In my memories, my relationship with my father was always tempestuous. I am the third (middle) of his five offspring, the second of three boys. Dad was a drunk. I used to say he was an alcoholic, but it always felt like I was trying to prettify something that wasn’t pretty and didn’t deserve the effort. For the longest time I blamed the drinking for what I considered to be his abusive behavior, but he got sober for a couple of years in my late teens, and he was the same ornery cuss as when as he was drunk. Then he fell off the wagon again.
Looking in Dad’s eyes I always saw disgust, disdain, dislike. We argued about everything. Whatever he asserted, I vehemently opposed. Whatever I asserted, he dismissed and berated. Dad was a WWII veteran. I was an anti-war (Viet Nam) protester. Dad was a “Nixon Democrat”. I was a left-leaning hippie. Dad was an engineer. I was a philosopher. I thought he was a male chauvinist. He thought I was a “hairy woman”. Dad worked with tools, making and repairing things. I worked with ideas and feelings, accepting and exploring them.
It felt to me that my parents were both quick to humiliate, yell and, ultimately use physical violence as disciplinary tools. I was, and am, a rebel, pushing limits, bending, (sometimes breaking) the rules, questioning and resisting authority, subversive. In other words, I was often in trouble.
In my heart of hearts I desperately wanted my Dad’s respect, admiration and approval. I wanted to hear a heartfelt “I love you” and maybe even “I’m so proud of you.” Believing there was no hope of ever hearing either, I closed my heart to my Dad, moved 3000 miles away and created a life far removed from my family of origin.
At a personal growth workshop I attended in my late thirties, the leader, after listening to me complain that was “raised by wolves”, suggested that it was time for me to “let my father off the hook”. Listening to my story, he agreed with me, my father was clearly unable to perform the job of fathering to my satisfaction and so it was time for me to give up all hope for a better yesterday and fire him!
It took a bit of time, but I came to see that my father couldn’t give me what he didn’t have. I began to see his drinking as his retreat from the constant onslaught of criticism and abuse he was most likely heaping on himself. Knowing his parents, hearing stories about his childhood, I came to see that I was better equipped to be a loving father for him than he was to be a loving father for me. Eventually, I made the decision to give to my Dad what I wanted my Dad to give to me. I decided to teach my Dad how to say I love you.
First I wrote a letter telling my father every gift I received as a result of being his son. There’s an old saying that “Strong breezes make strong trees”, and some of these gifts were a direct result of being raised in such a stormy environment, but I did not distinguish between the gifts that felt pleasant to receive and the ones that came with sadness, pain, fear and shame. “Dear Dad” I wrote, “ I’m writing this letter to appreciate you for teaching me _________.” I thanked him for the happy moments – music, jokes, laughter; and for the not-so-happy moments – teaching me how strong I am, how self-reliant.
Next, I began to phone him every other week or so, always asking him about his life and his accomplishments, never telling about mine. Often he would say a sentence about a job he was doing and be done. Sometimes he would barely bark out “I’m fine”. Once in a while he would actually tell me something he was proud of. No matter how much or how little he shared, I always praised him and thanked him for telling me. I ended every phone call telling him “I love you. Dad”.
At first he just grunted an obligatory “yeah.” After a few months he began saying “I love you, too, son.” And, miracle of miracles, after about six months of calls, my Dad actually said “I love you” to me BEFORE I managed to say it to him!
I didn’t know we’d only have a few more years for me to father my Dad, and I’m really glad that I didn’t start a day later than I did. I did fire my Dad. I stopped looking to him to give me what I wanted and deserved from a father. I did not stop loving him. And when Dad died he knew I loved him, and I knew he loved me, and we both had had a few years practicing how to tell each other.