Friday, September 13, 2013

The Last Time I Saw Richard

It occurs to me that I haven't seen my father since my mother died. It goes like this: every few months he and I exchange a few emails. The emails start sweet and solicitous, but they never stay that way. If I had to describe my father to you, I'd call him the smartest fool there is. A man with a prodigious intellect, he cannot get along with people. In the parlance of my once-field, he has no emotional intelligence. My husband sees my dad and me somewhat differently. He suspects that my father and I simply don't like each other very much, as personalities, and that our trying to maintain (or, honestly, establish) a connection is motivated only by shoulds and oughts.

I disagree. I have keenly mourned the absence of a father figure in my life. After all, I grew up with a mentally ill mother. Parental pickings were slim - bruised, battered, not even vaguely appealing. I would have done anything to have a father who wanted to participate in my life. I would have forgiven most every character flaw in him. It just hasn't worked out.

The other morning I watched as one of the second graders in my classroom walked up to the front entrance to school. She was holding her father's hand and swinging it back and forth, the motion jaunty and relaxed. The pair stopped, there on the sidewalk, and the man stooped low to give his daughter a bear hug. She laughed. He grinned. They parted.

And I felt both genuinely happy for this child, who knows the love of a good father, and also gutted by longing. A forty-five-old woman envious of a seven-year-old. How did it come to this?

Like so: Yesterday my father sent me an email to thank me for a Christmas present I'd given him in 2012. I usually buy him books, because his is a life of the mind. I do not choose these books lightly. I have to have read and liked them, and I also require that they be award-winners of some kind. My father would never read a book on my word alone. He requires validation by authorities, experts, people who are not-me, not-daughter.

I nearly copied the email into this post, but I stopped myself. Suffice it to say that he found the trilogy (the genre: historical fiction) disappointing. This was not, he wrote, the writer's best, and he didn't think he'd be passing on the set to anyone he knew. He was surprised that I'd enjoyed it. He went on at great length, dissecting the books and their shortcomings in a professorial tone, one mastered over years of teaching at the university level.

Par for the course, that email.

I want to know what father, besides mine, writes his daughter to detail the many ways her Christmas present missed the mark? What father mails his daughter back an annual fund solicitation letter she wrote in support of her child's preschool with his unsolicited corrections marked in red pen on nearly every line (and no offer of financial support for the institution)? A letter most others found to be eloquent?

So yesterday I did something novel. I refused to engage. I deleted my father's email without responding to it, an action damn near unfathomable for a good girl like me.

Maybe I haven't seen my father since my mother died because with her went him, the two people who made me, even if they were separated, then divorced, only months after my birth. Maybe I'll never see him again. Who knows? Observing my student with her father revealed two truths to me: one, that I still ache for a father, that a person can be an adult and still ache for a father.

And two, that my father is not now and will never be the father for whom I ache.


Emily said...

When I was a child, my grandfather sent my letters back corrected in red pen. And my father was similarly disengaged. And I still long for a father after all these years.

Magpie said...

wow. also, ouch. ((hugs))

Nicole said...

This is so sad, Sarah. So very sad.

Stu said...

First, what a dick! Sorry you have to deal with such behavior.

Second, I can empathize, as I have walked in your shoes. I really feel for you. And let me say this, as someone who knows you the way I do, you absolutely deserve to be treated with kindness and love and respect and validation and consideration and unconditional support.

V-Grrrl said...

A sad story. I wish it were less common.

Seems so many of those couples that married in the wake of WWII and had children in the 1950s and 1960s were disengaged parents by today's standards. And we, part of the generation that helped redefine women's and men's roles, feel the ache of what we missed as we strive to give our kids something better.

Mary Gilmour said...

My whole family are red pencil fiends, as well as oral correctors. I love them because they are just as hard on themselves, not superior about it.
It's a good point, the one about post -war disengagement.
I could really relate to that.
You have brought yourself up to be a wonderful person, but it doesn't replace the missing hugs.
Sending a virtual one from me.

Manic Mommy said...

I think we're sisters - God knows I wouldn't have put it past my father to have a second family - except that my father had no future, he spent his life as a victim and chose to victimize his family in a vain attempt to make himself feel like more of a man. He was a bad person. Like you, I would have loved a Daddy. I sometimes wish I had a girl so I could see how a good father treats a daughter. Sometimes, I know I was meant to have boys. We're doing great despite our parentage.

Alicia said...

Sarah, thank you for sharing this painful and moving struggle. It is simply beautiful that your happiness for the little girl at school was able to live alongside the wrenching ache in your own heart. . . beautiful and hope-filled. And how wonderful and generous that you bring something different to your own children as well as the children you work with. So much hope for a different future for the ones you love.

Martin Snapp said...

A sad story, Sarah, beautifully written - as usual.
You did the right thing by refusing to engage any further. I'll hold my comments on his actions, although I'm sure you can guess the depth of my contempt. You always were a wonderful child, and now you're a wonderful grownup, and you deserved much better.

Bon said...

i read the story of the book critique and thought...he can only engage from a position of power. he needs to be safe in the role of knower/dispenser of criticism, rather than opening himself to any real emotional engagement. that's sad. for you, as his child, it's tragic. because even though him not opening himself to you is his loss, absolutely, it can't help but be yours too, and it is primal, i know.

this post is heartbreaking for its acceptance, Sarah...and wise for the same reasons. i hope the visceral truth - the realization that the father you have simply isn't ever going to be the father you long for - helps, somehow with that longing. helps you to find ways to feed that little girl inside that do not need to come from that man. xo.

alejna said...

Wow. Good for you for not engaging. It seems like attempts at a relationship with him could be infinitely draining.

This post reminds me of so many of the reasons I love and admire you: your strength, your wisdom, your eloquence, and your insight into people. I am regularly impressed by the amazing person you are, in spite of the lack of parenting you received.

Amanda said...

Oh, Sarah. It's as if you've been holding your breath. This was great, insomuch as something devastating can be great.

I think for me, the greatest release, even though it hurts, is knowing that certain aches born at such a young age never, ever go away.

I adore you.

Helen Richardson said...

So beautifully written... and so sad. For some (including my mother sometimes) being right and showing superiority trumps kindness. It is a flaw that deeply wounds those who need and deserve kindness and unconditional love. Well written, Sarah. Let those who have that love and kindness for you take the place of a father who was and is unable to provide it. xo

jess said...

Sarah, you deserve so much better. What a sad, sorry man your father must be, to be unable to see how wonderful you are and love you the way he should.

Christine said...

I want to say something biting and angry about your dad and his behavior, but I won't. Instead I will say this: All people deserve a father or father figure in their lives. one that is good and kid and loving. It just plain sucks that you were denied this.

Tara R. said...

While not on the same level, I had to finally disengage from my brother. I haven't spoken to him in years because every time we were together his disapproval and contempt for me was palpable. It was toxic and while I miss the opportunity to have a close, loving relationship with my only sibling, I know that I am happier and healthier without him.

I am sorry you've not had a unconditional relationship with your father. Every little girl deserves that kind of love.

Neil said...

The post was true and honest and sad. But the comments are what really got to me. You have smart readers.

Heather said...

I think you're brave and wise.

Angie McCullagh said...

You are self-made and amazing. I'm sorry you long so for a good father. One of my best friends has such a dad and her therapist told her that instead of continuing to reach out, she might just have to accept that her father is not a good one.

Good for you for deleting that email. You're taking back a bit of power.