I’ve been thinking about my father a lot lately. Which I know is kind of a normal thing to do for most people – to think about their parents, whether they are living or deceased. While it may be normal for most, I’ve never made a lot of space in my heart/brain for thoughts about my dad, minus the times when I absolutely had to – when he was sick; when he was dying; when and immediately after he died. See, we didn’t have what you would call a close relationship. He was a hard man, born in 1931 and somewhere in the middle of eight children in Red House, West Virginia. He dropped out of high school and joined the Air Force at a very young age. He was in the Korean War and Vietnam. He retired from active duty when I was little and spent much of the rest of his working life travelling as a field engineer for an aerospace manufacturer, away from us, away from being able to really know him. He was stoic, and not forthcoming with feelings – pretty much ever. There were usually parts of fucked up F-16 gearboxes or fuel pumps or what-have-you in his company car trunk. He would try to teach me what they were and what they did. I was more interested in the magic of dance at age 13 – unsure of how to learn from a man who was kind of a stranger to me. A mean stranger, sometimes. As a child, my father was the brooding orange glow of a cigarette tip early in the dark of morning, or late in the night after the news was over and children should be in bed. There was just an ethereal body behind that smoke, a man I couldn’t make out in either the dark or the light, really. And as I grew up, he was just not really…there.
But when he was home, he was the disciplinarian. Clearly exhausted from the effort it took to parent me (since my sister had long fled the depression and repression that was our happy family home), my mom was in give-up mode by the time my dad would come home from being away for 2 weeks at a time. We were constantly moving for his job, and yet he still had to travel. It sounds like I’m knocking my dad for trying to always go for the better position in order to provide for us. I probably am. It was fucking hard. I had lived in 10 different houses and neighborhoods in 4 different states by the time I graduated high school. It sucked. I was forever starting a new school, forever not fitting in, forever not making friends. I was a fucked up, lonely child. I’m deeply grateful for many of the traits I now possess because of (and despite) my childhood – but there’s no denying that it was hard, hard, hard. YES I AM AWARE it could have been harder, but I am not playing the comparison game that is ever so popular. He was The Enforcer, not in a physically abusive way but in a disappointing-look/glare kind of way. I mean, I was a pretty good kid and tried to stay out of trouble. It didn’t mean I didn’t get punished, though. My parents were old-school and strict. No closed door to your bedroom EVER. No boys in your bedroom, EVER. Shit, I didn’t even have a TV in my bedroom until I had to move back in at 22 for a hot minute. No going out past 10 on a school night as a teen, and they knew where you were as best they could without cell phones or GPS…if I would have been a different child, I would have tested those limits a whole lot more. I am a rule-follower though, and never sneaked out. Lied a bit about exact whereabouts, sure. Never tried anything besides drink a little in high school. I was a good student. None of it was ever enough. Or at least, enough to win his approval, to get his attention, to feel…loved.
Look, I know he loved me in whatever way he could. But knowing it in your head is not the same as feeling it in your heart. Here was a man who was never really taught what that meant, was never given a model for what that should look like – his own parents were close-mouthed people who didn’t emote. Whenever we would travel to see my grandparents in California, the visit was full of kids and cousins and aunts and uncles, but Grandma and Grandpa barely spoke. Maybe it was just me. Shit. I don’t know. My Grandma was an expert baker, and I am pretty sure that is how I inherited the cakes-and-pies gene. I digress. I am saying that my father came from somewhat abusive, stoic people and he learned how to be from them. It was not close. It was not loving. It was not enough either.
So, through generations of alcoholism on my mother’s side and too many kids and a restrained depression-era love on my father’s, I grew up resentful. A demonstrative child trapped in a sad, frustrated house with zero authentic emotions. I started working at 16 part time. I worked full time, all the time, from 18 on. It’s just what you did then. I did what I could to survive – I built strong AF walls, I built a fantastic Mind Palace, and I got the fuck out as soon as humanly possible. Many mistakes were made. Oh, and I also started drinking righteously at about 18. Like mother, like daughter. Anything to feel more loved. Anything to feel more accepted, to feel cooler, to feel like I belonged somewhere. Eventually, I thought that moving away to college would be the answer, and the necessary step in order to make college a thing in which I did more than dabble after spending 3 years out of high school starting classes and just dropping out eventually. I remember that my father was always the one from whom I would ask to borrow money, with the admonition of “don’t tell your mother” – which is clearly fucked up in its own right. I worked all through school, but still spent way out of my means. I graduated. I moved even farther away from my parents. I got married. I got divorced. I then spent the next 10-odd years living within driving distance of them and basically doing whatever they needed me to do, whenever they asked. Which led to what Brené Brown would call a small
breakdown. Which really looked more like
But what it led to was a few years of therapy (which, you know, never end really), and tough introspective work, and getting rid of shit that just did not serve me any longer. What THAT led to was realizing that it is not just okay but fucking necessary to have boundaries. Maybe sometimes what you or I might think as extreme boundaries. I don’t know. I just know that I didn’t want to wake up and be 60 and wonder what the fuck I had done, spending 20+ years of my life taking care of my aging parents. For some, I know that it is in the blood. For some, I know that it is duty. For me, it doesn’t work. And I had already spent 10 of those 20+ years doing a thing I didn’t want to do. He died after suffering 6 months with a growing brain tumor, and I cried at the ceremony at the National Cemetery – but mostly because a 21-gun salute was a symbolic event that produced a visceral reaction. At least it did for me. None of this means (I must keep telling myself) that I am devoid of compassion for my parents. I am not. I was not. But I am also not a bottomless well from which to draw, leaving nothing left for myself.
I don’t really know how to wrap this up. My feelings about my father – his life and his death and my intersection with those events – are complicated. I loved him out of duty. I am jealous when I talk to other friends who have lost their fathers. They feel a gaping hole in their lives that they cannot fill, not with all the soil on this earth or all the other earths. I don’t have this hole. I have a weird, smoke-like vapor passing through. But I will say that I think he watches me. In Texas, he was a blue jay. Here, he is jets. Fucking loud, all-the-time Marine training jets up by where I work. They rattle the windows and shake the ground, letting me know he’s here. I look up to the deafening sky when they pass over and say out loud, “thanks Dad.”
I don’t know how I mean it when I say it.