Recently, I sat at dinner with my friend Fred discussing a writing project that involved using my high school journals and the lessons I learned from my years of running competitively in cross country and track. I said something about the difficult relationship I had with my dad and how I debated including that. Fred looked puzzled and asked, “I thought you and your dad were good buddies?”
At that point, I realized that Fred didn’t know about those years with my dad, the years when my three siblings and I and our mom, struggled to maintain a relationship with him. It was only in the last ten or so years that it changed for him. And us.
Sadly, he wasn’t a happy man. I believe that life disappointed him. He married because he was expected to. Over their forty-plus years of marriage, my parents built two houses, ensuring enough room for their growing family. And each house took them further from the Chicago city limits where they spent their young lives. The suburban dream, but not so golden and happy.
Although I couldn’t understand his anger and his need for alcohol, I now see it was his attempt to fill an emptiness. Maybe he thought a family would do it because he’d been raised to believe that’s what he was supposed to. It didn’t work. He turned to Old Milwaukee and Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Instead, we all felt his animosity toward us, not understanding he was manifesting his own frustration that life wasn’t what he hoped it would be. Feelings of sadness and frustration culminated with my younger sister's suicide in 1993 and then my dad's stroke in 1996.
Somewhere along the way, my relationship with him changed. I was the only child he drove back and forth to college. He visited me periodically, bringing me Styrofoam coolers filled with Budget Gourmet dinners. Working at the Daily News kept me too busy to think much about grocery shopping. And I learned that by bringing me frozen food, he could show his love in some way that he couldn’t through any emotional means. When I moved to New Mexico for graduate school, it was Matt’s cookies (not available nationally at the time) and cans of mushrooms he could weigh the car down with on his visits with my mom twice a year. And when my first book, the one about my sister’s suicide was released, he wouldn’t read it, but he’d sell a copy to the cashier at the local grocery store.
By then, I had accepted that this was the relationship I would have with him. I had to let go of the sadness I felt for the childhood relationships friends had with their dads or that I watch my male friends have with their kids. I last saw him as Mom pulled out of the driveway to take me back to O’Hare in December 2005. He stood in the driveway smoking one of his usual cigarettes. Two weeks later he died on New Year’s morning.
In that first year after he died, I simultaneously coped with doctoral coursework, several suicide prevention contracts in New Mexico, and a husband with a head injury. My father's death shook me. I knew he wouldn't live forever. I just didn’t expect to lose him when I was thirty-five. Father’s Day made me angry in a way I didn’t expect. There was no one to buy a card for. I had to keep walking past that row, the one we’re not supposed to miss, in Target.
However, during that year, I began to find the coins. I didn’t think anything of them at first. I had always heard the stories about “pennies from Heaven.” I had a boyfriend once who annoyingly would drop any penny he pulled out of his pocket that wasn’t “heads.” He believed the “tails” pennies were bad luck.
That fall, we traveled to Florida for our usual vacation in Ft. Myers with a stop at Disney World. In the motel parking lot, as I was packing the rental car with our luggage, I looked down to see a penny with a hazelnut. That was the connection. I finally got it. I’m sure if I didn’t get it on that day, I later would have been hit in the head with a hazelnut. My dad’s life was about money. He lived it, breathed it, held it over our heads. And he loved to garden, telling our once new neighbors that he was the neighborhood “arborist.” I would find another penny at the airport on our way home.
I began to understand the connection we still hold with our loved ones, even when the relationship was complicated or difficult. Although my dad’s life seemed defined by his unhappiness, I began to see him as someone who supports me on my life journey from a place where he can.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad. Thanks for all the coins.
Michelle Linn-Gust, Ph.D., is an international author and speaker about finding hope after loss and change. She is the author of several books including Rocky Roads: The Journeys of Families through Suicide Grief and Ginger's Gift: Hope and Healing Through Dog Companionship. Her first book, based on the suicide of her younger sister Denise, Do They Have Bad Days in Heaven? Surviving the Suicide Loss of a Si..., inspired siblings around the world in their survival after a loved one’s suicide. She is the President of the American Association of Suicidology and lives in Albuquerque, N.M. Read more about Michelle at www.michellelinngust.com.