I remember the dread each year as mid-June approached. Father’s Day was coming, and the people-pleaser in me that sought peace and happiness would fulfill my daughterly duty and head to the store for a card and gift. But as I stood before the wall of cards, staring back at me were sentimental notes of thanks and love, acknowledgments of the dads who provided strength, guidance, life lessons, invaluable advice, and support. Those cards weren’t for my dad because they weren’t part of our story, so I’d quickly shift my focus to the humor section where I could find a good ol’ joke about the beer he loved to consume. You know, the surface-level cards that allowed you to avoid the elephant in the room. Surface level, just like our relationship.
Sure, scattered somewhere through my memories are good times: him strumming his guitar on the couch, guessing the password to gain entry through the “leg bridge,” Sunday morning wrestling matches with my brothers, sandpaper kisses, him playfully begging for M&Ms as I tossed them in his mouth from afar, our special little treat of always buying a Nestle Crunch bar when we went to the store . . . but many of those faded into the background as the years passed.
When I was a young girl and would get upset and cry, he would make fun of me, calling me a sick moose. When he learned that I experienced sexual abuse at the hands of a family member, he refused to acknowledge it and swept it under the rug. At age 12, he thought it would be hilarious to give me champagne and record me in my loopy state.
He was quick to make fun of others and talk down about them as if he was better than everyone else. When I got my first car and needed repair work done, I asked if he could call his buddy at the shop, and he told me to figure it out myself. For senior prom, I asked if he could help with money for the photos, and he rattled off the amount of child support he paid my mom each month and told me to go ask her, then hung up on me.
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He didn’t tell me that it was okay to be upset and cry. He didn’t protect me when I felt scared and confused. He didn’t tell me he was proud or encourage me to chase my dreams. He didn’t provide guidance on finances or life decisions. He didn’t tell me he loved me. He was never a soft, safe place to land.
It’s no surprise that years later, I began to realize how this shaped the woman I became. I sought out love, acceptance, and validation as a young teen through the attention of boys, becoming intimate at far too young of an age. I began drinking alcohol at the same time, a behavior I had watched him engage in daily. I had a rocky run of relationships in my adult years that also seemed to lack emotional connection (perhaps I couldn’t truly accept an emotionally abundant relationship), ultimately choosing to live a single life because that’s where I felt the most secure. Since becoming a parent and experiencing the immense maternal bond I have with my children, I’ve especially wrestled with how he didn’t appear to feel that way about his family.
But with age comes wisdom, and after years of mulling over all of the things I didn’t experience with—or receive from—my father, I realized: He didn’t give me what I needed because he couldn’t. He was not capable of loving in the form of compassion or guidance, he did not have the awareness to understand that his children innately looked to him as an example, he was not capable of expressing his feelings. You cannot draw water from an empty well. And it felt that his emotional well had been dry his whole life. Accepting this is how I find my peace.
With that wisdom, too came the understanding that I must work through the grief and find the silver lining. Through pain comes beauty, and I’m choosing to focus on all I can provide for my children that my father wasn’t able to provide for me: they know that all emotions—good and bad—are part of being human, and that it’s okay to feel and express them. I talk to them about friendships and school and activities, praise them often, and help them work through feelings of unworthiness or inferiority.
I live every day around the premise of love and work hard to lead by example, showing them how to treat themselves and others with kindness and compassion. And hopefully, if there’s something they need from me that they’re not getting, I’ve taught them how to speak up about it.
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My father and I have essentially been estranged for many years, he has not shown any interest in my life or my kids’ lives. His health and wellness have declined significantly. My brothers and I have swooped in at different times to try to help him out of a hole, even working frantically within the past few years as he was being evicted from his apartment after being scammed out of the small amount of money he had. Through all of this, there was never any gratitude shown, just continued lies and cold shoulders, which of course led to a renewed sense of resentment and anger on my end. The rollercoaster has been intense.
But now the reality has hit me that he’s likely in his last year of life; dementia is setting in among other health issues that are causing a rapid decline. While I feel no emotional connection to my father, I feel a strong sense that, as a human being, he deserves to be at peace in his final months on this earth. It’s time for me to lay down these negative feelings. While I will never know how he feels, it seems that living such an emotionally devoid life is painful in itself. And if that’s been the case for him, I just want him to go knowing that it’s all okay. It may have been painful, but we’re all okay.
Through pain comes beauty. I will continue to focus on the beauty in my life. And Dad, I hope you find your place of beauty and rest peacefully there.