By Jacqueline White
I recently watched my husband write a thoughtful note to his Dad and carefully mail it in time for the upcoming Father’s Day holiday. He seemed so satisfied by this opportunity to express love and appreciation for his Dad and I realized that for many like him Father’s Day represents a time of fond reflection and a subsequent tribute to the father-figure in their lives. For me however, the day produces confusing and painful emotions. My own father was a mystery to me. The enigma stems from observing so much about him throughout his life but never really knowing him in any meaningful way.
So for any of you who don’t have a dad in your life or have a less than ideal relationship with your dad or step-dad, read on–you’re not alone.
Before his death my Dad successfully left a 54 year wake of destruction and pain that took the form of 3 divorces, abuse, emotional manipulation of his children, a silent feud with his parents and siblings, as well as a laundry list of negative personality traits that included regular yelling tirades directed at anyone who crossed him, coupled with a general disregard for others.
This biased but accurate description begs the questions: why would anyone put up with such a disagreeable character? Ironically he could also be one of the most charming, gracious and charismatic men ever. When I was young indulgent trips, magical events and generous gifts were the standard and common fare. He was handsome and very often kind. Inevitably however, no matter how normal or stable he seemed, life would always be abruptly interrupted with unexpected outbursts of anger and the subsequent drama which followed. Unfortunately, there were wild swings of affection and love, starkly contrasted with sterile bouts of absence, distance and abuse. As a teenager, the consolation for his erratic behavior evolved into new cars, new clothes, money and lavish trips. Yet however seductive the reward, it never compensated for enduring the unpredictable emotional swings required to maintain any kind of relationship with him. Yet like most children, my longing for a relationship with the man who fathered me, along with my desire to gain his acceptance and approval readily and regularly allowed me to forgive his misdeeds and mistakes. Some of you may have experienced a familiar pattern in your own families.
My Dad’s rage-o’holic moods and the self-pity he often reveled in continued to define who he was and how he related to all around him, including his accepting and adoring children. My uncle once told me that my father was simply unable to tame the demons that raged inside him. He was right and it ultimately consumed his life and existence. What made him so angry, volatile and unable of having a healthy relationship with anyone remains a mystery. By the end of his life he had alienated everyone who had ever attempted to be close to him including his family of origin and all of his children. He had no friends to speak of and excluding a small group of immediate family, very few attended his funeral.
Although I can acknowledge his good qualities (and there were many) as well as a hand full of positive characteristics that I learned and inherited from him, I still can’t bring myself to focus on these things in the respectful way that so many of us are trained to do after someone dies. Instead, I choose to focus on the reality of my experience with him. I purposefully keep the complexities that created his chaotic life alive in my mind and memory so they can be instructive to me.
Although it haunts me that I feel so oddly connected to a man who so poorly fathered me I don’t regret the experience and the wisdom that has emerged from life with an unpredictable and undependable father. In fact, the pain produced from my relationship with him has been instructive, as well as instrumental in helping me become who I am and has also given me insight and strength that I am proud of and depend on regularly. It guides my life in many ways as I ponder my father’s many unexplainable choices, the resulting mistakes and the inevitable consequences they reaped.
Our agonizing relationship helped me marry a man who offers the emotional intimacy and consistency that I always longed for throughout my life. I was careful to select a husband that I was not only attracted to and loved deeply but one who would parent our children with a responsible and enduring commitment. The memory of my father’s struggles, failures and poor example renew me daily and encourage me to overcome the predisposition I often feel toward selfish behavior. I regularly indulge in the pleasure and satisfaction that comes from establishing a stable, happy and peaceful home for my 4 children and am truly delighted to be providing to my family something I longed for but rarely experienced as a child. That’s what the gospel does. It transforms pain of the past into instructive wisdom for the future if we let it.
So as Father’s Day approaches I don’t hold a pity-party for how lacking my own father was, instead I remember his life full of mistakes that I’ve learned from and that have hopefully made me a better mother.
I can’t write about a loving father who nurtured and supported me but I can reflect on the lessons, wisdom and insight that his mistakes and decisions taught me. For some this reality will be so unfamiliar it may be hard to read or even believe. So if you have a great father-figure in your life, be grateful and let him know. If you don’t, please know that you are not alone and good can come from even the most painful past.