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My Sailor Father

| This is the 579th story of Our Life Logs® |

I was born in 1984, during the time in my country of Croatia when parenthood was defined by one's ability to raise the next generation of good pioneers. If you weren’t very supportive for such a good role model it was okay as long as your children were able to work and further the country’s economy. Especially men. Men were expected to work and provide for their families, and that was pretty much it. It's how they were raised. However, that is not an excuse. With that mindset—even if you do more harm than good—the resulting cycle of distant parenting stays pretty much the same.

When I was a child, my father was rarely around. He was a sailor whose job required him to be at sea for months and months at a time. I still remember him telling me, time and time again, that he “had to go.” When you're seven years old, six months is a long time. When you're younger than that, it's even longer.

Still, as a young child, I thought it was normal. I thought all the fathers left their families. But one day I walked into our living room and saw my mom crying. It was then I started to realize our life was not like it was for everyone else. Our time together was not for certain.

I remember I was standing at a doorway that separated our living room from the hallway. The doorbell rang and my father answered. I knew right away that something was wrong, even though it shouldn't have been. When he opened the door, I saw four of his crewmates, wearing their distinctive dark blue sailors' jackets. Something must've come up and they needed all hands on deck. He was still a young rookie back then, so he was in no position to refuse. They exchanged a few words and then he frantically started to look for his jacket. Everything happened so fast. There was no packing, no preparation, no goodbyes. My grandmother came and gave him his wool cap. He put it on and left in a hurry, without even looking at me. I don't know how, but somehow, I knew he was going to be away for a long time. And I was right. He was gone most months out of my life.

Moments of my father having to abruptly leave became a trademark of my childhood. He was absent for many moments, but when he was home, he tried to be a father. He was present. He would play with me, tell me stories of his journeys. We would talk about history and all the world's wonders. Those were some of the happiest days and such a relief to have him home, not having to wonder when he’d return.

There is a book I remember we used to read together quite often. Mysteries of the World by Arthur C. Clarke. We would sit together at our kitchen table and go through its pages. They were filled with fantastic photos, illustrations, and stories of ancient beasts and mysteries. We were going on an adventure together, discovering wonders and fantastic monsters from the deep. He would explain everything to me, and I would listen to his every word. A picture of a giant octopus was more than just a picture. In my mind, we were on the Nautilus together, peering through the thick glass window while the giant tentacles gripped the wooden frame of the 18th-century sailing ship just ahead.

Those were the good old days.

These were some of the pages we used to read together.

But as I got older, so did he. It turns out that spending time with your children is a lot easier when they are little. The older they get, the more complicated their lives and interests become. Some parents simply lose their patience.

By the time I reached fifth grade, our relationship was beginning to crumble. Within the next few years, it deteriorated to the point where he didn't even want to be bothered anymore. There were plenty of times when I could've used his support or guidance, times when I needed another man by my side who would understand me. There were just some things that female members of my family could never offer. He should've been the one to know when to cut me loose and let me act like a boy. He should’ve talked to me about girls, taught me how to drive, encouraged me when I needed it, and set boundaries when I stepped out of line.

But, he didn’t. As my teenage years crept up on me, the good old days faded into distant memory. Whenever he was home, he acted more like a piece of furniture than a father. Life went on and brought with it its share of tragedies and bad luck. When it punched, it punched hard. And I felt like I was left all alone to face it, with no one to watch my back or support me.

The first blow landed when I was 15. My cousin had died suddenly in a car accident and his loss shook my world to the ground. We had grown up together—heck, we even lived together for most of our school years. A few years older than me, my cousin was my role model. He was the one who taught me how to lift weights, do push-ups, and ride a bicycle. Everyone in our neighborhood thought we were brothers.

And now he was gone.

My father was away, as usual. Once again, he was out at sea when his support was needed most. I never felt more alone. As grief gripped our families, we drifted apart more than ever. Everybody else fell apart except me and my mother. During that time, she showed more strength than ever. She arranged the funeral, took care of finances, and even organized family trips. For the first time in my life, it became clear to me how much responsibility she could handle. I did whatever I could to help—I wanted to take my new role of “the man of the house” seriously, but I had problems of my own. Like every other teenager in the world, I rebelled and acted out. My frustration grew even stronger because we lived in a small town with little to do.

A few years later, the dust finally settled and I started going out. I made some new friends. And we finally had a few new places where we could go and have fun on weekends. Not long after that, I got into the world of dating. Soon, I was in my first “serious relationship” that lasted for about a year—which was a long time at that age—but, that was also when my commitment issues first started to appear.

More than anything, I was terrified of the idea that I might become a father. I knew nothing about fatherhood, really. I only remembered the childhood I had to go through with a father who wasn’t all-in, and I didn't want to make the same mistakes.

I also realized I didn't trust anyone, not even my friends. People I loved the most had a nasty habit of leaving me, especially when I needed them most desperately. Or, at least, that's what I thought. It didn't matter if reality was something completely different. In my mind, that fear of abandonment was ever-present.

The second big punch landed when I was in college. I was home for the weekend when my parents asked me to come and talk to them in the kitchen. Without saying much, they handed me a piece of paper. It was the test results from my father's latest doctor's appointment. As I read the words on the paper, I felt like I just got punched in the gut. My dad had been diagnosed with cancer. I was just 22 years old.

I put on a brave face and, through inhuman effort, managed to stay calm. From that moment on, our lives changed. Everything turned into a constant fight to help him recover. I woke up early every morning to prepare his meals and help him eat. Later on, I helped him exercise to regain his strength. But it was all in vain.

After a year of fighting, my father died. Another great loss that marked the end of one chapter in my life, and the beginning of a new one. Of course, I was broken by the loss. But as hard as it was, I was forced to grow up and see the world in a completely different way. I felt like I was the only man left in my mother's and sister's life, so it was up to me to do whatever I could to support them.

I started working full time and I was not particularly picky about which job I took. My father did that for years, without asking anything in return, so I felt like I owed him at least that much. During his last days, he saw that change in me. You know, that breaking point when a boy finally decides to grow up and take on the world. One of the last conversations we had was about my desire to start working properly and how I was sick of having to count on an allowance. I like to think that he felt like he could finally rest once he saw that newly discovered fire in my eyes. He knew our family would be okay now that they had me to look out for them.

In a way, he did teach me how to be a man in the end. It just wasn't the way I would've preferred. That was a good kind of closure.

As time went by and life continued its course, our wounds healed. It would be unfair to say that my family did everything wrong. They made mistakes, but they certainly did some things right. The scars are still there, of course. They will never go away. But, I take pride in them. They are a silent witness of my struggles and many small victories for which I can be proud. I wouldn't be writing these lines if things were any different.

If my father's ghost were to be summoned right now, I’m sure he would be full of regrets. And a few years earlier, I would've said he has every right to feel that way. However, I realized we shouldn't be too hard on our parents after all. We had ups and downs, but even at our worst, my father and I always found a way to make things right. You always see things like that in hindsight.

I don't have a family of my own yet, but I still hope there is a chance it might happen one day. With all the lessons I learned, I am hoping to be a good parent and not make the same mistakes my parents did. I guess what it all comes down to is this: If you decide to become a father, make sure you are up for the task. You only get one shot.

This is the story of Chris Rhoades

Chris grew up without his father and explains how it affected him as a person. The absence of a father made his upbringing difficult, and he faced many issues growing up. Over time, however, he was able to overcome those issues and reconcile with his father. He is a health freak today because of his father’s death from cancer. Chris is committed to living a healthy lifestyle. He hopes to one day become a father and instill the wisdom he has learned.

This story first touched our hearts on March 25, 2020

Writer: Lilith Ash | Editor: Colleen Walker

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