenty of time to figure out my future plans.

Then my dad found out he was dying.

He told me that his last wish was for me to enroll in law school immediately.

The last conversations I remember with my dad weren’t warm, sentimental, or inspiring. They were the same fights we’d been having since I was a teenager, amplified by the urgency of cancer and impending grief. I hated the idea of law school and how manipulated I felt. 

I said horrible things to both of my parents. My mother forgave me, in time, but I still don’t know if my father did. He accepted my compromise of going to business school, and he softened toward me in his last few weeks, but I knew he was still disappointed.

When you lose someone important, the relationship just stops. You freeze in that moment, in that time, in that conflict. At 23, I was a messy, unfinished person trying to figure out my place in the world and wrestling with my own emotions and my parents’ complicated legacy. I hate that this is the version of me that my father left on Earth on December 21, 2001.

Fifteen years later, I’m far from perfect, but I am better. I finished my MBA, as I promised my dad, and I have a rewarding career. I have a loving marriage and two good-hearted, smart kids. My mom seems proud of me.

I wonder what our relationship would be like if my dad hadn't died at 59. He was unfinished, too, and I like to think that, given more time, we would have come to understand each other again and connect over books and philosophy and all the things we have in common.

I believe in the afterlife and I believe in signs, but I don’t really get them from my dad. Sometimes, I’ll dream about conversations with him, but I can never quite remember what he says. I have a steady supply of good fortune and an easy way of moving through the world that I sometimes attribute to his love, but I can't be quite sure. I visited a few psychics hoping for a message, but stopped after one asked me whether I was a lawyer.

My mom gets signs from him. He has never left her side.

Two weeks ago, my mom told me about a book that appeared on her bookshelf, a World War II memoir about the same time and place I’m researching for my Poland Project, the novel I am writing about my maternal grandparents. The only possible explanation is that my dad purchased the book on his last trip to Poland in 2001, but my mom swears she had never seen it before.

She took it as a sign that we are – that I am – on the right path. I hope she’s right.

1 comment:

Misha Hettie said...

He wanted the best for you, I imagine, and you're on your way to achieving that.

As a parent, could you imagine having a disappointment so deep it transcended death? Or would you want what you want, but feel satisfied knowing that E and F were doing well?

I can't wait to hear the next chapter in the Poland story; it seems you're on the path to the answers you're seeking.