I always loved being able to make my dad laugh. I loved making him happy and I wanted him to be proud of me. Is that so different from what any of us want? As human beings, we look to parents or caregivers for love, support, and encouragement. Unfortunately, that is not possible for some people. I realize that I was very fortunate growing up. I feel ridiculous trying to even compare my story with others’ stories on this site. I’ve worked with people who never had anyone in their life freely meet these needs, and worse had the person or people that were to provide for them abuse them or cause them harm. This was not my experience. My dad was not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. He was human. He had a difficult, horrific childhood. He could be passive-aggressive, lacked empathy sometimes, and bullied my mom in front of us kids. Overall though, my parents were great parents. They did the best they could with what they had. And if I’m going to be honest, I’ll admit that it wasn’t until recently that I realized the ways in which my dad was a good dad.
As cheesy as it is to say, his love language was quality time. I know that because my mom would complain about how he would want her to be with him when he watched TV and movies in the evening. He didn’t want to necessarily talk with her, but just wanted her company. He was the same with my three older sisters and me. He planned exhaustively long family road trips in an oversized, non-air-conditioned van. He would not have done that if he hated spending time with us. As I went into high school, he came to my cross-country meets (for the one season I ran), every basketball game that he could get to (which was almost all of them), and invited me to the movies and lunch with my mom every chance he had. When I got to college and moved out, every time he saw me he would ask, “When are you going to stop throwing away your money and move back home?”
My favorite thing about my dad was the way in which he cared for me. He did things to show he was thinking of me. He kept newspaper clipping of my basketball stats, even when I scored just one point. I used to spend hours shooting hoops in our driveway. I would get home from practice and shoot some more in the dark for as long as my mom would let me. He used to nag me about how bad that was for my eyes to strain in the dark so he bought me a light to put outside.
I have specific memories of him being really uncomfortable in order to show care, like shielding my eyes to take me to the men’s restroom when he took me to Disneyland or going with me into a doctor’s appointment when I was a teenager. This may have also been related to his paranoia that my sisters or I were going to be kidnapped at some point in our childhood. He would nag my sisters and I about locking the front door when no one else was home. He would never let us walk anywhere even in high school without an adult. I used to think he was overprotective, but I think about him wanting to keep me safe and I get it now. I’m thankful for that now.
My dad also taught me about Jesus. With great angst and passion he expressed how important it was to read God’s word and to pursue every opportunity to share my faith with others, to not waste time. “Life is too short,” he would say. My dad would cry, just cry when reading almost anything, but most consistently he would cry when he read the Bible. The way he spoke of heaven… there was nothing else he looked forward to with such joy. I will never forget the look on his face when I went down to Mexico with him once. We handed out Bibles to kids in a little neighborhood, and he looked at me and said, “You’re doing it! This is it. Isn’t this easy?!”
It was my graduation day: May of 2011. I was getting my masters degree and walking in the ceremony: cap and gown, the whole getup. My boyfriend at the time was also receiving his degree in the same ceremony, which was meaningful to us both. My dad had been talking about not coming because of some health concerns, but I assumed it was because he has never liked big crowds. He never liked these types of things. He would come to my basketball games, but he would get there an hour early and sit in the back away from everyone else. Although I was somewhat annoyed that he did not want to be at my graduation, I was understanding and also acknowledged that he had watched me do all of this many times before. I also knew that it likely was not the last graduation either. “He would have other opportunities to be with me at meaningful moments in my life,” I told myself.
I was wrong. I had no idea that my dad wouldn’t live to see another Christmas.
He ended up calling an ambulance that day right before my graduation because of a severe headache that would not go away. They discovered a tumor a little smaller than the size of a baseball in his skull. He went through surgery just a short week or so later and almost immediately started chemo and radiation. It is still surreal to think that this actually happened to our family.
My boyfriend of 8 years proposed to me in August, and we started planning a wedding to take place within four months with the hopes that my dad could walk me down the aisle. In September, less than four months after his diagnosis, my dad decided that he was not going to go back to see another doctor. The days to come were full of frustration for his doctors, my family, and I who couldn't understand what was happening. Why was he just giving up? To this day, I don’t understand it. I have no real answer, except to say that he wanted to be in heaven. He was just so done with this world and this life, feeling depressed and never feeling like he could rely on anyone may do that to a person. I don’t know. He did not make it to my wedding in person, but I know he didn’t miss a minute of it.
When Ryan asked me to write this, I dragged my feet for quite some time because I couldn’t figure out what the purpose would be for me to write it. When I finally sat down to do it, I realized what I’d been avoiding. It isn’t easy to relive painful moments in life. At the end of his life, I felt like that my dad didn’t care about his family or me, he didn’t care that he wouldn’t dance with me at my wedding the way he did with my three older sisters, and all he wanted was to end his pain. I thought that was selfish at the time.
However, there is more to the story and the reason I am writing about this experience is to share how I have healed, how I’m still healing and where God has intervened. How I made it through was fairly easy at first because I was planning a wedding, working a part-time job, and had just started my first semester in doctoral program in clinical psychology. I was busy and it was easy to avoid feelings.
The month after my wedding, I was taking a class with a professor who had been fighting cancer for 10+ years. I instantly clung to her. If anyone was going to understand what I had been through, it was her and she did or at least she tried to, which is what I needed. At a retreat I went on with her and other students the following January, she told me, “Nina, I didn’t get why your dad just gave up and why it seemed he wouldn’t want to live to make it to your wedding. But this past fall, I understood. He needed to prepare himself to die. It isn’t a process that can involve anyone but self and God.” That was a huge part of my healing process. Quite honestly, I’m still healing. I’m in therapy, which is helpful for me. I try to talk about my dad as often as I think of him and miss him because I don’t ever want to forget who he was as my dad and what he taught me.
I know that I am not fatherless now because of what my father taught me while he walked this earth. Of course the Bible tells us that we are God’s children, adopted in Christ. In Romans 8:14-17, Paul writes,
“For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.”
But what my dad gave me was a gift of insight and experience into who God is and how he loves his children. It is no coincidence that my view of God is one of a loving father who just wants to spend time with His daughter. I have never questioned whether God was listening to me or present when I pray. There is research that supports this idea that our experiences of our parents shape our view of God. It is easy for me now to look at things that have happened in my life and see God’s love and care. I don’t think it would be if my dad had not provided that for me.