“He’s everything I want to be and a lot of who I don’t want to be.”: Father’s Day Reflections From Julian TorresJun 18, 2023
As Grieve Leave continues to grow, we're thrilled to introduce another remarkable voice in our community. This week, we're featuring a contributor blog post from Julian Torres. Julian is a native New Yorker, a proud Puerto Rican, and the son of a teacher and a US Air Force Veteran turned attorney. He currently serves as the Vice President of Program Operations for a national education non-profit. His career has focused on dismantling systems of inequity and injustice through school leadership and non-profits across the social sector. Julian also happens to have been a contestant on Netflix's Love Is Blind.
For many, Father's Day is a day that often elicits feelings of love, gratitude, and cherished memories with your “old man.” For 34 years, I got to celebrate Father’s Day with “Pop” – having breakfast on the pier, going to the movies, playing a few rounds of chess (boy was I happy on the rare occasion I bested him) or, if I couldn’t make it to him, we’d spend hours on the phone talking sports, politics and food. But this year will be different. No phone calls, no chess, no breakfast on the pier. I don’t know how I’m going to feel on this Father’s Day now that my dad has passed, but I know his absence will weigh heavy on my heart as I navigate the mix of emotions, grief and unresolved feelings that will inevitably come up.
Our relationship wasn’t simple. It was a bond laced with love, admiration and challenge, but where moments of connection coexisted with friction. My father is (was? I’m going with “is.” I’m not ready for “was.”) an incredible man. At his military funeral, my little brother put it best: “He’s everything I want to be and a lot of who I don’t want to be.”
When I reflect upon our journey as father and son, I acknowledge that the complexities of our relationship were part of what made it so meaningful. My father is the smartest, most charismatic, and funniest man I’ve ever met. He’s charming, loving, supportive, wise, and gregarious. He’s also scarred by a chaotic life that led him to the bottle, turning him distant, bitter, and difficult… which is why my siblings have distanced themselves from him, why his marriages fell, and why I was estranged from him for 3 years in my early 30s.
After Pop was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkins lymphoma (a result of Agent Orange exposure as an Airman in the Vietnam War – read more about Agent Orange here), I fully welcomed my father back into my life – making sure he had all the support, resources, and love he needed to overcome his battle with cancer. It was a no brainer to me – call it a son’s instinct, a push from the universe/God/higher power, or just the moral compass that my dad (and my mom) instilled in me. There’s something about being faced with the mortality of someone you once viewed as invincible that puts everything into perspective. And even though the tension that existed between us was real and righteous, there was no way in hell I was going to let that take away any remaining time from my father and me. The next two and half years proved to be some of the most cherished and valuable time I got to spend with him. And while I’m so thankful I got to restore the relationship I had with him as a child and young adult, I wish nothing more than to have those three estranged years back.
When my father suddenly passed away late last year, I found myself confronted by a whirlwind of emotions. The grief was overwhelming, but it was further compounded by the weight of guilt. Guilt that I hadn’t done enough to support him through chemo. Guilt that I kept him at bay for years. Guilt that I wasn’t there next to him when he died. Guilt that I didn’t spend a few more minutes on the last phone call we had. Endless “what ifs” plagued my mind: What if I had repaired our relationship sooner? What if I had taken one more trip to Miami to visit him?
Because his death was so sudden, the absence of closure left me feeling burdened. That, coupled with the thought of never hearing his booming laugh or gleaning his wisdom, left me crippled. “Heartbroken” puts it lightly.
In the midst of my grief, I realized that carrying the weight of regret and shame would only hinder my own growth and healing. Fortunately, through years of work with my therapist, I’ve learned how important self-talk can be for one’s mental health. I’ve been learning to be kinder to myself, practicing self-compassion, forgiveness, and grace. It’s amazing what changing your inner dialogue can do to the beliefs you hold about yourself and I can’t stress enough how critical of a role this has had on my grief journey. I’ve developed a set of tools and skills that support the navigation of intense grief and the ways in which it manifests in my mind and body. So I made a conscious decision to forgive myself for the decisions I made for my own mental health and to forgive my father for the decisions he made to cope with the pain and loss he experienced in life. I accepted (and now appreciate) the imperfect nature of our relationship.
It was crucial for me to acknowledge that my father, like all humans, was (is) flawed and capable of mistakes. To replace resentment with compassion and understanding allows me to remember him as a whole human and, more importantly, as the father who gave me so much, taught me endless lessons, and helped shaped me into the father I hope to be. I can now be at peace with the wholeness of the man that was (is) my Pop. And the sort of beautifully fucked up thing about it all is the realization that his death played a role in my finding of that peace. My relationship with him did not join him in death. It obnoxiously persisted and, dare I say, improved. I hate that it took his passing to finally settle with the totality of our relationship. There are tears welting up in the corners of my eyes as I write this. But the fact that our relationship can now continue, in a positive light, even in his physical absence, is an odd peace that’s difficult to capture with words.
I know that grief is a multifaceted journey and no two experiences are the same. So, in the wake of my father's passing, I have allowed myself the space to grieve in my own way. The waves of sorrow have come crashing, sometimes unexpectedly, and I have learned to ride them with patience. Holding the pain, allowing myself to feel, being open to accepting signs that my dad is still there, and seeking solace in those memories have been crucial steps towards healing. But amid the sorrow, I recognize an opportunity to honor his memory in a profound and heartfelt way. And by living in those memories I’ve experienced joy, laughter, and solace.
Memories are precious treasures that allow us to keep the spirit of our loved ones alive. As my first Father's Day without my dad approaches, I find peace in cherishing the memories we shared. The laughter, the chess games, the conversations, and the moments of beautiful connection are woven into the fiber of my soul. Reflecting upon these cherished moments helps me celebrate his life, even in his physical absence. And what better way to cherish and honor the impact, the humanity, and the love of a father? It’s what Father’s Day should be about. Forget the Hallmark cards, the Amazon Father’s Day deals, the Instagram posts. Father’s Day, especially for those of us who no longer have him physically in our lives, is about the internal connection—the thoughts, memories, lessons, and values we carry which keeps the relationship alive beyond death. And that’s exactly what I plan on doing on this Father’s Day. I’m going to give myself the space, time, and permission to connect with my father in whatever way feels right. It could be a trip to a national cemetery to pay homage to his service, maybe a chess game or two online (turned up to max difficulty, of course). It could be reading the many poems he left behind or calling my siblings who each carry a different aspect of Pop in their personality. Or maybe I’ll just cry. A lot. Maybe I’ll sit there and talk to him as if he’s right there next to me on the couch. Whatever it is I do, I know it’ll be the right thing to do and I’m ready for whatever rollercoaster ride the day will bring. But no matter what I do, and no matter what comes up for me when I do it, I know one thing for sure: Father’s Day will remain a day to celebrate the relationship I had with my father. The day will remain a constant in my relationship with Pop.
Father’s Day is just one day in a year. But the legacy of our fathers lives on every day through us. It’s the stories we tell, but more importantly it’s the way we embody the wisdom and love we’ve learned (either directly or indirectly) through our fathers. It’s a holiday that might always carry a bittersweet tone for those of us who have experienced complicated relationships with our late fathers. However, it's essential to remember that healing is possible, even in the face of grief and unresolved emotions. Seek support from loved ones, friends, and professionals, give yourself permission to heal, embrace forgiveness, and honor the memories that bring joy, solace and healing. This Father’s Day, I choose to honor my father and his legacy by continuing on my journey of healing and self-compassion so that I can get closer to peace, acceptance, and joy. It’s what Pop would have wanted after all.
I love you, Pop.
If you'd like to hear more from and connect with Julian Torres, follow him on Instagram. If you'd like to share your own grief and grieving journey with the Grieve Leave community, we encourage you to reach out to [email protected] — we'd love to hear from you! 🧡
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