Father’s Day for imperfect dads
The happy family is a myth for many.
Every Father’s Day there are tributes to all the perfect dads out there. Glowing praise, love and gratitude illuminate the virtual halls of social media as these dads bask in their well-earned praise. I’ve known some remarkable dads — some in my own family.
Mine was not one of them.
I can’t exactly blame him. He was shredded from the git-go by his academic parents who had the emotional intelligence of honey badgers (sorry, honey badgers). He distrusted love — hated to be touched. He and his brother — gorgeous boys who grew up into handsome men — were harmed past repair. My father was the rage. My uncle was grief.
I only found this out when I was a teenager. Before that, I thrashed about, trying to get his attention — trying to break through. I loved him so much and I think he loved me (at least the perfectly behaved, far prettier theoretical child he thought he’d adopted), but the barrier of his profound damage was insurmountable.
I have known some pretty special dads and not all of them biological. My oldest is a fantastic stepdad to his lovely wife’s marvelous son. My older daughter’s partner is a doting dad to three and my younger daughter’s husband is the sweetest papa imaginable. I get to see great dads on a regular basis. So I have a good idea of how it works — I just didn’t see it firsthand much, particularly not as a child.
Turns out a lot of my agemates had problematic parents. People who seemed to have it so together, people I thought were better than me on every level, who seemed to have happy childhoods often suffered private torments with their parents that leave me in tears when they tell me about them. Some of the things their fathers said to them make me want to crawl back through time and punch the bastards’ lights out. And then kick them when they’re down.
My father’s rages were sudden and vesuvial. One minute I was at peace. The next, I would unwittingly say something sassy and boom! He would erupt out of his chair, face beet red, veins standing out, teeth bared, hand raised and I was in full flight. It felt like he wanted to murder me and would if he could catch me, which he always did. Those spankings were hard as beatings — he used the full force of his arm, spending his rage in violence, then turfing me into my room to go hungry until morning, however long that took. Between his violence and the 45 minute slap marks my mother left on my face, it’s no real surprise I have severe, chronic PTSD.
And yet — he was clever and funny and even though he could be mean as a rattlesnake, he could also be kind. Unlike my mother, he never gaslighted me (you haven’t lived until you tell your mother a story, have her tell you it never happened, then overhear her telling the same story to your brother half an hour later). He never invalidated me like she did, either — there’s nothing like talking to someone and have them begin speaking to the new person in the room when you’re mid-word, just as if you ceased to exist the moment someone more interesting came along. My father could be a real beast, but he never made me feel like I wasn’t quite all there — mentally or physically.
And I loved him.
I thought he was the most handsome man ever. I was proud that he was an anthropology professor and rode his bicycle to campus every day. I loved his innate athleticism. I loved how he could knock out an obsidian arrowhead with only a rock and the obsidian in about 20 minutes. I loved that he could go into the wilderness with nothing more than a pocket knife and a waterproof lighter and come out having gained weight. He taught survival from an anthropological perspective, and I was proud of that, too.
More than that, I understood him. His rage became my rage. His damage became mine. He made sure of it. The odd result was that I got him in ways that few others did — and it engendered an empathy that I actually didn’t expect.
I knew his pain and that made it impossible to ever truly hate him.
Toward the end of his life, after my southern belle mom — who had always culled me from the herd; they were her men, after all — had passed, I began a campaign of unrelenting, unremitting unconditional love. No matter how mean he got, I responded only with love. It took a few years, but such love can be pretty hard to resist. The phone calls began to open with “Hey sweetie!” and end with “So glad you called. I love you.” He still couldn’t be in a room with me without getting mean — just seeing me triggered something in him — but over the phone, it was good and I took it. It was better than anything that had gone before, after all.
Not all dads are greeting card fodder. Some of them are just not that great. Others are truly monstrous and those fathers can take their nasty asses straight to hell and stay there. But as for the rest, they still raise some pretty good kids, by and large. So here’s to the ones who at least stuck it out. Who were so flawed they could never really be what their kids needed, but loved them as best they could.
Perhaps it’s time for some “I forgive you, Dad” cards. Seems like an idea whose time has come…