It’s funny how your subconscious makes a liar out of you.
Father’s Day came and went with almost no notice on my part. I saw a Father’s Day post on Ann Althouse’s blog with a picture of her father, asking if you missed yours. I remember thinking it must have been nice to have a father you could miss like that.
My father died seven years ago, two days after Father’s Day. I couldn’t remember the date. I had to call my brother Dave and ask him. I knew it was a Tuesday only because I’d recently reread my ancient post about his death.
On Tuesday, in the CVS, I saw that they’re fundraising for ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Dad died of ALS in 1999.
And this morning, I suddenly realized why I’ve been having trouble sleeping for the past week. Tomorrow is the anniversary of my father’s death.
Dad had disowned me more than three years before he died, following a fight we had. It was a stupid fight. He got mad at me over something extremely minor, then made it worse by mocking me. It culminated in my saying I was leaving, that I was tired of fighting, and wasn’t going to stay if he was going to continue.
“If you walk out that door, don’t bother coming back,” he said.
“Are you threatening to disown me?” I asked.
“If you walk out that door, don’t come back.”
And out the door I went, with an expletive deleted, slamming the door behind me.
I don’t do well with ultimatums. I don’t do well with being told what to do. This is probably in great part because my father and my mother gave me ultimatums, and told me what to do, my entire life—including into adulthood, although their success rate after I left the house has been hovering around zero. There was never such a thing as compromise or explanation. There was only “Because I said so.” There was capriciousness, yelling (lots of yelling), punishments far out of proportion to the crime. When I was in sixth grade, my mother tore up my entire comic collection when I sneaked out of the house to play instead of doing my homework. I came home to see two paper grocery bags next to my bed completely filled with comic book scraps. (And a big tip of the hat to my grandfather, who gave her the idea, and who passed along the crappy childrearing practices he had learned from his mother, the woman who never forgave her son for breaking off an engagement with a rabbi’s wife because he fell in love with my grandmother instead.)
But I digress.
It’s difficult to remember the good times, because the bad times still weigh very heavily on my mind whenever I reminisce. For three years after he disowned me, I called my father every few months to ask if he wanted to talk. Actually, I think it might have been more like two and a half years, because eventually I stopped trying and simply accepted that he was never going to speak to his only daughter again. He had a sister that he stopped speaking to in the 1950s. I figured if he could disown a sister, he could disown a daughter. During that period, I think I spent Father’s Day with my mother at her brother’s lake house.
We were invited there every year. Prior to the estrangement, I used to get furious at my aunt acting as though my father didn’t exist. Her explanation that she was only being polite never sat right with me. My mother’s family tried throughout my teen years to get my brothers and me to dislike and resent our father, because they did. It was a pretty stupid tactic. All it really did was makes us mad at them.
On the day my uncle and his family moved into the downstairs of the two-family house they had bought with my mother, my uncle called my brothers and me downstairs. He wanted to talk about our living together, blahblahblahblahblah. He concluded with “I’d like you to consider me like a father to you.” I stood up, looked daggers at him, and said, “We already have a father,” and walked out, followed by my brothers.
Yeah, I know. I was a difficult teenager. I blame my parents. But that was a very typical attitude among our aunts and uncles regarding my father: Pretend he doesn’t exist, and maybe he’ll go away.
I remember one instance during my early teens when my father said something to me while picking us up for our weekly Sunday visitation. I stalked out of the car and stayed home and sulked, instead of doing whatever with Dave and Eric and Dad. My aunt and mother used the fight to badmouth Dad to me, until I finally told them that it was one stupid fight, that he was still my father, and to leave me alone. I think the only thing I hated more than fighting with my father was the way it was used by my mother and her family to try to separate me from him.
As the saying goes, we put the FUN in dysfunctional, my family. And these stories are only the tip of the iceberg.
Of course I loved my father. It is extremely difficult, this dichotomy of my feelings toward him. One of my favorite sayings growing up was “I’m my father’s daughter,” not least because saying it to my mother really pissed her off, and it was a way of giving her a tiny bit of payback that she couldn’t punish me for. But I meant it completely. I used that phrase to explain my stubbornness to yield a point I believed in during late-night discussions at the college newspaper. I used it to describe my tendency towards the iconoclastic. I used it to explain why I love to scrap. My father, the lefty, influenced how I play sports. I bat left, throw right. I am left-handed in all sports that require holding a stick of some kind. I have a decent left hook, learned from hours of being taught how to box on our rare visits to his brother’s house, using the treasure trove of toys my older cousins no longer played with.
We had some very good times, growing up. We went to the New York World’s Fair. We went to Niagara Falls. We spent weeks and weekends at Bradley Beach and Asbury Park and Long Beach Island. He took us to Fort Dix on Family Day, where I shot an M-16 (okay, the soldier shot it but I had my finger on his trigger finger), climbed on a tank, and rode down from a tower in a parachute harness. He never forgot Valentine’s Day, though it took him years to finally concede that I will never like chocolate with nuts and stop buying me boxed chocolates. I came home from college one Valentine’s Day to find a pile of my favorite chocolate candies on the kitchen table: M&M’s, Mallomars, a Nestle bar—that’s the dad I remember fondly.
But it’s hard to reconcile the dad who made up a special song for me (“Meryl, Meryl, who’s my favorite gi-rrul?”) with the father who could disown his own daughter for three years, only to make up with her because he was diagnosed with a fatal illness. There was no real reconciliation. There was buried anger on my part, and guilty feelings on his. I know he hated that he’d missed the last three years of his life with me. And it wasn’t just with me. He refused to go to my brother’s house if I showed up for family occasions. He missed his grandson’s birthday rather than be around me. He didn’t talk to me during his own brother’s funeral. I walked up to him and said hello, and he would only nod at me.
Even more frustrating, when I asked, Dad didn’t even remember the fight—he only remembered that I had told him to fuck off and walked out the door. So I jogged his memory, and he agreed he had been a jerk. But by then, I had three years of rebuffs to bury, and it wasn’t very easy, and it isn’t very easy, to let go.
We did right by him, my brothers and me. That’s the ghost that hung in the air between us from February, when Dad called to tell me he was dying, until June, when the ALS reached his lungs and stopped his breathing. I knew it, Dave knew it, Eric knew it, and Dad knew it: We did right by him as his children, even though he didn’t do right by us as our father. He kept asking, “I did all right, didn’t I? I wasn’t perfect, but I was okay.” Sure, we’d tell him. You were a good father. It was only when we weren’t around him that we shook our heads in disbelief at the way a man can lie to himself. And our level of disbelief hit infinity when my mother and father, at the end of my father’s life, were suddenly on good terms. She came to visit frequently. They talked about how great their children were. We would listen incredulously, roll our eyes, and shake our heads. The words we were hearing from them bore no relation to the experiences we’d lived.
On the other hand, my brother is an excellent father. And I now teach, and adore children, who seem to like me very much. The lesson we learned was not to treat children the way we were treated. It’s worked so far.
I’ve had trouble sleeping all week. I knew something was bothering me, but I didn’t know what. This morning, I figured out the what.
The anniversary of Dad’s death is tomorrow morning. He he had wakened sometime after midnight and started thrashing around in bed, yelling that his doctors were trying to take his money. Hypoxia had set in. His lungs were failing, and he was hallucinating. I was in Richmond for a job interview. While I slept, Eric flew to his bedside and watched him lapse into a coma, then die.
Later that morning, Dave called me to give me the news. I had to suck it up and go on the interview. It took most of the afternoon, and I stopped at a favorite barbecue restaurant for dinner. I ordered a glass of wine and the beef brisket, and wrote my thoughts down in a notebook. I don’t know what happened to that notebook. I imagine it’s in my belongings somewhere, unless it got tossed out during the last move. I probably wrote something in my journal when I got home. I haven’t looked at that thing in years. But Dad was dead, and it was over. I thought.
So it seems, Ilyka, that I was wrong when I said that Father’s Day doesn’t affect me. It does affect me. I’d just forgotten exactly why.