I’ve written and erased at least 10 different starts to this letter because it’s so hard to know what to say. I knew it was only a matter of time before the inevitable phone call came, we all did. But what I always hoped I would immediately feel was a little bit of sorrow, a little bit of relief that your struggle was finally over, and finally maybe some acceptance and peace. Maybe I should have anticipated the anger, the resentment, but I guess I just hoped that I was a stronger person than this.
What I need you to understand is that these feelings I have towards you right now don’t stem from the memories of a fucked-up childhood. I’ve long forgiven you for all the pain your bipolar disorder caused us when we were young, tucked those memories away in a nice little compartment of empathy and understanding, shrouded in a they-made-me-a-stronger-person veil. Though occasionally a reminder of one of the many hard “lessons” you taught us when you were in a depressive state slips through, accompanied by a twinge of resentment, I’ve always been pretty quick at tucking it back in its neat little box and calling to mind a happier memory of us. Because those memories too, are plentiful.
No, I’m angry because you didn’t give me a chance to say any of these things. I never got an opportunity for closure, to tell you I forgave you and appreciated many things you did for me. You were almost like a “normal” father figure for a few years, occasionally checking in on me, and offering bits of advice here and there, even telling me that you were proud every once and awhile. You even got to meet Chris, and I was happy to see the two of you bond over your shared military experience and sense of patriotism. You told me that you could tell Chris was a great father, and would make an amazing husband, and I was happy to know you approved. Then about a year and a half ago, only months before I expected you to show up to my wedding, we had what I never guessed would be our last conversation.
You called me in a clearly manic state, rambling excitedly about an upcoming reunion with your family that you wanted me to attend. I was happy to hear from you, because the last time you had texted you had been pretty sick. But everything flipped when I asked about Anna, made sure you were including her in these plans. “She has a phone too,” you said, “she can reach out to me.” I reminded you that she in fact had, several times, reached out to you with no response. You immediately got defensive and grumbled something about her not finishing school. All my knowledge about how to placate you when you were in this state of mind went out of my head at that moment, and I vehemently defended my little sister, reminding you that she was happy and actually made more money than all of us, and that college is in fact overrated and definitely not for everyone.
I should have guessed that my retort was as good as an excommunication sentence, and sure enough, not only did you not show up for my wedding, but I never heard so much as a congratulations, or I’m sick again, or hey Elizabeth I’m about to leave this Earth, maybe you should come say goodbye. The texts and emails I sent bounced back, and before long I heard that you had actually gotten remarried and had new step kids. It sucks to admit now that when I heard, I felt nothing but pity for your new family, because they had no idea what they were getting into, there’s no way that they could. In light of your death, I carry a lot of guilt for thinking that at least your new family probably wouldn’t have you around long enough to experience some of the things my mom and sister and I had to endure. I’m angry too, that you left me with this guilt. If you had just reached back out to me one more time, maybe these wouldn’t have been the last thoughts I had about you when you were alive, and that’s something I’ll never be able to change.
Because deep down I know, and have to remind myself yet again, that you were not a bad man. You were sick. And as much pain as your disorder caused me and my mom and little sister, there are many things about you that I admired, and was grateful for. Set aside the fact that without you, I might never have had the opportunity to grow up in Houston, the best city in the world, and live across the street from my best friend, and make all the memories I hold most dear to this day. Even set aside that with you, as a more pleasant side-effect of your bipolar disorder, not only did I finally get to have pet dogs, but I was one of the few kids lucky enough to also enjoy a plethora of birds, rabbits, and even a few horses and cows.
No, what I’m most grateful for were those far and few between instances where you did act like a stepfather. Those late nights you spent working on school projects with us, telling us stories, and those long-winded teaching moments you loved to have. As a preteen, I may have acted annoyed or ungrateful during some of those lessons, I’m not sure, but I retained more knowledge from you than you probably thought I did. I’m grateful for the summer you took us on a month-long RV trip, as much as you yelled at me for having my nose in a book the entire trip and not appreciating the scenery, it was an experience most kids my age never had, and I cherish it.
I’m grateful, maybe most of all, for the night you made me yell at you. You sensed somehow, that every single time you pushed me, every time you made my mom or my sister cry, I was compartmentalizing my resentment, and that one day I would explode. So, in a rare moment of true selflessness, you helped me trigger that explosion. You did some weird Native American ritual with sand and showed me that my spirit animal was a tiger, and then you got in my face and demanded I let the tiger show. I refused at first, because 10 year-old me wanted to believe this was dumb, because it was easier to lock away my emotions than bring them to the surface, but you kept pushing me. You got in my face and demanded, until finally I caved, and screamed at you in wordless fury, screamed and screamed at you for what seemed like hours but was probably only minutes, until all my anger was spent and I collapsed crying into a ball. Then you hugged me and we never spoke of it again, except that from then on you referred to me as Tiger, and I stood up for myself a lot more when it came to you. I don’t know what would have happened if you had never made me do that, but I’d probably be a lot more fucked up if I never had. So, thank you.
Lastly, I’m so grateful to you for finally leaving. I don’t mean that in a dickish way. It showed real compassion for you to leave when you did, and reminding myself of this helps me let go of any residual anger I felt from last night. After 9/11, things got really bad. You were depressed all the time, and we all got so used to walking on eggshells that it’s a miracle we don’t float. I probably blocked out a lot of memories, and I’m sure I have no idea about many of the things my mom went through, but I remember one day you were gone, and mom said you weren’t coming back. The sense of relief was overwhelming. And I didn’t consider the magnitude of this at the time, but you let us keep the house. The thought of where we might have had to live with only my mom’s abysmal teacher’s salary is a scary one, and you spared us from that.
I would have loved a chance to tell you these things in person, and I know Anna would have appreciated some closure as well, but you left our world as unpredictably as you came into it. And I suppose that’s fitting. Sorry for all the anger in the beginning of this letter, but if anyone understands, it’s you. I believe that one day I’ll get a chance to meet the real George David Hawkins, the man I’d only ever known in fleeting instances, and that’s a much happier ending. Until that time, give Papa and Eddie and Gran Gran big hugs for me– your Tiger.