I didn’t reach the point of appreciating my father until I was in my early thirties. Before that, when I wasn’t ignoring him I was blaming him, and when not doing either of those I was asking for money. I didn’t have the words in my head for it, but I felt entitled to whatever I could get because of how violent he was, in mind and body, when I was growing up.
Then, for no apparent reason and without plan, we talked for the first time about those days, and I let him have it. I blurted out all my old resentments, listed his crimes like a prosecutor in court and used every rhetorical trick in my book to try to make him feel guilty. I didn’t have a goal in mind; did I want him to break down and cry, or to beg my forgiveness, or to fight back? I didn’t know. I just kept talking, angrily, accusingly, viciously.
He tried to keep up but he was outmatched. I was well educated, outspoken, practiced at arguing, speaking, rhetoric. I was young and energetic and full of anger and pain and myself. We were alone in his house, his parents house where he’d escaped after the divorce fifteen years earlier, but if anyone had been there to witness they would have thought me cruel, like a young boxer taking delight in beating up an old champ.
Then something unexpected happened. He looked at me with red, tearing eyes and said “I don’t remember any of the things you are talking about. I did the best I knew how. I’m sorry”.
I did the best I knew how.
I stopped talking. I stopped gesticulating. I stopped breathing. After a few seconds I found that I was still on the edge of my chair, leaning toward him, leaning at him, as I had been doing all through my diatribe. I looked away. I sat back in the chair and gripped the soft cushioned arms with my hands. I got my breathing back. And with my breath came the tears.
I knew in that moment he had freed me. He’d given me the key to forgiving him and myself and to drop the heavy duffel bag of anger and resentment and blame I’d carried for two decades. I didn’t know what I wanted when I started in on him, but then I knew what it was and he’d given it to me, tenfold.
He lived another sixteen years after that day and I did all I could in that time to help him, love him and support him. I sat by the hospice bed with my brothers and whispered “It’s all okay. You don’t have to do anything more. We have it all handled.” I watched him exhale his last breath. Later, when the nurses had laid him out under tight sheets I kissed his cold forehead and whispered “Good work, old son.”
I was not the model son in those sixteen years. But I started doing something I’d rarely done before: calling him on Father’s Day when I was far away, or taking him to dinner at his favorite place when I was in town. We never spoke again of that day, of that argument, of the past. There was no need.
This morning my phone rang the text message sound. It was from my stepson, about to turn 29, living far away in a place he loves and succeeding at a career he loves, at that wonderful and frightening crossroad in life where one is at the peak of their ability and the road is open to act in the world and make one’s own place in it.
The text read: “Happy Father’s Day! I’m really grateful you’re in my life. Thank you for everything Craig!!! :)
I did the best I knew how.