My daughter was born on my father’s 51st birthday. As I lay in my hospital bed watching him cradle his first grandchild, I hoped and prayed that the baby would make a difference. At the same time, I knew not to expect a miracle. Just weeks before giving birth I had been in the emergency room with my dad, having him hospitalized for another episode of mania. Still, when I saw him look at his granddaughter with genuine joy, I had hope.
My daughter’s first birthday/my dad’s 52nd, was celebrated in the psych ward. There was no candle, and a nurse held the knife used to cut the cake. “Happy Birthday to Harriet and Papa,” I sang, willing my tears to wait until I made it back to the parking lot. My dad’s smile was gone, and so was my hope.
One of the most painful parts of my father’s illness has been my struggle to reconcile the boisterous, social man who parented me with the subdued, lethargic man I now call dad.
My father used to be a social butterfly – a magnet. He was someone people wanted to be around, and who wanted to be around others. Looking back, it is clear that my father’s “normal,” ran on the manic spectrum through my childhood. So much of my father’s flamboyant personality was actually his disease. I’ve struggled to accept that the dad I grew up with, is – at least for now – gone. My husband hasn’t met him, and even my younger siblings struggle to remember the dad I knew, and still love. For years before my daughter was born I mourned the fact that my children wouldn’t know the wonderful man who raised me.
But when my daughter was born, that changed.
In the early weeks of the summer, my dad would drive to my house to visit the baby. I inwardly cringed when he held her, exhaling the smell of stale cigarettes onto her and nuzzling his bristly, unshaven face into her delicate skin. Sometimes he stayed only minutes, and sometimes he stayed too long. I was harried and tired, but even in my postpartum fog I could see that these visits were offering all of us a chance at a new life together.
When he was hospitalized during the winter, I drove two hours each way to visit, because seeing his granddaughter brought him joy. She was a balm for unmet expectations and awkward silences. She allowed me to visit with my dad and simply be present, not pushing him, or giving suggestions, or carrying on one-sided conversations.
During his second emergency room visit of the winter, I stepped into the hall while the psychiatrist interviewed my father. His massive frame was curled into the fetal position, looking small on the hospital gurney. He delivered one-word answers until the doctor asked if there was something – anything – that made him happy. “My granddaughter,” he whispered. “She makes me smile.”
Now, my daughter is 17 months, and when my dad comes into the room she shouts “Papa!” It doesn’t matter whether he is clean-shaven or hasn’t showered in days. If he’s wearing pajamas or dressed up, if he is manic or depressed – he is hers. I no longer worry about my daughter not knowing the man I grew up with, because she knows the man who she will grow up with just fine. I never know how long we have until my dad, this dad, slips away, for an episode or forever. But instead of worrying about that, or fighting against the impossible, a little girl has taught me to let me guard down, and love my father just as he is.
Kelly Burch is a freelance writer and editor who is passionate about sharing her family’s experience with mental illness. She writes about the impact of her bipolar father on her blog, www.kellyburchcreative.com. Kelly is also the editor of Renew Magazine, a national lifestyle publication for people who are in recovery from addiction.
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