Today is my father’s birthday. If he hadn’t died two years ago, he would have turned 90 today.
There was nothing really wrong with him physically when he died. After he went into the hospital where he spent his final weeks, a nurse told me doctors didn’t really know what to do with him, because he had no real condition they could treat.
Six months before then, he had been healthy and active. He had still been dating off and on. He was still meeting women online through profiles on a couple of dating sites. The photo above is a selfie he took for one of those women. (He never was great with technology and obviously didn’t know to look at the mirror and not the screen.)
So what happened? How did a man with no real health issues go from actively trying to find companionship all the way to giving up on life — enough that he stopped eating for months and had become an emaciated shell of himself by the time friends discovered him?
He died of a broken heart. He’s the strongest evidence I know that unhappiness can kill a man — by making him give up on life.
I’ve written a lot about why he was alone and unhappy, so I’m not going to repeat all that here. I’ll just say that he created his own problems.
All three of the women with whom he had lived — starting with my mother — had angrily split from him in the end.
He alienated all three of his children — including me — badly enough over the years that we all cut him off so he couldn’t continue to do more damage in our lives.
He suffered from narcissistic personality disorder — although he would never see a therapist with any of us — and he never learned to take responsibility for his lies and manipulation and for the web of deceit that he built with everyone who got close to him.
He didn’t understand what he did to lose people. He was charming, intelligent, well-mannered and seemingly sympathetic. He made a good impression on those who didn’t get too close.
As he lost one person after another, he ended up alone, though. He lived in a basement apartment of a very nice home with a couple who I came to see — after his death — as wonderful people. He had lied to them about all sorts of things about his background — out of shame, of course — and they never knew how twisted his life had been until after he entered his final weeks and they met me.
I’ve shared with you some of his handwritten notes I found from the last year or so of his life. He felt isolated and alone. He wrote occasionally about suicide. He talked about how miserably unhappy he was.
The couple with whom he lived spent the winter out of town, somewhere in Florida, if I remember correctly. They left him sometime in the late fall — still in excellent health — and didn’t return until about March. I don’t recall the date.
During the four or five months they were away from him, he was alone in that house. He stopped eating. He stopped doing much of anything. By the time they returned, they found him slowly dying and they called the ambulance which took him away from his last home for good.
After his death, I found all sorts of his medical records. He had an excellent medical plan and regularly saw doctors at one of the finest large clinics in the country, the Kirklin Clinic in Birmingham. All of his records from them showed that everything was great with his health. There were a few minor issues, but nothing that would kill someone.
He simply gave up — and died.
He would have easily still been alive today if he had made different choices. He had three children who all tried to love him and have mature relationships with him. Even if he had destroyed his first two marriages, the third woman to give up on him and angrily split with him had given him everything an older man could want in life. She was a widow who was well-off, and she had been extremely generous and loving to him.
He could easily have been alive and happy today — if he had just been willing to make the choices he needed to make. I know enough now about narcissistic personality disorder to understand why he couldn’t do that, but it breaks my heart that he couldn’t allow himself to heal — and to be happy.
Many of my worst fears in life have been about being like him, in one way or another. Growing up with him, I couldn’t help but learn some of his bad habits and patterns, things I’ve had to learn — through therapy — to change about myself.
As I think about his life on the 90th anniversary of his birth, I’m not really thinking about him as much as I’m full of fear about myself.
I don’t have any children, much less any I’ve managed to push away. But I am alone and unhappy. I feel misunderstood. I feel despair about finding or somehow gaining the love and companionship and family that I need.
I don’t want to be like him.
I not only don’t want to be the narcissist he was, but I also don’t want to be the unhappy and lonely person who gives up on life far before it’s time.
I’m sorry my father lived his life as he did. I’m bitter about what I can never get from him emotionally. And I’m sad for the way he died — unhappy and alone.
But I can’t do anything about him. He made his choices. The people around him made the choices into which he forced them. And we all paid the price.
I can still do something about myself. I don’t know which choices I need to make. I don’t know where to turn for the love and companionship and family I need. I don’t know who is willing to accept the love which I want to give.
But I am afraid of going down the path he traveled.
I plan to still be alive at 90. I honestly expect to live past 100. I always have. Physically, there’s no reason for me not to, as there wasn’t for him.
I just don’t need to let unhappiness and loneliness and bitterness and despair destroy me. If I can find the way to be happy — hopefully with the right partner — I hope his life will be just a bitter lesson for me, not a blueprint.