Finding My Father...
FINDING MY FATHER...
Before he was thirty years old, my father had joined the Navy, fought in World War II, become a supervisor for a major electronics company and married my mother. Their first child was a girl, one that I know for a fact he worshipped and adored from the very moment of her birth.
I came along about three and a half years later. I would like to imagine my father's excitement about having a son...someone he could guide from boyhood to manhood. To carry on the family name. To be someone he could be proud of...perhaps even someone to follow in his footsteps.
And in the beginning that is exactly how it was...
“You were the apple of his eye,” my mother once told me.
And he was my hero...my knight in shining armor. We played catch together in the back yard. He taught me to hunt and fish and trap. He had this thing for America and wanted his children to see it. By the time I was twelve I had been to 46 of the 48 continental United States. He took thousands of photographs and I remember watching hours and hours of Super 8 movies...the last of which were in color.
But something happened to me somewhere along the line...somewhere between being that sweet little kid riding on his shoulders at the beach and becoming what he called, “a God damn disappointment!”
As my teenage years approached, it became abundantly clear that my feet were hell bent on following another path...any path but his! I started acting out. I got into a lot of trouble. I was even arrested for breaking into my own high school and expelled for a week!
I was experiencing the most difficult emotions and feelings about myself and my life...feelings that I did not know I needed help sorting out or understanding. I rejected any advice anyone would give me...especially his! I expressed my inner angst by becoming the class clown and the kid known as a rebel. I defied any and all rules and was paying one hell of a price for it.
To my credit, I was very intelligent and as a result I was very creative and original in my acting out. I also displayed signs of relative brilliance in the school subjects in which I was interested.
But when report card time rolled around, the grades I was making did not reflect any of that relative brilliance! And this was at a time when teachers felt compelled to write and include notes about their students. The notes I took home were not very complementary!
I was filled with dread walking home. Having my parents read those things about me was a very traumatic experience. Sometimes I was lectured, most times I was punished. I got more upset each time their disapproving magnifying glass was focused on me and my attention-getting schemes.
My reaction was predictable. I responded by doing more and more things that would bring me more disapproval and more punishment.
Eventually, I learned that I would be treated less harshly if I initiated my own punishment. You could say this was the birth of my inner critic. My mother saw me being hard on myself and so she eased up on me. My father simply saw more disappointment. Although the physical punishments stopped, he turned his back on me and the isolation it caused was even worse.
My mother tried to explain his treatment of me mirrored his own father’s rejection of him...to a T!
He grew silent and distant. He built a wall between us and though I was pretending I didn't care, I did. It was horribly painful being ignored and spurned by the man I’d once considered my hero. I hated him for it but I suppressed my anger. I too pretended I wanted nothing to do with him. We lived under the same roof, but we were a thousand emotional miles apart from each other.
I eventually graduated from high school and was headed off for college. I could not wait to go and get away...out from under his control. I experimented with everything I could not experience while I lived with him...drugs, drinking, sex, independence. And of course being me, I took them all to extremes.
Oddly enough, and luckily enough, I outgrew them rather quickly. I don’t know why but I found myself becoming totally focused on my spiritual growth. I set out on a path to find enlightenment and this God my mother made such a fuss over. In my quest, I strayed far, far away from my Italian Catholic roots. I experimented with Eastern religions and New Age spirituality, knowing full well I was slapping my father and his faith in the face! He belittled what I was doing, calling it me doing my ‘God thing’ and a ‘passing fad’.
But I do not believe for a moment that my intense spiritual searching was simply an expression of my war with my father. It has lasted all my life. It was not a passing fad. But he sure took it that way. There were many hard feelings between us, feelings that hardened into cement as time went by.
In my early twenties I lost my mother. She was indeed my best friend. Though I gave up my apartment to move in with and take care of him as he grieved, we both went about life without much of a relationship with each other. We had stopped trying to change each other, but that wall remained, thick and cold between us. We had both written off the relationship as incapable of repair or any kind of improvement.
Then my own daughter was born. And I can say unequivocally I knew how he’d felt about my sister. I have worshipped and adored my daughter from the very moment she was born.
And then my son came along. Many of you don’t know this, but his mother and I had decided to have our second baby at home. We were both still very much the independent, rebellious hippies of our college days and we planned and prayed and prepared for what would be the greatest experience of our lives.
When I delivered my own son, in the safety and sanctuary of a little house on top of a mountain in the middle of the Pennsylvania woods, my heart became filled with a most incredible love...the single most powerful force I have ever known. And it remains in my heart to this day. As I write this, tears are streaming down my face and blurring my vision.
It was shortly after my son’s birth that I began having the strongest urges to make things right with my father. Instead of going to church, I’d begun taking early Sunday morning walks through the woods...voicing my emotions and thoughts aloud and outwardly. I was trying to corral them...harness them is perhaps a better word, so that I could speak them to him.
When I finally had them all in a coherent shape, I found that I was still lacking the courage to speak them to him, face-to-face. So I opted instead to write him a letter...
I have been thinking a lot about you in these days and I want you to know what I’ve been thinking. It seems that in my pain, confusion and struggle to define myself as someone separate from you, I have rejected you entirely, along with everything you stood for.
Since my son was born I have come to understand a lot more about myself. I realize that in my rebellion, I have set aside a part of me that I refused to allow to develop...one that could have made me a more whole person inside had I not been so blind...so stubborn. I have come to regret it and I want you to know how sorry I am. I am setting out to make changes.
You tried to teach me all that you knew...by your strong example and the way you lived your life. You demonstrated everyday how to be a disciplined, reliable provider for yourself and your family. You showed me how to live safely in the world, with a sense of security and structure. You modeled success in ways that I did my best not to emulate. And I am feeling very sorry about that. It was as if I turned away from your most powerful way of showing me that you loved me.
I can now see that my own sense of self-esteem has been affected by this stance. I am diligently working to change all that. I have never forgotten what you tried to teach me. It is all inside of me. Though I did not accept it then, please know, I do now! I will spend the rest of my life doing what I must to develop within myself the qualities you wanted to pass on to me.
You are very much a part of me and it's time I started accepting this and working with the gifts you have given me. You have passed on to me a legacy of character traits that are my missing link in my development as a person.
I love you, Dad...very much. I don't want to wait until you are on your deathbed or until you are gone to express this. You have given me so much. I want you to know, even as late as it is, that I am beginning to receive and learn from you and the way you lived your life. Growing up is a scary thing, but I'm getting there!
Sending that letter felt like a huge, but necessary risk. How he would respond to my awkward attempt to bare my soul I did not know. I waited for his reply, nervously going out to the mailbox every day. Would my letter make a difference? Would I end up regretting that I ever reached out?
Ten full days went by before I got his response. He must have felt safer responding by a letter too. I opened it up and started crying after the first very sentence....
Your letter has touched me deeper than I can ever convey to you in words. I cried like a baby during and after reading it. You’ve come a long way, further than you realize! Please, don't berate yourself for rejecting me and my values and my world. It was I who rejected you when you didn't conform to what I wanted for you. Rejection is something you learned from me! I blame myself. Don't forget, I was supposedly the adult...you were the child. I should have handled things wiser and more maturely.
Now listen to me carefully. I don’t think it wise to dwell in the past, except if it can help us understand the present and prevent us from making the same mistakes over again. As I said before, you’ve come a long way and I want you to know I am grateful and relieved. I have reacted to your changes very positively. You say growing up is scary and difficult. Don’t I know that! Remember something. I am still trying to grow up too! Let's help each other. I love you very much.
I read that letter again and again. Who was this wise, tender, approachable man? Was this my father? I could not wait to call him on the phone...
"Dad, I got your letter," I said.
"And I obviously got yours," he answered.
We both fumbled for words, but couldn't find the right ones. Finally, he did...
“Jimmy,” he said. “I'm all choked up right now. I can't seem to talk. But I love you. I need very much for you to know this."
I allowed another clumsy but heart-filled silence...
"I love you too Dad," I said.
We both could feel it was best if we got off the phone. What we were feeling was much too rich for words...much too powerful. But we also knew something else...something far more important. A new beginning for us was acknowledged.
I invited him out to meet his grandson soon after that. His time with my boy was sweet and meaningful. When it was feeding time, he and I went out on the patio to have a cold bottle of beer and to talk.
We talked for two hours! I found myself genuinely interested in him, in his past, his dreams, his regrets. I asked him questions as if we were just starting out. We had some significant catching up to do.
Many years are gone by now. He became very old and very ill. He’d lost his hearing so we didn’t speak on the phone very much. Instead, we went back to writing letters. It wasn’t always easy to write to him. I questioned many times how much to reveal about where my life had taken me. You see, at times I felt so immensely guilty that I was not there for him when he needed me most.
Sometimes my letters flowed. Sometimes it felts awkward to write anything at all. We were so profoundly different in our beliefs. Our lifestyles and our frames of reference could not have been more polar. But we were two men relating to each other in the present moment, no longer burdened by our turbulent and troublesome past.
For my father and I, both expertly trained in the art of hiding our emotions and covering up our hurt, our relationship before he passed away last July was very much a miracle. We both found out together that love is stronger than steel, and that the pain of the past could be put behind us. I thank God every day that we healed each other’s wounds and pains before it was too late.
The lesson I learned was profound. For men in this culture to be more interested in being close than in being right is indeed something to celebrate!