an open letter to my dad

By Hannah Lee

Grandpa’s fifth-year death anniversary just passed a few weeks ago. If I’m being honest, I think his death in 2014 didn’t come as a surprise because he had been ill for quite some time.

The fact that you disappeared shortly after did.

I was angry rather than sad. I was angry that Eugene would grow up without a dad, his role model, and mom without you, her husband and protector and lover. Neither of them got any closure. Why did you just leave? Where did you go? Did you not love us anymore?  

When you disappeared, I wasn’t particularly sad because in my mind we weren’t very close. We went through a gradual falling out when you were diagnosed with severe depression around the time I was nine. I don’t remember this time too clearly, but I do remember how confused and sad I felt when you stopped reading me my favorite Dr. Seuss books and play-wrestling with me. I thought I did something wrong or that I wasn’t a good daughter. By the time I reached eighth grade, I felt like we were just acquaintances living under the same roof.

I know I never articulated any of this to you, and sometimes I can’t help thinking about how things would have turned out if I had told you about how I felt. How much I missed pretending to be pirates with you, how much I missed singing Billy Joel songs together, and how much I missed being your little girl. I think my indifference towards you leaving was rooted in my lack of communication with you. I never told you how much I appreciated you and how I knew that you loved me and showed me through the little things in life. You showed your love by giving me the camera you won in a raffle because you knew how much I loved making small films with your flip phone, or always sharing the food you ate because you knew I loved sharing meals with you. You taught me how to cook steak, painted my room with me, and supported me in everything I did in your own quiet way. You were always proud of me.

Even though I was mad at you, I desperately wanted to keep the thought of you alive. I started using your spoon whenever I would eat meals, I started wearing your clothes, and when I named a plant after you, I ultimately ended up forgiving you.

Hans, the plant I named after you, was given to us as mom’s birthday present in November 2015. He was a small, youthful schefflera, who was alive, fresh, and good looking.

Then one day he wasn’t.

I’m not sure if it was my fault that the plant withered. To be honest, mom, Eugene, and I forgot about him until I remembered we hadn’t watered him since we received him. Keeping a plant alive was a task that none of my immediate family had ever done, so I guess I took it upon myself to take care of him. I only had to water him maybe once every four days, but I often forgot. Sometimes I’d go a week and a half without watering Hans. He held on though; he kept looking green and most importantly, alive.

I found Hans unpotted on the floor one day. His roots were all out; there was dirt everywhere, and I was devastated. Eugene had knocked him over without knowing and hadn’t bothered to pick him up. I don’t know how much time had passed, but I do know that right after this incident, Hans started to wilt. Soon, there was only one stalk of his plant left. I failed the one promise I’d made to myself: to keep Hans alive.

Looking at Hans, I wondered now if that was how you felt right before you disappeared. Did you feel forgotten? Did I pay attention to you only when I needed you, or remembered you existed? Were you a wallflower, knocked over, and defeated? Ninety percent dead, and to grasp onto your last sliver of life, did you need to get away? Or could I have given you life?

It’s been a long journey fully coming to terms with what happened that April. There was an unhealthy amount of bottled up feelings and emotions that I didn’t know how to express or handle. All those years after you disappeared, I only hurt for mom and Eugene, but had been numb to what you must have been enduring. The death of that plant, as insignificant as it may seem, really opened up my mind to what you may have been feeling. Hans became a representation of you and allowed me to pretend that you were still with us.

I talked to grandma on grandpa’s death anniversary. It makes me feel guilty to admit it, but I didn’t want to because it felt like a chore. But, do you want to know something funny? I started crying as soon as she said she missed me. She said she missed me and asked me if I was taking care of myself. In that moment, I just completely lost it and started bawling, not caring that I was in the middle of a hallway at school. I felt like a failure of a granddaughter for feeling like talking to her was a chore when she genuinely missed me, and also felt so undeserving of her unconditional love for me. I realized that she’s one of my last links to you, dad, and I’m one of the last links to you for her; she wanted to keep that connection close to her because it was her way of coping with missing you. I understand that now. Hearing her say all of that and coming to my realization helped me put into perspective that family will always love family and will keep you in their heart in the weirdest ways. Grandpa always offered me a can of Coca-Cola when I was feeling sad. Grandma, your mom, made me homemade playdough to play with whenever she was busy with finishing chores. Eugene makes an extra effort to play harder in his soccer games when I was there to watch. Grandma, mom’s mom (she lives with us now by the way), will never let me do the dishes because she wants me to focus on any school work I have to finish or even to just enjoy a movie I’m watching. Mom, to this day, is working so hard to make sure that I’m happy, that Eugene is happy, that both your mom and her mom are taken care of and that we don’t ever notice how much she is struggling to make ends meet.

Dad, I just want you to know that we still love you. You were and will always be deserving of our love because you loved everyone unconditionally. You were always there to listen, and everyone looked to you for advice and help when they needed it. I know now that you left us out of love, and I know you thought it would benefit us if you removed yourself from the picture. I know that you felt the pressure to provide for our family financially and when you couldn’t, it really hurt you. You wanted to provide for us, but all you thought you did was disappoint us.  

You know what the best part of you was? It’s that you never expected anything in return from anyone. You genuinely loved to help the people you love, and I recognize that now because I realize I take after you. I am like you in so many ways, and I wish that I could share all of our similarities with you today.

Remember, you are deserving. I love you. Come home soon.

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