My Dad

Recently a friend’s facebook question about good dads caused me to ponder my own father and our relationship. My dad left the family early on, and though he hovered on the periphery of our lives and made rules and decisions that would affect us, the emotional connection was entirely severed, and I was frequently hurt by his disinterest which was not disguised. At a time when men seldom left their families in my small town, the humiliation added to the shame I felt that my dad didn’t want to be with us. As the years passed, we sometimes went a year or more without communicating. After having children, I became more attentive to the idea of my kids knowing their grandparents. My mother had passed away when I was 17, so as a motherless young mother, I wanted my new family to have some connection. I tried to get along with my dad, who had remarried the minute my mother died. Every visit became strained as our personal ideologies clashed and my lifestyle didn’t meet his standards. Yet we continued to see each other now and then. I had made the move from east to west coast and then to Hawai’i, conveniently making family visits rare.

During one particularly stressful period where I was feeling pressured by him to do things his way rather than mine (foolish, worthy of scorn), I attended a spiritual retreat where the words of St. Francis of Assisi were shared, “We are not here to be understood; We are here to be understanding.” For some reason it was my day to really hear that…suddenly I realized that I spent my life trying to get him to understand me…if only he did, he’d like me, maybe even love me. I’m nice, I have strong ideals and a compassionate spirit, but he never seemed to be able to see that. What if there’s more to him than I can see as well? What if I could let go of needing to explain myself to him but instead made an effort to understand him? That boy whose parents divorced in his teen years, and who never healed the relationship with either parent, as far as I could see. The chill between them was painful to witness. The young man, the army, marriage, fatherhood, growing a business, wanting what he didn’t have and deciding to take it, the hell with convention and the kids and what people think. I looked at how others saw him, the great host, the smiling innkeeper, the one others followed. He knew how to make people happy, and spent a lot of effort doing that. It was sad that he was unable to express to his own kids the warmth that others seemed to feel from him, yet I knew his fake smile so well, I saw him flash it at others and I received it many times myself. I looked at how he came to his political and social views, his life so different from mine, the results of his experience bringing him to an entirely different ideology. I knew that he wasn’t totally happy. I knew he had unspoken regrets. I realize that he kept his feelings inside, actually the young me was one that could rouse him to express anger! But never tenderness. Oh, I wanted that so badly. But I digress.

As time passed and I maintained my mantra of being understanding, our visits became smoother and more pleasant. I avoided topics I knew we would never agree on. I was careful how I expressed myself. I showed appreciation for the things he did for my kids. I stopped making it about me. The hard edges began to soften between us. I made a point of hugging and kissing him at the beginning and end of each visit, still only once a year at best. He began to accept these shows of affection with more grace.

When my dad’s health began to fail, I was involved in his caregiving. I visited several times over the course of two years, staying several weeks away from my family each time. At the end, it was me and my siblings who moved in with him and his wife, sharing caregiving and household maintenance. It was 24/7 for a month or so. He by then had shed his personality and become a more essential human being. But helpless, needy, weak. I am a caregiver by profession and by nature. He seemed to sense that and often would ask for me to be the one to patiently feed him the few bites he could manage, slowly, or to help him move from bed to chair. To be asked for by my dad, now that was special! Something I’d waited for all my life. When he breathed his last breath, I was at his head, holding him along with my sister and brothers. It was a powerful moment, a powerful month. The gratitude I felt at his release, the thanks I gave for the healing I had experienced, were enormous. The burden of my failure as a daughter had weighed me so heavily for so long. I put down that heavy load and exulted in tears of release as we let his ashes go deep into the Gulf of Mexico on an early August morning.

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10 Responses to My Dad

  1. jonscott williams says:

    I’ve known you for almost half a century, but didn’t know this … I walked a similar path with my mother … thank you for sharing you story …

    • huladoula says:

      Scott, I didn’t know about you and your mom either…we were all so busy being who we wanted to be, who we wanted to be seen as, striving to leave our families behind and step out on our own terms…what a fabulous time, I cherish the memories and the many lessons. Glad to have shared that with you.

  2. Oh I love how you write. Mr. Nugent would be so very impressed. Love you Salle.

    • huladoula says:

      Love you too Joanie! I think of Mr. Nugent and have to smile. It’s nice to think he would like what I’m writing…thanks for the affirmation! Well, he wasn’t more than 20 years older than us I think…is he still with us?

  3. Carolyn O'Brien says:

    Beautifully said Salle. Isn’t it amazing how life changes us when we look beyond ourselves. So glad you were able to finally find the love and peace and acceptance that you have longed for.

    • huladoula says:

      Carolyn! Vision of sweetness. Yes…looking beyond ourselves…sounds so simple doesn’t it. A lifetime journey. You were one who spent time at my fatherless home in those years…remember the pj parties! So nice to hear from you and relive a little high school.

  4. pmvault68 says:

    To my inestimable, unequalled friend and schoolmate: this is my third reading of your article…with the most touching understanding and visualization coming through this third reading.

    As a man, father and convicted child of God, I was moved to conflicted feelings…one, of shame for the thoughtless intention and missing contribution of many of my male counterparts in the formative stages of their childrens’ evolution; and a second, of joyous hope-filled possibilities for the coming Kingdom of God on earth, where His people may be considered worthy of being redeemed…in His Mighty Name and for His reign on earth, as in the Highest Heavens.

    Your story is an excellent one of having overcome the shameful acts imposed unnecessarily upon you, as a child, as replacing it with an amazingly divine image of love, patient endurance, kindness, compassion and hope for humanity.

    When we look for inspiration, we often look to the Bible…God’s Word, for guidance. After reading your story, I pray that you will not only continue sharing it, but, expending it as a part of your chosen ministry…In Jesus’ Mighty Name!

  5. pmvault68 says:

    By the way, I have spent a lifetime battling the emotional adjustment resulting frim the early separation from my mother and siblings, at the tender age of five years. While I knew very little of the circumstances behind the decision, Mom managed to place me in a good, advantageous position, maintained constant contact and still lives after celebrating more than 92 years in this time dimension.

    • huladoula says:

      Thank you for your careful attention to my story and for sharing your own. The damage parents can do to children is immense, yet it is the nature of life on Earth…so many lessons to be learned, and so much possibility for spiritual growth and true compassion. Parents are simply grown people dealing with their own tragedies. I am happy your mom continues to live, and I hope you have had opportunities to talk and share and forgive.
      Only your email address is visible to me, please, who is it? I am delighted to reconnect with classmates.

  6. Lori Wood says:

    Oh Salle, this is a powerful and beautiful testament to the love and healing that is possible in families.
    Your writing and message is humbly truthful and gentle and touched me deeply!
    Thank you Salle for all the ways you have blessed my life with your love and compassion!! 💞
    Lori Wood. Boulder Creek,CA

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