My father died this summer. Now if you are counting, and I am, that would make 5 loved ones in my immediate family in less than 4 1/2 years. Husband, mother-in-law, father-in-law, dog and father. Some of you might take issue with me including our dog on that list but if you are madly in love with your pets, like any rational person is, than you know what a loss that was to my children and me.
After my father died, I was having dinner with a friend who is in her early forties and had not up to this moment in time, experienced anyone close to her dying. “I guess I’ve been really fortunate in that way, ” she observed. But as soon as the words left her mouth, it was if a cloud blew over the sun that was shining down on her because in that moment, a shadow passed over her face as she realized maybe for the first time, that her virgin status in this regard was finite. That her luck would end. She had not escaped this loss, it had only been delayed.
To the uninitiated, you might be tempted to think when a person dies, that all the painful and messy bits and pieces that surrounded your relationship goes with them. That you just fling all of that to the curb in a feat of superhuman spiritual maturity. Whew! Glad I got that off my back! This unfortunately, my dear virgin friends, is unlikely. This is what you should know about losing someone you love; death will not be the end of the story. They never really leave the dinner table.
It is an awful thing to wait for something you think you desperately need that will never come. What I longed to be my whole life was daddy’s little girl. Valued, cherished and loved beyond measure, without condition. Bottomless love. In the movie version, coming to a fantasy theater near you, I would be the bride in Father of the Bride. Now I’m not sure what went wrong with the drop down menu when I was selecting fathers from the list but I definitely did not end up with the Steve Martin or Spencer Tracey option I was hoping for. It would be an understatement to say my father did not live up to those expectations because if he had, well, this would hardly be worth your while.
I didn’t have much of a relationship with my father never mind some movie version because the truth is, he never bothered to value one. He put the barest possible energy into being a father. I am sure though, without a shred of evidence to prove it, that this was the best he could do. It’s just, his best was terrible. And terrible just doesn’t motivate you to run out to the local Spencer’s on Father’s Day to buy him that #1 Dad tee shirt lest you appear needy and desperate for love and approval and that was just not my style. Sucking up is not my strong suit. I am strong on pride.
What I got from him was a skinny latte love when I’m pretty sure I ordered a regular double-shot vanilla with extra foam and a sprinkle of cinnamon. So I certainly wasn’t getting him that World’s Greatest Dad mug to put that skinny swill in either. My mother, who has been divorced from him since I was 12, liked to say, “He could be worse.” This, of course, is always the case. Thanks for sharing.
What would have made it worse actually was not having my pit crew. My 3 sisters. They were the lifesaving gift in this journey called our father because we stuck together like U2. The fact that he didn’t play favorites in his parental inadequacies, that he spread his skinny love equally among us four, might have been his biggest strength as a father.
It was hard to overlook the blaring weaknesses in his character because they came at you like a speeding bullet. He was a big man with an unpredictable temper that you never knew when would blow so I was always on code blue alert(guarded) around him but ready to upgrade at any moment to yellow, orange or red. He wasn’t physically violent per se but you definitely, most certainly did not want to sit next to him at the dinner table unless you were wearing your goalie uniform. A poke of a dinner fork here and there when your elbows were on the table or you drowned your meatloaf in ketchup was about the scope of it but the size of his possible emotional outbursts were enough to make you want to put adequate space between him and you. Just in case. My sister, Colleen, somehow never quite seemed to figure this out. Or didn’t care. Or just loved ketchup enough to take such bold risks. I’d telepathically implore her from across the dining table to put down the ketchup bottle in time. “For the Love of God, put down the bottle! PUT DOWN THE BOTTLE!”
He could be mean too. I mean this objectively. You can ask my sisters. I carried around a spiral notebook of infractions in my head against my father as carefully as Rainman did against Charlie Babbitt.
January 5th, 1992: Dad yelled and cursed me out and kicked me more than a little but not as hard as he could have, under the table, on my foot for joking that he was cheating at Trivial Pursuit.
But I never felt it in my foot, I felt it in my chest. In my heart. Like he had just backed up the cement truck and dumped more into that space I held for him. Beep, beep, beep.
Of course, nothing is black and white and I knew he loved me and I loved him but it didn’t add up to much. I couldn’t pretend that extensive damage hadn’t been done. That’s called denial. He wasn’t gracious enough to be such a complete and utter asshole all the time so that I could write him off completely. Declare he was dead to me. Sooo dead. Dead as a doornail. He threw out enough crumbs to keep you following his trail. He was wealthy so the crumbs usually fell in the form of Louis Vuitton bags and Hermes bracelets. Or a phone call once or twice an administration. Unfortunately, as any recovering anorexic will tell you, no matter how decadent, crumbs can never fill you. This isn’t to say I wasn’t willing to try for the sake of my wardrobe.
I spent most of my teen years and 20’s wandering around some pretty bad neighborhoods in my head. Neighborhoods like unworthiness, resentment and blame. There’s a slogan in the Mahayana teachings that says, “Drive all blames onto oneself.” The essence of this slogan is, “When it hurts so bad, it’s because I am hanging on so tight.” Well, I was holding on tight alright but I was “driving all blames onto Dad.” Not at all the same.
As much as I like the Upper East Side, I wished more than anything that he would give me more than a walk down Madison Avenue. I wished he would honor me. I wished he would value me. I wished he would hold a bigger place in his heart for me. I wished for bottomless, full fat latte love. With a sprinkle of cinnamon.
Talk about disappointment.
One of the advantages in being of superior age to an ordinary twenty year old, is that I’ve learned that I can’t will myself into not being disappointed. In fact, I can not will myself into any emotion good or bad. I can’t stand in front of my big shiny affirmations mirror repeating, I am not disappointed, This is fine, I am okey dokey when life just handed me gift-wrapped shit. Nah. It’s more like, “This isn’t a gift; this is shit.” That is what age brings you: acceptance. And gray hair.
Conversely, one of the advantages of being an ordinary twenty year old is that you haven’t really experienced too much disappointment yet. You may have only have acquired a small fanny-packful by then and you probably haven’t purchased your first box of Clairol Age Defy. All I can say is, tick tock.
As you get older, disappointment like gray hairs, tend to take up more space. Big Japanese tourist suitcase-size space. Because as you get older, there has simply just been more time for them to accumulate. Like shoes. And if you aren’t careful you can drag that rolling baggage behind you wherever you go, weighing and slowing you down, stopping from time to time to shove in resentment, blame and bitterness as fast as that Japanese tourist can shove in Gucci from the designer outlet mall.
Yet if you are paying attention, if you aren’t caught up in the distraction circus that is life, each disappointment, each longing, each pain and frustration, each one can change you, if ever so slightly, in the direction of acceptance. That we have no real control, over other people, over what they do or think, over getting our way in anything large in life. Only the small details are under our direct management at best but even then, we lack any real authority. The truth of our existence is that we are in charge of so little.
The beginning of this acceptance is often exhaustion. You’re wiped out. From all the crazy making activity, constant chatter in your head, and ceaseless striving. It happens little by little, day by day until you are finally too tired to hold the tightly held breath of the damaging insistence that life should unfold on your terms. You come to understand that acceptance is an act of kindness towards yourself.
To realize this truth is to breathe new life into you. To realize this truth is to allow life to touch you with openness to all its brutal raw beauty. It’s breauty. To realize this truth is to reach a field of great unknowing without a clue as to what will happen, willing to see what or who will meet you there.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, in the glorious exhale, something more is revealed. And you might get the crazy idea that instead of something being done to you, something was being done for you.
This has been a summer of wonders. Of emptying what was weighing my heart down for so long and refilling and expanding those spaces with something new. When nothing new can get in, that’s death. When you can’t inhale another breath of oxygen into your lungs, you die.
Victimhood is the quicksand of life. Once you become a victim, you may very well remain one for the rest of your life never able to pull yourself free from the “but it’s not fair!” declaration you perfected as a child. Taking no responsibility, no action, no accountability for your mental state and the outcome of your life. Telling everyone and anyone who is within earshot how life has screwed you.
But here’s the fact Jack; life itself is obscenely unfair. Fairness is just not one of the laws of the universe. Write that down and stick it on your affirmations mirror.
At some point, you must start to dig some of the sand out of your way so you don’t lose sight of that truth and once you’re knee deep in that, you need to keep digging deeper until you hit another level of truth; you must never allow yourself to be a victim even if you deserve to be one.
When my father died I decided I was done. Done with being the victim. Done with him being Wrong and me being Right. Done with all those dusty old dried out feelings of resentment, disappointment, and blame. But mostly, done with giving my power away to him to feel worthy and valued and lovable. I mean, he was dead now. What was he going to do with it? And then there is the fact that he actually never asked for it. I built that fortress stone by stone all by myself, climbed its tower, locked the door, gave him the keys and then blamed him for not rescuing me. I played the victim so well, I should have won an Oscar. Or a Golden Globe. Or at least been nominated.
It was in that moment of openness, of acceptance and surrender, of willingness to go to the field and see what would meet me there, that an invisible shift happened in the clenched, achy places of my heart I held for my father. And something new met me there. This was that something,
I am worth my profound love and care. MY profound love. MY Care.
Me? Yes, me. Who knew? How did this slip right past me for so long? The truth of this is so unbearably beautiful and sacred that just to feel it, is to feel the center of your heart.
What I was looking for my father to fill my whole life was something only I could. I have to rescue myself. “Only you can save yourself or you remain unsaved.” (Alice Sebold) I have to find the father inside myself. My children do too. We all do. Even if you already have a father, we still have to find this part of ourselves inside when we need love, strength, consolation or rescue and all the other things we need to get through life. We are in possession of all we need, right here in our own hearts. No one else holds the keys.
You can’t have your father walk you down the aisle, hand you over to that poor, unknowing man standing in his Sunday best at the end of it and expect him to give it to you either. Or take over where your father left off. Because when he fails to deliver to make you feel loved, honored, cherished and valued uncondtionally, you can spend a lifetime and small fortune in divorce attorney retainers searching for someone who will. Looking in all the wrong places.
No one can give that to you. Not your father, your spouse, your mother, your children, your guru, your shrink, no one. Madison Avenue can’t give that to you either. Only you can give that to you.
I wanted my father’s heart, the truth is I actually don’t need it. I never did. I have my own.
As summer ends and the leaves start to turn vibrantly yellow and orange and red, my heart turns more and more, little by little, toward my father in acceptance and love. He was what he was what he was. He was not the World’s Greatest Dad. He was not the World’s Worst Dad. He was simply my dad.