Thursday, March 14, 2013

Wanted: Forgiveness of Filial Debt

In the early morning, a wisp of a memory rises, a butterfly that finally alights with enviable delicacy on my shoulder. All day the butterfly rests, patient, exerting only the slightest pressure, a reminder of his presence. A gentleman, he seeks not to offend. Still, he thrums with life; he cannot help it.

Even so, it is late at night when I climb the ladder into my mind's attic and search among the dusty discards for the key that will unlock the larger part of the memory. In the dark I bump into the corners of boxes and the legs of chairs. The air up here is musty with age. I am frustrated. Just when I mean to give up the chase, my bare foot makes contact with something cold. I reach down and pick up a key.

When I unlock the memory, I wonder how I could ever have forgotten. Rome, the summer of 1974. I am closer to seven years old than to six. My father is a diplomat assigned to Rome, and he has summoned my brother and me all the way from New York. We are to stay with him for six weeks, despite my mother's insistence that we are too young to spend so much time away from her. He has dismissed her concerns as purely self-interested.

He does not understand children at all, does not get that to a very young person six weeks is unfathomably long. Was he not once a child?

Every night I cry myself asleep. Every morning I cry myself awake. I cry into my pillow so as not to make any noise, because I am embarrassed by my homesickness. While I act as if I want no one to discover me crying, I desperately want someone to discover me crying, and toward this end I play endless mind games with myself. To wit: If the clock turns to 7:34 in the next ten seconds, my father will enter my bedroom and ask me what's wrong. When the clock inevitably fails to turn to 7:34 within my specified timeframe, I change the timeframe to be more accommodating. Still he does not show up. I think that he is as afraid of me as I am of him.

Each morning a dozen pigeons coo on the ledge outside my window, a ledge that runs the length of the apartment. Rome is riddled with pigeons. (So many years later, all I can remember of the city is that it was overrun with these brazen birds with red beady eyes and gunmetal coats.) I lie in my bed and listen to their full, throaty gobbles and pull the sheet and blanket tight over my head. I am terrified that these birds are coming for me.

We last, my brother and I, six days in Rome. Unlike me, my brother has broadcast - loudly and often - his desire to go home. Never more thankful am I for my brother's essential charismatic nature. Never more clearly has he been my voice as well as his own.

My father is spitting angry, believing that somehow my mother has managed to engineer our early departure. In this he is mistaken. She has been spending time in Israel with her lover, and sacrificing that time, she will confide in me much, much later, is one of the hardest things she ever had to do.

Also one of the most generous things you ever did, I will add.


My father is now eighty-four years old. He writes to me. He tells me that he feels life loosing its grip on him just as he looses his grip on it. He is regretful, and regret has made him maudlin. He professes pride in my person, in my mothering. I find myself unmoved. He wonders whether he might soon see me and the boys.

I reply to his words, but at the same time I do not reply to them. I respond to what is at the surface and ignore the rest. I do not make plans to visit him.

It is too late for us. Do not tell me otherwise, because I know what too late feels like, and this is it. Still, I am chagrined, because I thought I could do better: pretend, for the sake of decency. I cannot abide how the elderly live in today's world. But my father, although elderly, is more father than elderly, and still more not-father than father.

Along with chagrin I recognize grief, grief over a relationship that should by rights have been mine.

There was a time, in Rome, in the summer of 1974, when it all might have changed. One knock at my bedroom door. One penetrating look at my plainly sad, plainly scared little face. But nothing changed, and today little remains but an outsized, misplaced fear of the poor, stupid, innocent pigeon.


Amanda said...

Oh, love, so sorry. Just don't let yourself age with as similar regret, whatever that may mean.

V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios said...

I am sorry you live with so much conflict and pain over these relationships and events from your childhood. It's a lot to carry.

Bibliomama said...

It's no one's business or right to judge you for this (although insofar as you feel you need or want anyone's blessing for doing what's right for you, please accept mine, offered wholeheartedly and without reservation). It's also not your duty, I don't believe, to forgive your father's failings just because he is elderly, and regretful, and perhaps close to death. It makes me breathless with anger when anyone pressures people to reconcile with estranged parents - sometimes horribly abusive or neglectful ones - solely on the basis of a blood relationship and the desire on the part of one party to reconnect. Old age doesn't confer an automatic amnesty. You're not the one with the debt here.

Nicole said...

What Allison said, I second, plus this: your father is reaping what he has sown. xo

Kathryn (@kat1124) said...

Sarah, do not beat yourself up over this. He tore up his father card in Rome, and probably many more times than that. I don't know if you've ever read on my blog what kind of father I had, but I felt no guilt that I cut off contact with him completely a few years before he died. I didn't go to see him when he got sick, even though it was only a few hours drive. After all he did to try to ruin us, I felt no love at all for him, and no guilt for that finally, in my 40s. I didn't shed one tear when he died. He was not a father. A father cares for you, and makes sure you know it. When they don't, they reap what they deserve...we grow up and don't care about them. I'm sorry that we both had such bad fathers. It's a pain that rears it's head often, an ache that I know will be with me my whole life. But I also take so much comfort in the family that I've made, my husband and my boys. And I know that I am who I am because of my childhood, and I wouldn't change who I am for anything. I wouldn't change you, either, friend.

Patois42 said...

I can't add anything that others have not already said. It feels so little for me to say, "Thank you for sharing this." But thank you, I do.

Mary Gilmour said...

You wring my heart.

At some time, your boys should read this. My generation's men, of whom your father is an example, were taught not to show emotion, and some of them taught not to feel it.

I don't see that you owe your father anything, and certainly not your sons' pain.

Bon said...

tears. the last sentence. yes. thank you.

gorillabuns said...

I have the same relationship with my sperm donor. I think in the movie Parenthood summed up Fatherhood quite nicely. "You know, Mrs. Buckman, you need a license to buy a dog, to drive a car - hell, you even need a license to catch a fish. But they'll let any butt-reaming asshole be a father." I too think it's way too late for my father as well. I totally get it.

Thea said...

You are brave to face this and to share it with others. Stories like this are difficult for others to understand but I get it - my relationship with my father was strained in a similar way. You write very eloquently.

Christine said...

You deserved better than the parents the universe granted to you. I can seen by the way that you love and mother your boys that you have risen like a Phoenix. Scarred, perhaps, under the pin feathers, but alive and glorious none the less.

Jenn said...

Beautiful and heart-rending. Oh, but you told this so well.

Becki said...

I have no relationship with my father. It was basically severed when I was 18 and he made some decisions about my brother and me that I found unforgivable...and that was the end of that. I am now a parent. My beautiful son turned one yesterday. I am married to an amazing man who is and will be the father to my son that I would have liked myself. I am grateful to have chosen so wisely (yay me!).

Anonymous said...

I just adore the way you write. And this blog post - very, very poignant and elegantly written. Thank you for sharing this deep intimacy with us. - Heather.

Vodka Mom said...

I don't even know what to say. Your writing will always humble me. I read your words and can picture each scene, feeling like a bit of an intruder in this incredible journey you've been on.

Honestly. I'm a bit speechless.