I watched the white-haired man walk slowly into the bank. He used a cane to steady himself. He moved slowly. He looked very frail.

I knew the face, but I didn’t really know that face anymore. I had known this man when he was young and strong and vibrant, not when he seemed more like the men from my grandparents’ generation.

But though I hadn’t seen him for years — and though he had changed a lot — this man was still my father.

Until today, I hadn’t seen anyone in my family for roughly 8 years. Although I never would have called us this when I was a child, the truth is that we were a seriously dysfunctional family. We didn’t know that phrase then — and even if we had known it, we would have been in denial.

My mother left us when I was young, so I barely knew her as I grew up. I tried to have a relationship with her after I became an adult, but she was nothing more than a vivacious, child-like stranger — despite the fact she desperately wanted a relationship with me. (To her credit, she apologized for the effect her leaving had on us. She explained why she left as well as she could.)

I haven’t seen my mother in more than 20 years. In my mind, she might as well be dead, maybe because I’ve come to terms with what she was and the things she did. I haven’t seen either of my sisters for close to a decade, although I occasionally exchange email with one of them.

But my father has always been the emotional center through which I had seen my family, for both good and bad. I’ve been estranged from him for about eight years, for reasons that I won’t explore deeply here. He would say it was my choice, but I made that choice only after he declined joint counseling to deal with the long-standing issues between us.

My father now says he will die soon, but I don’t know the details.

“My life is in imminent danger now — not sometime in the future,” he wrote in an email over the weekend. “I live alone and no one would know immediately if I died. In my billfold I have you listed as the person to contact.”

Even though I have no contact or interaction with my father anymore, there are still things that must be done when he dies — and it appears I will be the one to do those things.

He’s given me information about who needs to be contacted and what assets will need to be disposed of. We met at a bank in Birmingham today to sign some necessary documents.

This isn’t the end that any of my family would have predicted many years ago. It’s not something any of us would have wanted. But this is reality for a group of hurting people who’ve stumbled through their adult years trying to figure out the right things to do — and being confused by the actions of those they would have once counted on for love and support.

Thursday will be the 16th anniversary of the death of a woman I used to know quite well. When I first met her about 14 years ago, the effect of her father’s death was still painfully strong for her. I remember one night as I was getting to know her when she talked about him for hours — and she sent me dozens of pictures and articles about his death. It was very clear to me how strongly his death had affected her. That made enough of an impression on me that I’ve remembered the date of his death each year since then.

Thinking about the anniversary of his death — combined with seeing my father today — has left me wondering which is the worse way to lose a father.

Is it better for the man to remain alive — like a ghost who still exists somewhere in the world, even though you have nothing to do with him? Is it worse for someone you love to be suddenly yanked from your life, leaving you feeling as though you can’t count on the stability of the world around you?

Is there a good way to lose a parent?

I doubt it, even though every single one of us deals with in in time, assuming we outlive them. No matter how it happens — through an unexpected accident or through hurtful estrangement — it pushes emotional buttons that leave us changed.

On the inside, I’m still the same person I was as the crying 2-year-old you see above. The same things that hurt us as children have followed us as adults, even though we have trouble seeing that — and most people just bury the feelings and never look at them.

When we were children, we counted on our parents — people we saw in almost god-like ways — to make the world right for us. Every generation has to grow up and come to grips with the fact that their parents were mortals who had no more idea how to make it through the world than they do.

We think we can count on the blood relationships of our family of origin. As children, we assume those will always be our closest relationships. For some people, maybe that’s even true.

But for many of us, we have to create the family we wanted instead. We have to find people who can maturely love us — people we can trust, people we can count on — and we have to work hard at building the emotional stability and understanding that we assumed was automatically ours when we were children.

Family is something we build, not something we’re simply born into. The people we love are those we choose to love — when they choose to love us.

Losing a parent means losing a big part of the innocence and trust we start with in life. Whether it happens unexpectedly in an accident or slowly through estrangement, it hurts to lose someone you thought was the center of your life. Nothing can change that — and few people can understand how it changes you.

When I left my father at his car today — maybe for the last time I’ll ever see him — he said, “I love you,” with a feeble voice. I just wanted to ask why he wouldn’t go to counseling with me to deal with our issues when he was offered a chance multiple times.

But I didn’t say that, because nothing can change what happened now and there’s no reason to argue about it. So I just just walked away. I’ve lost something — very slowly and very painfully.

Now the only thing I can do is find a way to build the family I wish I had — and that’s the most difficult task in any human life.