“John, I need to tell you that I got some bad news,” he said. He looked sad, it was obvious that this was a conversation that he didn’t want to have. On the other hand, I had been preparing for this conversation for about a month. However, I had no clue that our conversation would end the way that it did.
As my father entered his eighties, he had begun to show signs of memory loss. Up until this point he had always been a strong and healthy man. Although he had only attended school up to the third-grade, he was brilliant. More specifically, he had extraordinary insight regarding the planting and harvesting of chile peppers and alfalfa. Nevertheless, as the years passed by, his strength and ability to farm had decreased significantly. Little by little he began to forget things. He also seemed to lose track of time. It’s as if his brain had been kidnapped and taken in a time-machine to the past. He began to talk about events of the past as if they were currently taking place. My mother grew concerned and took him to the doctor. Just as we had feared, he had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
About a year before this conversation, I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico to try spreading my wings of independence. I was in my early twenties and wanted to experience freedom. Santa Fe was only a three-and-a-half-hour drive from my parent’s home. My parents were not thrilled about the move. I, on the other hand, was having the time of my life.
In the middle of my young-adult adventure, I received a phone call from my father. Prior to this, I have no memory of my father ever picking up the phone to call me. I was shocked to hear his voice on the line. As always, he was direct and to the point. He told me that he needed me to come home right away because he needed to talk to me. My mother had already talked to me about his condition, so I made plans to go to the farm over the weekend.
Although I was already twenty-two at the time, I was a bit nervous to talk with him. Somehow, I spent life, up until my high-school graduation, living under the same roof as my father, without ever having a “real” conversation with him. I recognize that this sounds a bit odd. However, my family dynamics, are just that, “odd”. I happen to be my father’s youngest son from his second marriage. My father was sixty-one years old when I was born. To say that the age-gap caused challenges in our relationship would be an understatement. Everything about the way that we related with each other was encountered with difficulty. I was young and could not understand his way of doing things. And poor guy, let’s just say that raising a teenager in his seventies was more challenging than running the family farm. As I reflect on my seventeen years of life in my parent’s home, I realize that conversation with him consisted of him giving me instructions to do something, or scolding me regarding a behavior that he did not approve of. I have no memories of him asking me how my day went or what I planned to do for my future. Simply stated, we just didn’t talk. If we did talk it would usually end in an argument between the both of us. While, most families enjoy sitting around the table eating and having conversation, we were instructed to eat in silence. Only my father could speak at the table. Because of this, I opted to avoid conversation with him at all cost. However, there was one thing that both of us enjoyed doing. We both loved hymns. The only deep connection that I ever felt with my father was when I accompanied him on the piano while he sang his favorite church songs. In my heart I am positive that my father loved me, and there is no doubt in my heart that I loved him. Nevertheless, I always longed for so much more than the shallow relationship that we had.
Arriving on the farm that day brought me a smile. I drove up to find my father, up in a tree, trimming it. He seemed strong and healthy as ever. He seemed happy that I had come. I was happy to be there too. Although, I was enjoying my new-found-freedom, I missed my parents terribly. After eating a hearty meal, prepared by mother, my dad asked me to follow-him to the living room so he could speak to me. As we sat down he said, “John, I need to tell you that I got some bad news.” This was the part of the conversation that I had prepared for. I had already cried at my apartment, on my own, and was prepared to not shed a tear. “The doctor told me that I have Alzheimer’s,” he said in broken English. As I planned, I did not allow one tear to drop, but then he continued to speak, “since you are never going to get married, you are going to have to take care of your mother once I’m no longer able to.” There was a long pause of silence. This was the part of the conversation that I had not prepared for. Nothing prepared me for the flood of thoughts that rushed into my mind. I had just ended a relationship with a girl that I had been dating for about a year. Did he not approve of my decision? At the time I was quite self-conscious of my teeth. Out of seven siblings, I was the only one who had fluorosis. The stains on my teeth, caused by this condition, tore at my self-esteem (especially when it came asking a girl on a date). Did he think that I was too ugly to get married? When I was little one of his best friends hurt me. Did he think that I was damaged goods? Was what he was telling me true? Was I destined to never get married? All these questions felt like a time bomb exploding inside me, but before I could prevent any damage, I let out a yell and stood to my feet. “Satan, I will not accept the curse that you just spoke over my life.” I shouted. “You will not use my father to speak evil into my life.” I must have sounded like a televangelist as I spoke with authority (I am so glad that there were no neighbors within hearing distance). Looking into my father’s eyes, I said matter-of-factly, “I will take care of my mother. I will make sure that she is provided for. However, I want you to know that I believe that God is preparing a wife for me. She will be beautiful. I will love her, and she will love me… and there is nothing that you or anyone can do to stop that plans that God has for me.” My father stood in shock, speechless, as I reached over, gave him a hug, told him that I loved him, and left.
It’s been about eighteen years since this conversation took place. Around seven years after, my father passed away. While I have no doubt that my father is currently in the presence of his Savior, I’m still here, navigating through life, and trying to make sense of it all. One of the largest challenges that I face, on an almost-daily-basis, it to find balance between celebrating my inheritance of work-ethic, faith, and integrity, while simultaneously mourning the void of a lack of an emotional connection with him. And like clockwork, this struggle becomes even more real, each year, from May 10th (his birthday) until Father’s Day. In recent years, I’ve recruited the help of a counselor to help me work through my feelings surrounding this matter. Here are a few things that I’ve learned through this journey.
Feeling guilty for having “feelings” is ludicrous.
During my teen years, I went out to buy my dad a Father’s Day card. What I encountered broke my heart. Each card was filled with fluffy prose that described a close relationship between a father and child. None of them described the relationship that I had with mine. After spending several minutes reading through cards, and being unable to select one, I left the store in tears. I felt sad, I felt hurt, I felt envious of what others had, but most of all I felt guilty. The guilt turned to shame….. and instead of addressing my feelings, I pretended like everything was alright.
I’ve since learned that my feelings are God given receptors that I can use to navigate my journey in life. I’ve learned that acknowledging my feelings, is much more productive than feeling guilty about them. It’s only through acknowledging them that I’m able to push through and move forward in life.
Trying to “get-over it” resolves nothing. Moving forward to “get-through it” builds character and strength.
When I first began to share my feelings, on this matter, I received all sorts of advice. However, the most common thing told to me was, “You need to get-over it”. However, my attempt to follow their advice caused me to repress my feelings. For quite some time, my emotional health could be compared to a bottle of soda-pop that had been violently shaken and was waiting to surprise any person who dared to open it. In turn, my emotional pain began to manifest in other ways. It was a mess. Heck, I was a mess. That was “hands down” the worst advice ever
However, I’ve since learned, that the only way to get through something is to consciously decide to go “through it.” In the shepherd’s psalm, King David, says, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me.” This gives me the understanding that sometimes life’s journey is going to feel like death. However, God promises to never leave me alone. For me, healing began as gave myself permission to feel. Healing continued as I gave myself permission to be myself, and to not pretend anymore.
We all have the right to share our story.
When I finally decided to work through the pain of my story, I had a family member try to silence me. Her solution? She believed that I needed to go to her church and have the elders cast a spirit of unforgiveness out of me. Talk about having an awkward conversation. I wasn’t harboring hatred or ill-will. What I was experiencing was emptiness….. and at the same time gratitude for a legacy of greatness. It was a very personal struggle, but the struggle was mine, it was real, and although I’ve worked through it, it resurfaces from time to time. However, I refuse to allow the uneasiness, fear, or shame of others keep me from owning this as part of my life’s story.
John Eli Garay
John Eli has spent over 15 years mentoring and coaching individuals in life skills, career transitions, and through organizational change. His resume includes pastoral care, behavioral health, and higher-education advising. From an early age, John recognized that God created him to bring hope, healing and encouragement to others. He is currently walking out his purpose by helping others confront, and work through, self-inflicted trauma. His ministry includes blogging, speaking, and personal development coaching. He currently lives in Chandler, Arizona with his wife, mini-schnauzer and an antique piano whom he calls, “Betty.”