By Chas August
In my memories, my relationship with my father was always tempestuous. I am the third of his five offspring, the second of three boys, the middle child. For as long as I can remember, 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, something that 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.
My parents were both quick to humiliate, yell and, ultimately use physical violence –mostly slapping, occasionally spanking – 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 Human Awareness Institute personal growth workshop I attended in my late thirties, the leader, Stan Dale, 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!
I was furious at Stan. “Let my Dad off the hook?” I shouted. “F*ck you! You don’t know anything about how it felt to be so belittled! You don’t know how worthless I still feel because my Father was too much of an SOB to ever say that I might be good at something!” I raged at Stan until the rage was spent and all I had left was sadness. All the while Stan agreed with me, validating my anger.
When I could hear it, Stan said something like “You deserved better. You deserve to know you are unconditionally loved, seen and respected. Your Dad clearly could not, and still cannot, offer you that. So how long will you keep trying to get water out of his empty well?”
I wrestled with that question for weeks after the workshop, and I slowly 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 father him than he was to father me. Eventually, I made the decision to give my Dad what I wanted my Dad to give to me. I decided to teach my Dad how to tell me “I love you.”
I began by writing 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.
I began to phone him every week or two, always asking him about his life and his accomplishments, never telling about mine. Often all he would say was a short sentence about a job he was doing and then he’d be done. Sometimes he would barely bark out “I’m fine”. Once in a while he would actually tell me something he did that 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 give to my Dad what I had always wanted him to give me. 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 never did get that “water” from his “empty well”). I did find my way back to loving him. And when Dad died he knew I loved him, and I knew he loved me.