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.