Relationships and experiences are a big part of what defines who we are. For many, names become guideposts or signifiers of those relationships or experiences. For a long time, I couldn’t accept my dad and so the allure of casting of the McDonell name felt like it might relieve me of some burden. Of having him in my life, of dealing with the ways I am like him, of seeing him for the fully complex person that he was. I understand the desire to change one’s last name as a marker of starting over, especially when there’s something in your past you want to close the door on.
For a while, my plan was to drop the McDonell from my name, and just be Amelia Parry. It would stay that way when I got married and then, when I had kids, my husband and I could … well, we’d cross that bridge when we came to it. Ideally, we would hyphenate our kid’s name just as my parents had done with my name, until our child grew up and made their own decision about what to do.
But so much has not gone as planned.
Conversations about last names/maiden names/married names always get me thinking, but I’ve spent my life thinking about names a lot. My first name never bothered me much, save the year where I had my two best friends call me “Kyra” instead. But my middle name, Magritte, felt ugly until I was older and wise enough to understand how awesome it was to be named after a surrealist master. Really, though, my preoccupation with names, specifically my own, was the result of having a hyphenated last name, in the ’80s, when no one did that. It didn’t help that one of those last names was vaguely similar to a fast food chain, which struck adolescents as hilarious. I cannot tell you how many times some little 10-year-old punk thought it would be funny to ask if he could have a Big Mac.
As I grew into adulthood, I discovered the various annoying ways in which the rest of society has not evolved when it comes to the ever growing popularity of hyphenates. (New York State, for example, simply does not make room for names as “long” as mine on their driver’s licenses, so mine just has my last name and first initial.) But I started to really think about changing my name when my once close relationship with my dad started to seriously suffer as the result of his drug addiction and mental illness. It felt like my dad had died and this stranger had assumed his identity, and I wanted no part of it. My bond with my mom, on the other hand, had strengthened and it pissed me off that my dad and she got equal billing in the last name department. (As for the rest of the McDonell family? Fuck ‘em. Even now.)
At the same time as my relationship with my dad was at its worst, I was dating someone seriously, someone who was, on paper, the complete opposite of my dad but shared some of his vices. When we got engaged, I was even more sure about my plan to drop McDonell from my last name. I even started to seriously consider taking my fiance’s last name, because it was beautiful and Italian and, okay, it was also what he wanted. My dad and I stopped talking. Then, about nine months into our engagement — and nearly five years into our relationship — my fiance ended things out of the blue, but dragged out the breakup for four months. It was bitter and angry at the end of it all.
About six months into the pure misery of being dumped without a real explanation, my dad and I started talking again. Over the next few years, I found myself just releasing all of my anger at him. Maybe I just didn’t have enough energy to be angry at two people at once; it was too exhausting. Discovering that I could forgive my dad, that I could accept him for who he was and get to know him again, as well as let him get to know me, the miracle of that allowed me to forgive my ex and accept my own culpability in the end of our relationship. It was a healing time.
My dad and I had about eight solid months where we got along wonderfully and I remain grateful for that. In the Nar-Anon Family Group meetings I’ve been attending in recent months (for family members/friends of addicts), I’ve been been able to identify that the end of my relationship with my dad was actually what they call “releasing with love.” I stopped talking to my dad because his destructive behavior had escalated to a point where a relationship between us wasn’t possible. I didn’t stop talking to him because I was angry or vengeful or because I was trying to manipulate him into being someone he wasn’t. I was just letting him go. I felt more connected to him even as I disconnected from him. I felt less inclined to drop his last name than I had in 15 years.
When my father died in November of last year, I emailed my ex, who had seen me through some of the worst times with my dad (including one of his suicide attempts), a short note informing him. He was one of the only people in my life from the last 12 years who had ever talked to my dad on the phone. When someone dies, you tell the people who knew them that they’ve passed. My dad lived basically as a shut-in in Hawaii for eight years; not a single one of my friends had ever met him. I hadn’t seen him in nearly 10 years. In that context, I felt like my ex was one of the few who did, in some way, know my dad, so it felt natural and right to email him to tell him that he had died.
He never responded.
It has since occurred to me that if we had actually married as intended in 2009, we very likely would be divorced by now. And I might very well have had his name instead of my dad’s. Weathering the pain of losing my dad, in the manner I did, still legally tied to the last name of someone who did/does not have the compassion to acknowledge that death? Names are so much more than names when you think of it like that.
I feel lucky, though, to have discovered that I still have more to learn from my dad and from his impact on me, even after his death, and his name has become something I view with renewed attachment. This name has been with me through good times and bad, and being a McDonell — with all its baggage and bullshit extended family members — has shaped who I am. I don’t want run from it anymore. I want to wear it with pride.
[“Hello My Name Is” on chalkboard photo via Shutterstock]