I’ve been meaning to post this for what seems like forever! On March 10, I got an article published in the New York Times, called “My Grandmother’s Story Is Ending as Mine Begins.”
My grandmother knew she’d succumb to dementia long before she began to lose her memory, as her two older sisters had shared the same fate before they died. She fought against time to write her life story, but she will never see her dream realized.
While you’re here, I recently got another article published, this time in Ravishly, called “‘This Is Us’ Mirrors Watching My Absent Black Father Die of Cancer.”
I have a penchant for multigenerational family dramas. Brothers and Sisters, Parenthood, Six Feet Under — they all make me feel connected to my own family, which is more like Full House than The Brady Bunch. Aunts, uncles, cousins, and a strong matriarch make up the fabric of my day-to-day life. So when This Is Usdebuted, I was all in. What I didn’t expect is that it would touch my heartstrings in a way I hadn’t prepared for.
I’ve gotten behind in posting my latest articles to my blog! Without further ado, here is a researched piece from last month. I interviewed four women about their experiences with an alcoholic parent, if the parent was able to get sober, and if they were able to reconcile with their parent. This article was inspired by feedback I got from a father in recovery who wanted to know how he could reconcile with his daughter the way my father and I weren’t able to.
On Reconciliation With an Alcoholic Parent
For many parents who struggle with addiction, getting sober is only half the battle. Children often become “young soldiers” in an effort to protect themselves and those they love, including the parent. As the child gets older, forgiveness and reconciliation can become more difficult, even long after the parent has stopped using. My father never stopped using. My mother read an article recently in which I discussed the “demons” my dad saw as he was dying of lung cancer. “He was probably going through withdrawals,” she said. In the fifteen years since his death, I had never made that connection.
When I was a little girl, I looked up to my dad the way most little girls look up to their fathers. I liked watching the way he’d cross his legs while he smoked his pipe in contemplation. I liked lifting my dumbbell while he lifted his barbell. I liked telling people that my ex-prison father could beat them up at a moment’s notice.
My parents split up when I was three, but I still saw my dad fairly regularly—until he moved three hours away when I was seven. It was when my dad moved back to our area at the start of middle school that he started to fall from his pedestal.
Last Friday I did a reading for Camp Real Pants at Astroetic Studios in Downtown L.A. The event was an offshoot of the AWP (Association for Writers & Writing Programs), and as I could afford to attend the conference itself, it was nice to be somewhat near the action, and right in the thick of a related event.
In honor of the reading, my friend Mike put together lovely chapbooks, which are currently for sale. “(not) Mixed (up) Messages: On Dads, Death and Mixed Race Daughterhood” is a combination of excerpts from my memoir and a couple of my published articles. All blend together to poignantly wrestle with the three Ds mentioned above. I’m still at work on the memoir but am excited to share some of the finished pages with anyone who’s been following my journey, and with those who haven’t!
“Shannon is a fearlessly vulnerable, beautiful, and brave voice. Her stories and experiences inspire me to accept myself for who I am—to be myself and not who others tell me to be.”
When my dad died, it didn’t feel like he went to heaven or hell, or to any other afterlife that man could imagine. Instead, it just felt like he ceased to exist. That in his last breaths, he just vanished. A man who once was and would never be again.
In the years since he’s been gone, though, I’ve felt him closer to me, even closer than he was in life. I don’t expect anyone to really understand what I mean, unless they too have lost a parent. Sure, we say things like, “He knows,” when someone wishes her father had been alive to watch her graduate from college. We say, “He’s still with you.” “He’s watching over you.” But I never could have understood the depth and truthfulness of these statements until I was the one who was experiencing them.
Things hit me now in a way they never would have previously. At the end of Flight, I broke down in tears in the middle of the movie theater. At the end of Interstellar just now, I did the same thing. I won’t give away either of the endings, for those who haven’t yet seen these amazing movies, but let’s just say that they touched a chord in ways they never would have had my father not been dead, even though I’ve been extremely sentimental my whole life.
When my dad died, I felt nothing, even though I felt like I should. I was too close to our disconnect to really appreciate and understand the man that he was. I was 24 at his funeral, which I organized and put on myself. I hardly knew the man I was saying goodbye to. Over the next 15 years, I slowly began to uncover who my dad was, largely through my mom’s memories of his memories, even though they hadn’t been together since I was three. I’ve also uncovered the man he was through his various paperwork throughout life that I’d tucked away after his death and then forgotten, probably in a way to protect myself from grief. Newspaper clippings, essays, letters to me… All artifacts that describe a life forgotten, or a life never fully known.
As each year passes, I become even more obsessed with connecting with my father, and with each passing year he feels closer to me than he did the year before. It’s almost as if I could reach out and touch him, or as if even that would be too limiting, because his presence is more palpable than anything related to skin or bone.
When I was about 11, my dad almost died of stomach cancer. After his recovery, he recounted an out-of-body experience on the operating table. He remembers the pads shocking him back to life, and he remembers watching himself from a corner of the room and wondering whether to return. My dad returned because he felt like his life was destined to be great.
My dad died on Section 8 housing and he hadn’t paid rent in about three months. His death would be swift but painful… There were only three weeks between his lung cancer diagnosis and his last breath. He died in a nursing home after reaching for his urinal which was placed a little too far away. My dad, the fighter, died after falling out of bed, just because he needed to pee.
My dad never reached the greatness that he felt he was destined for. But, maybe, I was his greatness. Maybe my half-brother Robert, and my half-brother Marc, are his greatness. Maybe his greatness is in the siblings we’ll never know and the ones we don’t even know we have.
Sometimes I feel like I don’t really exist. It seems impossible somehow to really be somewhere when my dad has passed on. How can I have arms and legs and words and breath if my dad has none? How can I wake up every morning if he never can? It’s not that I think I can’t live without him. Rather, it’s that it just doesn’t make sense. If he’s not really here, how can I still be?
My dad gives me little clues that he’s still around. I won’t even mention them here, because a blog post can’t do them justice. Let’s just say he’s still looking down, not from heaven, but from love, and it’s a love that transcends words and time, and instead exists in a higher dimension.