“No. I Am Your Father”

The premature loss of my mother has been one of the defining events of my life. When she was diagnosed with the cancer that would claim her life she was one year younger than I am at this writing and the three years she lived after that were difficult for everyone, mostly for her. I’m not special in this way. Lots of people lose parents and other loved ones before their times in painful circumstances. There’s something profound about a premature loss. Besides the still-lingering sadness I have and the loss of her presence in my world, there are aspects of life with her I was counting on but will not know, the loss of which I still grieve over. Just a few years earlier we had somewhat completed that transition from parent / individuating child to really good friends. I enjoyed her company and conversation. I always felt close to her, but we were close in a new way and I was looking forward to a rest-of-my-life experience of that closeness.

My father and I had not been that close and there had been some bumpy episodes and years. We did have our moments though. He is an attorney and was an adjunct professor of Business Law at CSU Fullerton when I was working on my undergraduate minor in business shortly after I had begun living on my own. I took his class, which was required, suspecting that it might be against university policy to take a class when one’s father is the professor, but I took it anyway. It met one evening each week and we almost always went out afterwards for coffee. I was trying to understand him, to move our relationship to a different, better place, although I could not have articulated that at the time. I just knew I enjoyed getting to know him this way.   Taking the class gave me an appreciation and respect for what he knew and his point of view. Those evenings out made me feel proud that he was my father, that I had him to myself. I had not felt that way, desirous of him, since I was young. As I said, it had been bumpy.

I cannot imagine two people being more different than we are in almost every way. We have different diet and fitness preferences, different tastes in music, film and television (which I do not watch at all), clothes, politics, religion, books, communication styles and temperament. We are just as different as two people could be. It’s not just that we have different tastes, it’s that we truly are vastly different. I use a Mac, he uses an old PC. I see his mannerisms and expressions in myself sometimes, but that’s about it. I’m sure this made it hard for him to understand me when I was young and I don’t mind saying that he still exasperates me as an adult.

The father-son relationship holds a powerful place in our culture. Whether it is Abraham intending to sacrifice Isaac, Oedipus killing his father Laius, or the contemporary story of Luke Skywalker trying to reclaim his father, Darth Vader, from the dark side in Star Wars, this relationship holds inherent seeds of conflict, most often a natural by-product of the separation and individuation process and the struggles toward independence and intimacy. [i]

There’s quite a bit of research that deals with the work adult men and their fathers have before them. I feel I have always had an intuitive sense that there was a day of reckoning coming when I would have to confront my own issues with my father. Perhaps it was the premature loss of my mother and the realization that I have one parent left, my own growing sense of mortality, or something else. Whatever the motivation, that time arrived in earnest in the summer of 2008. I had just moved to Virginia to teach at James Madison University, but I was still spending a number of months each year in California. An unexpected event that summer required that I ask my father if I could stay with him and his wife at his house for a number of weeks while I taught summer school at CSU Fullerton. It was uncomfortable to have to ask but I didn’t have a choice and they graciously welcomed me. Since then I’ve been staying with him each time I come out and this has given us both an incredible opportunity. We are in close quarters for extended periods of time multiple times each year.

I understand that our time together is short even in the best case. There is not going to be a resolution to every problem and misunderstanding we’ve had. If there is a final destination of this process for me, it was captured in a list of twenty-five dreams I wrote down for myself a few years ago. These are not goals necessarily, just dreams. Two of the twenty-five relate to my father; “Say goodbye to my father with fullness & peace,” and, “Leave those I love with the knowledge they were loved and that their love was received.” If there is a destination for me, it is this. These two dreams guide my intentions towards my father.

Sometime I may write about the specifics of what this whole thing has been like for me.  Maybe I’ll ask him about it too. We haven’t spoken about this explicitly. He doesn’t know that I have these designs.  Losing my mother early has informed my relationship with my father. On the surface, we all know that we should tell those we love that we love them while we still have the chance, that we should do the things we want to do with them while we can, share the things we want to share. I knew my mother was dying and I did my very best to love her in every way I knew how to do. In the 17 years since she’s been gone it has been the things that I didn’t know to do that bother me, and thankfully I can still do something about that with my father. I can channel what I wish I had done with her to what I can still do with him, for his sake, for our sake and for my sake after he’s gone too.  With that in mind, I would like to outline four ways that has shown up for me with him, four choices I have made to let him know he was loved and that his loved was received and to be able to say goodbye with fullness and peace when that time comes.

First, I have taken stock of our relationship over the years and have tried to find a comfortable equilibrium for what is possible and desirable in terms of any reconciliation and resolution.  These were obstacles for me in getting to love, fullness and peace. We all have our own unique work to do within the contexts of our own relationships. Only we can prescribe that for ourselves.

The lion’s share of my work on our relationship has been internal.  I have had to study him and our difficult dynamic. I have had to be very patient, deliberate about understanding him and the ways I have misunderstood him, to see the ways he thinks and to uncover the ways he expresses his love, to put what I have perceived as his weaknesses or the ways he has not been perfect into some perspective. I have had to do so with no expectation of receiving anything back, that it will be reciprocated or that anything will change in his behavior and attitude towards me.  The insights I have gained from all of that have brought some healing and salve, as understanding always does, without obligating him to do anything.  It has allowed me to cover him and forgive him, not in the sense of pardoning him for anything he has done wrong, but in “al-‘Afuw,” erasing even any sense of wrong, as the winds erase all traces, all tracks in the desert sand. Remarkably or not, this work has changed at least my perception of his behavior and attitude towards me.

Second, I know I have to get as much of the information related to processes, recipes or any of the other important “ways they do things” I need or want from him. I cannot believe that I have no way of getting my mother’s recipe for spaghetti sauce, meatballs (our own mothers’ meatballs are always the best, aren’t they?), or any number of my favorite dishes she used to make. They’re gone forever.

Third, there is no substitute for time spent together. I believe this is true in all my important relationships.  So much of the bonding between people happens in the mundane day-to-day routines. For me, that means taking trips across the country to be with him during my school breaks, sometimes doing nothing much more for two weeks than sitting in the same room together, each of us on his own computer playing games, web-browsing or sitting with him in front of Fox News shaking my head while he watches. Often it is helping with things that are tougher for him to do hopefully with grace, preserving his dignity and taking the initiative to look for ways to be helpful. We have fun too. We go out to eat, visit friends, go shopping, run errands.  He flew to my daughter’s wedding in June.  Time is really all we have. Do not fall prey to the myth that quality time makes up for the amount of time spent together. It is up to us to decide how that looks in practice based on how high a priority we have made this in our lives.

The fourth is a synthesis of the last two. There are two ways my father and I are alike. We both love sushi and we both suffer from hereditary nerve deafness and wear hearing aids as a result (an inconvenient condition for a musician). When I’m with him we try to go for sushi at least once a week. Those lunches are not always profound and sometimes they’re downright irritating for any number of reasons. Last week’s was different. He was in a mood to reminisce and recall. He often wants to look back, to try to make sense of events in his life, to feel it has been a good and full life, that we had a lot of fun and laughter as a family, that there was love abundant, to come to terms with sorrows and sufferings.  It’s important to him that he recite the full harvest of his life, that I listen, that I hear this. It’s important to me that I listen, that I hear this.

Our stories bring meaning to our lives and help us know who we are. Many societies and cultures know this and practice and cultivate the fabulous art of storytelling. In a one-hour lunch with my dad, I learned all of the following things, and wrote them all down as soon as I got home.

I learned that my grandfather built his house in Flippin, Arkansas for about $40, 000 with the help of friends in his town, most of whom were in their 60s at the time. The house he was in before that, the house I had visited once as a teenager and where I learned to water-ski, had belonged to his wife when they met. My grandfather and his wife loved to fish together. It’s what brought them together after he had been widowed. He particularly liked catfish. Along with potatoes and other vegetables, he grew his own marijuana in the garden.

I learned a number of things about how my parents came to terms with my mother’s illness and impending death. They cried together as the terminal realization sunk in. My mother had gone to see a counselor to talk about quality-of-life and end-of-life issues. My father had asked my mother if she would ever forgive him for all his mistakes. She answered, “I don’t know.” That threw my dad for a loop. It stuck with him for years. He ended up contacting my mother’s counselor to ask about it years later. The counselor told him that my mother had loved him totally and completely and that there was nothing to it.

I learned that her chemotherapy had taken a toll on her kidneys and that had become an issue for decisions regarding ongoing treatment. Her doctor had told them that he would not authorize dialysis to allow her to continue treatment, which made my father angry. He felt it should have been the patient’s choice, not a matter of economics, as he suspected was the case. I had always assumed they had not come to terms with death, that they were in denial, but my father assured me this was not the case. He felt she should fight as long as she wanted to fight. He told me about the moment that she finally said, “Let’s get on with it” at the end. She was ready.

I got all of this in rich detail in a one-hour lunch at a sushi bar. My lesson from all this is that there is a great deal of stuff we would want to know but don’t even know to ask about. It’s important to me to get my family’s stories, to learn my history, their history, our history, as much as I can, and then to make a record of it somehow if I need to. Otherwise, like the meatballs, they’re gone forever, and these are much more important than meatballs. There are some things I would like to know specifically, but there are many more things I don’t even know that I don’t know. I can’t learn everything of course, but I can learn quite a bit simply by asking questions, by listening, by exploring the dynamics, the nuance and richness, how they felt about things, how they came to make certain decisions, all in the course of casual dialogue and conversation. My father has always been willing to share. I consider it my responsibility to set up a non-judgmental and safe environment conducive to openness. Ask open questions and listen.  You used to be very good at this as a child. “Then what happened?”

Nothing can offset the loss of a parent. I expect to mourn when my father dies and I hope that’s still quite a number of years off. I do expect to let him know that he was loved and that his love was received and to say goodbye to him with fullness and peace. It’s all a stew of intense, competing and different feelings, one of life’s many absurdities. How can I mourn and feel a sense of loss, not completely fulfilled or resolved in the relationship, and still say goodbye with fullness and peace? Perhaps I will only know that I have come to realize those two dreams more or less, in mourning. But there’s no dress rehearsal as they say, and time is all we have.

I welcome your own thoughts in the Comments below. How have you undertaken loving your parents as you and they both age? What has been important for you and what has been successful?

[i] Katz, Shawn H. “Healing the Father-Son Relationship: A Qualitative Inquiry into Adult Reconciliation.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology 42, no.3 (2002): 13-52.

17 thoughts on ““No. I Am Your Father”

  1. This should be published. BTW, if you haven’t tried this yet – give the meatballs and sauce recipe a try. You may surprise yourself and it will seemingly lessen the “loss” of the original and it’s something of a memoria.

    p.s. Branded saved my life. Peace

  2. This brought tears to my eyes!

    For me, I’ve been struggling more with my relationship with my parents. They have in recent years become very mortal. My dad had cancer and survived, my mom has recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

    My dad’s cancer was the catalyst for me getting into counseling to deal with my anger towards him, for not dealing with his anger issues when I was growing up. Since then the dynamic of our relationship has changed to well, still always sarcastic, but friendly. I’ve learned to discern when Dad is simply being his curmudgeonly self and when he’s actually being a dick.

    My mother’s Parkinson’s diagnosis has started to improve our relationship. For years I felt as if she had no interest in having a relationship with me, but the difference since she’s gone on the Parkinson’s meds has been remarkable.

    Having said all that, I’m several thousand miles away without the ability to get out there as frequently as I feel like I should and the brunt of their care (cleaning their house, running occasional errands for them, etc) falls onto my sister who lives nearby but is on full time disability and raising her granddaughter.

    It’s a tremendously difficult thing when the parent becomes the child and you have to be responsible for making the long term decisions for their care. I don’t know that I’m doing it well or graciously and it frustrates me that their illnesses had to be the springboard toward a better relationship.

    I know things are quickly reaching a point where mine are going to need more intensive care, but like children first learning to walk, they want to prove they can do it on their own and are digging in with the sort of stubbornness normally found in a toddler.

    But at least we’re talking about it…

  3. I am in my early 40s and my folks are hitting their 70s. Though I grew up conservative Christian, in the past few years I have become a bit of a liberal agnostic. This change of heart troubled my parents to the point of anger. However, anger was not an attitude they wanted to live with, so we simply never broach religious or political discussions for the most part. My mom stated at one point that she never reads my blog, preferring to remember me “how I was” (like I died or something) 🙂 My brothers have maintained their evangelical rootedness, so I have found myself a little bit on the outside of the family loop.

    Until these last few years, I have never had to navigate the waters of difference within my family. I think it has been a bit of a learning curve for all of us, so I am always interested to hear the insights and suggestions of those who have been treading this path for awhile. Thanks for sharing this.

  4. Great blog post, Joe. I love it when people dare to open up and share intimate thoughts and feelings about issues that are common to all of us. Who hasn’t found that navigating parent-child relationships can difficult at times?

    My father and I were different in many ways, and that made building bridges challenging. For that reason, I’ve tried to be proactive with my kids at being transparent. I realize that they probably have some of the fears and frustrations that I experienced in relating to a parent, so I try to create a safe place for communication. I seek to share my fears and failings in pursuit of common ground.

    Thanks again for sharing. You always create an environment for introspection and processing.

  5. No doubt many can relate to that which you write so eloquently. For me it reminds me of a father of six who was known by the children in the neighborhood as The Commandant, aptly named because of his heavy Polish accent and his stern demeanor. The fact that he wore riding boots and was often seen with a crop in hand didn’t help to dissuade their opinion. My father’s idea of a perfect Sunday was to get in and out of church in 35 minutes or less, watch Meet the Press, listen to Polish marches, and top it off with listening to the Yankees playing the Red Sox or the Angels on the radio. Truth be told, all of us feared him as much as the neighbors did. Three of us left home by the age of 13 looking for what we thought we weren’t getting from our own parents, something we all need, the need to feel loved. It was there all along; we just didn’t see it or feel it for what it was.

    Is it any wonder? My father was forced to leave his homeland at the age of 11 with his mother, on foot, while his father was off fighting WWII. The only things they took with them were the clothes on their backs. The only language they spoke was Polish. After making their way to England by way of Portugal and France, my father ended up learning English in Britain only to be brought to the US by a Canon from The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City who sponsored him. His mother stayed in England, his father had passed away. By the age of 16 my father was accepted at Hamilton College, a four year university that he completed in two years. From there he joined the British Navy and then later returned to the United States, fell in love, and got married. Later in life he told the story of building his first home with my mother for $8,000, owning 2 cars, having six children before the age of 32, and all this while making $40 per week.

    There’s a reason why we all are who we are. It’s important to give people the benefit of the doubt since we often don’t know their story. When it comes to your parents, learn as much as you can, while you still can. I find since my father passed away two years ago that what I often look back on with a smile are the Polish marches, listening to NPR, his eating a hotdog that he dropped on the floor of Madison Square Garden just to show us that we shouldn’t waste food – the very things that annoyed us or embarrassed us the most while growing up.

    I also learned that even though I left the Catholic Church at age 13, the fact that my father was a devout Catholic was something I never wanted to take away from him, nor did I ever want to attempt to diminish his belief in any way. It was his faith that helped him get through a very painful death, and helped my mother see him through it. Just because I don’t believe God exists, does not mean that I shouldn’t support them and their belief.

    It may not be easy at times caring for our parents as if they were the children, but it is even harder on them. Listen and respond to them from the heart.

  6. I appreciate reading this story which you shared with me years ago and thank you for writing it in since a kind, caring way. I think we all struggle most with family issues. I often think to myself when I hear someone say why can’t we have world peace…how can that be accomplished when we cannot find balance and harmony within our own family yet alone the world full of vast differences. You know my experience when my father died…I still think about being asked by my mother at my father’s death bed if I forgave them for not having spoken to me for 10 years because I did not see their ‘color’ line and therefore, had not been welcomed in their home or life. I wish we had time to resolve feelings on both parts and would like to think it possible but in reality we all lived our own beliefs. I think the best I could have hoped for was to have been a little more compassion toward each other. Perhaps it was wrong for me to withhold my forgiveness at that moment and it is something I ponder from time to time. But I have always been true to myself which I know is the one thing my father valued in me…perhaps I should have said I understood their position and that would have given my mother peace. But after 9 years since my father’s death, my mother still sees lines which I don’t. but never could I disown a child because of personal choices which harmed no one. I often think…people say are parents mold us but if that is so why did I not see color or religion or sexual preferences as issues in my life? I guess I find peace because when my father looked into my eyes as he died we both knew the love which had existed for so many years would not only heal what was left unspoken between us but also bridge his journey. At least that’s what I would like to think. Cheers~

  7. Hi Joseph,
    I recently was aware that you have a blog and I am so happy to be able to read your thoughts and “wishes”.

    My father died in 1998 basically after giving up on life and my mother (who was my most closest relative and friend) was killed in a car accident in 2000. I was a passenger in the car and she was the driver and she was pushed into me since she was t-boned from her side of the auto. I never knew your story in grad school and you may have not known mine but reading your entry on losing parents has been very moving for me. I still grieve her every day and it has been 11 year this August that we were in the accident together. I too had a “bumpy” relationship with my father and clung to my mother most of my life. She was only 63 when she was killed. As I grow closer to that age I remind myself constantly of what she was doing at certain age markers. She was suffering from sever rheumatoid arthritis and had already had both knees, a hip and an ankle replaced or rebuilt. She was only my age when she was diagnosed, and I was reminded of this during my most recent medical scare. I’m ok, thank God, but for the past 10 months I have been scared indeed (another topic for another time).

    I am not healed nor have I finished grieving my mother. I suspect I never will. My voice sounds like hers, I look like her. I’m even heavy like her, and as I age I warmly and whole heatedly embrace these gifts of inheritance. I was her only child, but the 4th and last of my father. He had been married previously and had my 3 half siblings who are all quite a bit older than I. One brother has already passed away as well.

    I hope this comment is not too long nor too personal I just often feel alone with my loss even 11 years later, and your blog entry has helped me feel less alone with my grief.

    Thank you!!!
    Jean Proppe

  8. Meatballs? What about the stuffed peppers and lazagna? Cathi makes italian sausage that melts in your mouth, come out and experience it sometime.

    Great article, enjoyed reading it. We’re fortunate to still have Dad.

  9. I’m down to just my mom. She’s 79, living in the same town as my oldest sister and her family, attending the same church together, involved with that pair of grandchildren, her health deteriorating.
    She converted at the age of 30, under the influence of a woman traveling evangelist who played accordion.
    By 31 she was in Bible school in the states, with an idea to become a missionary pilot. Instead she met my old bachelor dad and they married, quick.
    They had my 2 sisters in a row, then took the Pill. Somehow I was conceived in spite of that, 5 years later.
    My sisters and I were raised by them in the Pentecostal church in MIssouri. When I was 10 we moved to CA. When I was 15, we moved to OH. SOmetime during then I remember listening to Undercover (and The Lifesavers and Altar Boys, etc.).
    Anyway, I’m 42 now and my mom clings to all the old ways, hasn’t changed, and her vehemence against Democrats and Muslims has only increased. I can hardly talk to her because she always jumps into diatribes against Obama (I voted for him) and her hatred against Arabs and her love for Israel and something about George Soros and gays in the schools and….
    I send her little notes with links to photos I post, regularly, of goings-on in our family. She never comments or acknowledges seeing them, unless I outright ASK her on the phone.
    We visit usually once a year, and it is amicable enough.
    I do try and listen, and actually have always had an interest in her Romanian/Ukrainian parents and grandparents and her life as a single woman, who left the farm at age 15 in Alberta, etc…
    BUT my mom wishes not to disclose things, a lot of things, which include homosexuality AND abortion, let alone silly things like smoking and playing guitar in bars.
    Instead it is all about the Spirit and the new wine, she crucified her “old man” (not the term for her dad, but the old, sinful nature, a la Paul) and wishes to behave as though “it” never existed.
    So we are stuck with only talking as though nothing happened until she “got saved” and married and had us.
    And we were already there and know what happened, and why rake any of that up.
    So, like you Joey Taylor, I sit and watch Fox news with her, hating almost every minute of it, often interjecting to make her think (as she always used to do for us, stressing how important it is that people THINK). Often she nods or retorts back but when I use Scripture (as she always taught us to do, having us memorize 250 verses plus a few whole chapters) to support my position for social welfare programs, she just goes silent.
    I know how to USE Scripture too, and actually, it turns my stomach to do so. I know the game, and have quit playing, long ago.
    But rather than come right out and make some kind of statement like that, my mom and sisters assume nothing other than that I am not Pentecostal anymore, not Republican anymore, and that my family still attend an LCMS church.
    Anyway, I am not sure I share your yearning for trying to wring something out of my remaining parent, out of some need of my own. I just let her be, recognizing she does not have a lot of room for me, or my own children. She is the grandparent; it is not hard to call and ask to speak to one of your grandchildren. Or to write them a few lines when you mail the birthday card.

    • Thanks for sharing. Sometimes it’s not possible, or possible to get only so far. That’s what I was thinking when I wrote “We all have our own unique work to do within the contexts of our own relationships. Only we can prescribe that for ourselves.”

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