By Elizabeth Ruiz DePorras
My Pop was a stern, hardworking, family man. He didn’t have an easy life growing up. He and mom lived in a small town in Puerto Rico. They were young and in love. They married and moved to New York to follow the American dream. For them, that meant working hard for the little they had. Their first child, a son, died a few days after childbirth. I can only imagine the heartache they both suffered. Then I came along. Everything was fine and dandy growing up until I “grew” up. I may have still been playing with dolls, but I had the body of a young woman. That’s when Pop stopped treating me like a little girl. Pop became overly protective and very strict. I wasn’t allowed to go outside. I couldn’t hang out with my friends. I couldn’t even go on class trips. The minute I started to ask if I could do something, he’d say no. I’d then go to my Mom, but Pop was stubborn, and one look from him and we’d both back down.
I became a rebellious teenager. I was just as stubborn as he was. I knew better. I knew it all. I was right. I was convinced he was a bad father, and I HATED him. Those feelings were amplified when I fell in love and was forbidden to have a relationship with the boy next door, who would later become my husband at the tender age of 17. We had some “battle royales,” my Pop and I. My stubborn temper against his. I was going to do it my way whether he approved or not, because I knew better. I knew it all at 17. And at 17 I broke my father’s heart. I became pregnant and married the boy next door.
Pop didn’t walk me down the aisle. He refused to be there. Years later, I found out he was parked outside the church with my little brother. I’ve wondered what thoughts were going through his mind? To this day, I cannot remember who was or wasn't at the wedding. I don’t remember what went through my mind. All I can remember was the anger. This wasn’t the way my wedding was supposed to be. Pop and I didn’t speak for months. I wasn’t allowed to visit. I couldn’t see my Mom or little brother. We were both too stubborn to break the silence. It took a visit from my maternal grandmother to talk some sense into both of us. I was already about 7 or 8 months pregnant with my daughter before he finally sent word to me that I could visit; but, JUST me. He was still carrying a grudge against my husband.
It took Pop a long time to come to terms with the fact that this was the man I loved and wanted to be with. My daughter thawed the cold that lay between myself and my mother. But not Pop. Not yet. Almost three years later, I had my second daughter. That’s when I saw the icicle around Pop’s heart start to melt. I don’t know what it was, but we both changed when I had my girls. I discovered the love a parent has for their children. We only want what’s best for them. Anything that hurts them hurts us more. This was when I began to understand Pop; for better or for worse, he was trying to do the best he could for us in the only way he knew how.
My marriage wasn’t the fairy tale I thought it would be, but that’s another story for another day. I found myself getting to know my Pop again. I reconnected with my mom, my dad, my little brother. I will always cherish the holidays we spent together. Pop would make his roast pork and mom would make the rice. We’d all sit together at the table and just enjoy each other’s company. They were my island of comfort. I felt safe and loved when I was home with them. This safe haven that I craved above all others was the place I wanted to escape from when I was barely 17. I didn’t know better. I didn’t know it all. I was wrong. But most surprising to me was how much my feelings for Pop changed. I loved him with all my heart. Having my own family transformed my feelings toward Pop, and reconnecting with him gave me a chance to have the feelings of love once more for my father.
On June 12, 2015, Pop left us. He’d been ill for a long time, and battled with brain cancer; unfortunately, the cancer finally won. I visited my family often in Puerto Rico, where both Mom and Pop went to live after they retired. My brother later moved there as well. For that I am grateful. He was there for them when I couldn’t be. When Pop became ill, I tried to visit more often. Every chance I got, I told him I loved him. I look back and realize that “I love you” were three words that we never said to each other when I was younger. Towards the end of Pop’s illness, he could no longer speak, but his eyes said it all. I’d often go somewhere private to cry because I didn’t want him to see how heartbroken I was. Each time I left him, I’d wonder if it would be the last time I’d see him. I’d get home and cry some more. I miss him dearly.
I wonder if Pop knew that he was my first love. I wonder if he realized that the teenager that was so angry and desperate to leave his grasp became the woman whose hate transformed into a deeper love and respect for him. I wonder if he understood the empathy that had grown in me after I had my children because I understood what it felt like to be a parent. The innocent love I had for Pop as a child transformed into hate, and later transformed into a deeper, more complex love. I am forever grateful to him for this experience.