Before my daughter Daniela’s freshman year in college, as her mother was growing weaker from the lung cancer that would soon leave her housebound, I treated her to a cappuccino at her favorite coffeehouse. It was rainy and chilly, a week before Thanksgiving. As she sipped solemnly from her cup, I wanted to reassure her.
“You’ll always be able to count on me,” I said. “I’ll be there for you like I’ve always been.”
Her eyes locked on me coldly, and she snapped back, “You’ve never been there for me, Dad. I’m not expecting any change.”
Ten months later, at Union Memorial Hospital, her 18-year-old voice is forever etched in my memory as she uttered these words before my wife was taken off the respirator and stopped breathing: “It’s OK, Mom. You can go now. I’m going to be good for you. Don’t worry about me. I love you, Mom.”
In the following moments, when I held her close, doing my best to hug away her tears and grief, there was another tormenting fear confronting me — I now had to become the unselfish and committed parent I’d never been.
When Daniela was a baby and cried in the middle of the night, it was my wife who went to her crib to pick her up, humming soothingly while she cuddled her in the rocker back to sleep. I rolled over in bed.
My wife and I separated when Daniela was older. On the Saturdays or Sundays when I went to see her, I’d strut through the door with coloring books and toys and a new storybook (”The Little Fire Engine” was her favorite). She’d beg me to read to her right away. But I distracted her with a new bottle of bubbles I knew she loved even more, because I was in a hurry to get to the gym.
Whenever I decided it was time for me to leave, she’d look up at me wide-eyed and plead in her adorable 6-year-old voice, “Where are you going, Daddy?” As my wife scowled at me, arms folded, pissed, my daughter rushed to the door, blocking my path.
I lifted her up and smothered her cheek with kisses, but I left anyway, my guilt an invisible backpack pressing down across my shoulders.
I was a provider, I came bearing gifts, I visited, called on the phone, sent birthday cards. As I watched her blow out candles that increased in number each year, it was hardly enough.
Then again, it was all I knew. It’s what I learned from my own father in our first-generation Italian American home. I knew his love was there, but it was never verbally expressed. I think it was so he wouldn’t appear weak, and by extension he wanted me to be strong. More manly. In Italian: forte.
What he did was always provide for our family. He worked exceptionally hard. Paid the rent. Took care of us as best he could. Brought my mother, my two sisters and me to this country. You can’t possibly do any of that without loving your family.
When Daniela was in grade school, she demonstrated a talent for art and dance. I’d reward her for an excellent report card by taking her to the mall and buying her a new outfit. But I don’t recall attending many parent/teacher conferences or sitting with her privately to praise her artwork for any extended time. Maybe I attended one of her dance performances, I’m not sure. The fact that I’m vague about it haunts me.
So as my daughter looks at me over her cappuccino, her eyes scathing, accusing me of doing the very thing my father had done to me, the very thing that hurt so much, I’m stunned. But instead of facing the shame, I become defensive. We argue and yell. I’m wounded and in denial and in shock that all I thought I did for her was unappreciated, and Daniela is explosive with contempt and sadness about my absence in her life and how oblivious I am to her emotional needs.
Her mother died two months after that fight. As I faced the reality of the void she left behind, I knew I could either avoid the truth and leave my daughter emotionally traumatized or I could face my shame, educate myself and be the father I always should have been.
I focused on really educating myself on loss and spiritual awakening, and attending Mass and grief counseling; I read anything I thought would help me be a better father, from “The Seat of the Soul” to ”Hidden Power for Human Problems” to “Motherless Daughters.”
I had so much to learn.
Gradually, with prayer and patience and resolve and faith, I started to see light at the end of the tunnel. I became more humble, more awakened and attentive to my daughter’s viewpoint and emotional needs, more understanding and tolerant of her anger, more reflective of the details that are the foundation of being truly present as a father.
For instance, that time we got into an argument when I was driving her back home from a shopping trip and she yanked the car door open in a huff, scaring the hell out of me. I remained calm. I pulled over to the side of the road and assured her in a gentle voice that I loved her and didn’t mean to upset her.
In contrast to her childhood, my daughter has become my priority. And I have become her biggest advocate: “Of course you should submit your drawings! Trust your talent.”
And her emotional therapist: “You’re probably feeling underlying trauma in your dream and releasing it, that’s all.”
And her chiropractor: “Listen to me. Flatten your back, pull each leg to your chin separately, hold for 10 seconds and you’ll feel the release.”
And her confidant: “There’s not enough honest communication and fun with her, Dad. I can’t keep the friendship going.”
I try to carry over the traditions her mother set in motion much earlier, like sending daily encouraging notes (by text instead of index cards) that focus on positivity and affirmations: “What’s the best that can happen?” “Today I begin.” “Blessings and grace flowing your way.” Whatever I can offer that will brighten her day.
As I try to pick up where her mother left off, I have had to come to terms with the effort involved. But the effort also brings joy.
Daniela got an art scholarship to Parsons School of Design in New York City but couldn’t concentrate after her mother passed away, so she took a break to grieve and heal. I encouraged her to come and take some acting classes with me with the theater group where I was a member. It became evident quickly that my daughter was gifted. She began getting cast immediately, and I couldn’t be prouder. Of course, I now attend all her performances.
After one recent performance, we rode the train back to Jersey like we always did, and I sat back, savoring her company, loving the opportunity to listen, to all she had to say, about her work, her thoughts, herself, all of it. Her telling me, sharing all of that with me, and my happiness being there. And realizing, too, how much work she put into forgiving me. The effort and love involved in that, the trust, the faith. I can’t ever take that for granted.
I’d always trusted that I’d protect my daughter from all harm. I believed in my heart I would do that under any circumstance. But in these moments together, I realize how vital it is that she feel her feelings and that I feel and express my own. No avoidance. That’s true protection.
This past weekend, I visited Daniela in Philly, and I’m missing her already. She bought me a short leather jacket for Christmas. Something I had been wanting.
And in that wanting fulfilled, there was also a resounding tremor of clarity ― it should have never taken such a tragic loss to arrive at my current relationship with her. And along with that clarity, deep misgivings for all those lost early years. Years I can’t ever bring back.
But I’m here now. I’m present in her life. And putting that jacket on reminds me to keep working to be the Dad she’s always wanted and needed. The Dad she always deserved.
Bruno Iannone came to this country from Italy at 8 years of age. He’s trilingual (Italian, Spanish and English), and is an actor, writer and poet. He recently completed work on his autobiographical novel, “Where the Heart Is Warm,” and wrote and performed his one-man show, “Letters for Marie,” for Emerging Artists in New York City, based on his memoir of the same title. He’s finalizing his collection of poems for his chapbook “Thinking Myself Through to Pretty.”
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