Sometimes, a person can say everything without a word. Other times, silence just isn't enough. On October 18, 2014, I saw my father for the last time. After a ten-year battle with brain cancer, I could tell he was almost gone. He was lying in a twin bed, barely conscious, having seizures every few minutes, and clearly in pain. I knew that it would be my last chance to say goodbye, but I couldn't go into the room. I was in pain, too.
My mind flashed to all the times he wasn't there for me. My music recital he abandoned to race ATVs with his friends. His impatience while listening to me talk because "children are to be seen, not heard." The dirty diapers he refused to change for hours because he didn't feel like it. I loved him, but I was tired of him making me feel unwanted.
A whimpering noise drew my attention to the guest room. My father was seizing again. He was well past the point of communicating, let alone speaking with me. His emaciated body shook so violently that tears welled in my eyes. I told myself I wouldn't cry.
I entered the guest room and stopped a few feet away from the bed, terrified. I don't know if I was scared of him or his illness, but I couldn't come any closer. The room smelled of ammonia as I watched my father's uneven breath almost fill his lungs, but not quite.
When I looked at him, I was reminded of the few good times we had. I saw my father and me going to the movie theater and bowling alley, eating at chain restaurants, him throwing me in the air and catching me. I had spent most of my eleven years of life saying goodbye because I believed it would hurt less when he finally died. I knew in that moment I was wrong.
My mom joined me in the room and together we tiptoed to my father's bedside. When she started crying, I could no longer hold back my tears. For what I knew would be the last time, I hugged my father and said, "I love you, Dad." To my surprise, my dad hugged me back with a strength I didn't think he had. We stayed like that for a while. He was the last one to let go. He couldn't say it, but I knew he loved me too.
My dad died three days later.
I was angry for a while at the world for taking my dad away from me. I still had a child-like idealization of my father, and in my grief, I had the right to see him as a good man despite his flaws. As I grew older, however, I became angry with my father for not being a real dad.
He's been gone for six years, and I'm still incensed by his former habit of walking in and out of my life for a few hours every other weekend and expecting me to act like he was there every day. I have difficulty trusting men because I'm worried they will treat me like a perpetual second choice. Even though I know this isn't true, I sometimes feel like all of my personal accomplishments are insignificant, and I will never be enough unless a man tells me I am.
Of course, this thought is insane, and I am usually told so by the strong women who glue my family together. My mother and grandmother, two incredible women who have survived abuse, harassment, and changing times to become selfless, successful individuals, have always inspired me to be the best version of myself. Both women have raised and supported me every single day for nearly eighteen years, never once choosing to miss an event in my life. They told me I can do anything I put my mind to and empowered me to pursue my passions. They taught me that a person doesn't have to be a man to be a good father figure.
Today, I am a high school senior on track to graduate with an advanced diploma and attend a four-year university. I am a produced playwright and an award-winning, published writer. I plan to dedicate my life to telling stories that make people think and inspire a positive chain reaction of meaningful human connections. I would have never gotten to this point if it hadn't been for the women in my family who push me every day to be better than the day before.
A few months ago, a play I wrote called "Forgetting" premiered online as a recorded Zoom performance. I had spent months thinking about the play and revising it to what I believed at the time to be near perfection, and I was very proud of the work. On the night of the premiere, I sat with my mom on the couch, and we watched the play on our television. When it ended, Mom looked at me with tears in her eyes and a massive smile on her face. She didn't speak, but her face all but screamed, "I am so proud of you. I love you so much." That was the moment I felt I had truly become someone worthwhile.
In hindsight, I am grateful for my father's fair-weather parenting. He showed me what not to look for in future relationships with men, and to be more discerning in who I trust with my affections. Most importantly, he taught me about forgiveness.
While I still struggle with my attitude toward my father, there comes a time when the dead need to be at peace and I need to let go of my anger. He isn't in pain anymore; I shouldn't be, either. I am learning to see him as he was: an imperfect man with a serious illness who wasn't ready to be a full-time dad. He was also a hard worker, a talented singer, a good friend, and he did love me in his own way.
Perhaps this new perspective is the result of maturity, or a return to the innocence of a child who believes everyone is good at heart. Whatever the reason, I've discovered that by accepting the good qualities of the man in addition to the bad, I humanized the self-imposed demonic distortions of my father and put them to rest. I can't be the best version of myself if I choose to only see the worst versions of others.
As a writer, I have always loved words, but there are some experiences that can't be articulated by the English language. I will never be able to accurately capture on paper the complex emotions I felt seeing my father for the last time, or how I've felt since he passed.
All I know is that sometimes it is best to not say anything, to feel as fiercely as possible, then let it all go. One day, the scars on my heart will heal with the salve of a forgiving spirit. Until then, I can continue to create art and literature, strive to be better, and uncover my full potential as a woman who is so much more than good enough.
Cara Hadden, 17, is the winner of the 2020 Discovering Me…Without You Personal Essay Contest for Teen Girls 14-17. She is a resident of Fredericksburg, VA and a student at Chancellor High School