I did not want to apologize to my father. I do not like my father. Still, I am vaguely aware that coming to terms with my relationship with him has something to do with sobriety. With happiness or forgiveness or god. But if I ever have to use a word like hate, my father is the only human being in the world that comes to mind.
There is this theory of unconditional love. I do not believe in it. I once had a conversation with a mentor. I was still very much a child and he was an English teacher who let me sit in his office reading, and he spoke of love. He, too, said that unconditional love is a lie, and it’s our trying to make it true that hurts us most. The only unconditional love, he said, is for a lover. There, nonsense applies, and you may be head over heels, against all reason, for the rest of your natural born life. This seemed to be true. He was madly and dotingly in love with his wife.
He also said we would be told, as young people, that these were the best years of our lives. Don’t believe it, he said. This is the hardest it will ever be. You are more miserable now than you ever will be again. You only have to get through.
I was miserable for a very long time. Then again, I don’t know that I ever stopped those wars of adolescence. I don’t know that I ever learned how to walk away. I never really got through.
I spent most of my life running away. Then, sobriety, and that rupture that ended up bringing me back. The whole thing is amends. The cornfields I walk every day are not in any measurable way different from the cornfields I grew up in as a kid. Nothing changes. It is still uncertain whether we do, whether we can change, or not.
I have said that I was a disappeared person. That at some point I became terribly afraid of exposure. That I never let anyone take pictures of me. This is true. For this reason, the only real pictures that exist of me are from when I am a child, a toddler, an infant. In many of them, I am standing behind my father.
They say, the psychologies, that our first relationships form us and become our archetypes. Or, perhaps more rightly, that is is the failure of our early life to conform to archetypes that screws us up. Mothers who do not care leave us bitter. Fathers become our wrestling, our first competitor. Our earliest life impresses us, and gives us an emotional landscape that never seems to end.
My first memory in life is the smell of my father’s pipe smoke. Sweet, pungent, wool carried. He didn’t quite believe me when I said this. He gave it up before I was two. But as I described it, and the time of day it came in, and the light of the room where it happened, he realized I was telling the truth.
When a girlfriend’s father died, I spent a week in her house. We slept in the same bed, she struggled through funeral, we slipped out of 24 hours and into something longer, where sleep and waking blurred. Friendship, as I have always understood it, is more love and more family than family is. Often, over the years, when she and I sleep in the same bed, I think that our dreams become one dream, and we drift in and out of one another’s psyches. We exist in cosmic battles together.
He died, and she said it was like god suddenly didn’t exist. It’s not like you ever think about god, she said. He just is.
Then, if the father dies, the pillars of the universe come down.
I can see why this would be true. But mostly, I just wish my father would go away.
They say, the psychologies, that where your anger is, there is your wound. I do not know that my father ever wounded me. I just dislike him. As I grew, dislike hardened to positive lack of respect. I am unable to respect him as a man. This is a paradox. I respect all human beings. I know that there is some thing in everyone that can be loved and regarded.
I can respect his right to life, his right to his opinions, his existence as a human being.
But I cannot respect him as a man. I can’t love him. And I don’t even really know why.
Further, say the psychologies, it is these first wounds that you must heal. If you are angry, there is some hang up on your end. If you truly want to be enlightened, if you really want to be a creature of fairness or equanimity or be able to move on, you must come to terms with that anger.
I ran away. I moved from being angry at him to pitying him. My father is unkind, deeply arrogant, lost in his own selfishness. Other people do not exist in his world.
My father is deeply unhappy.
I can pity him. Pity is easy. It is only a step away from anger.
But pity is not any more valid in reconstructing the world than is rage.
I have been advised that amends do not mean a return to love. That there are some relationships that should end. That sometimes, taking responsibility for your part, saying your apologies, and having done, is exactly that. You are clearing yourself, so that you can move on. You come to the end of those worst years of your life. You grow up and find love, instead.
I would like my relationship with him to no longer be defined by such struggle and groan. I realize, too, that my hard relationship with him has defined my lack of relationship with the rest of my family. I dislike him. And I ran away from all of them.
One of the AA books says, of god, that we are sometimes siezed by a rebellion so sickening we will not pray.
I suppose my rebellion against god is made of my rebellion against my father.
I do not pray. Not to him.
There was a whole litany of concrete things I apologized for. Lies I told, times I stole his car, raided his wallet, used his forged permission to get myself out of school.
But I realized, as I was apologizing, the bareness of it. The meatier things I apologized for are not really things I need to apologize for: I am sorry I didn’t become a lawyer. I am sorry I am a girl. I am sorry I am not married and do not have grandchildren to give you.
I am sorry I’m an alcoholic, just like you.
The spoken apologies were a blasted stupid failure. I apologized and groveled, and he sat smug. It seemed obvious that while they were a thing I had to do, it was mostly so I’d not continue to anticipate and dread apologizing. Or, conversely, to free myself from the position where he feels I owe him something. Apology only means I take my part, so that I can move on.
So that I can have relationship with my family, not defined by my relationship to him.
So that I can have relationship with the world, and my own self, not defined by him.
So they were said, and done, and then we both ackwardly went back to what we were doing.
He sits all day long in his den. Mostly, playing online poker. Otherwise, he watches television. He can amaze people with his encyclopaedic knowledge of baseball history. I apologized, and then he went back to the t.v. screen. I don’t know if his ears are failing or not. They don’t seem to be. But the sound of his baseball games is so loud it fills up the whole house, and people have to raise their voices to be heard.
I decided that it wouldn’t be apology that changed us, but the living amends. I want to be brave enough to return to them. I do dishes, constantly. I memorize baseball. I dug through their basement to find my old glove.
He has never noticed, and he never will.
Any photographs that exist of me are from when I was a tiny kid, white haired, blonde skinned, lake water shimmed. I am usually standing behind my father. I was his first child. At that time in his life, he was beginning. He was young, a new father, a successful lawyer. He bought boats and property and spent most of his time fishing.
I was the one who went with him. He’d set my crib up on the front end of his boat and cover it with a blanket so I wouldn’t be burned by the sun. I played with minnows and leeches. Somehow, it became a ritual for me to kiss the fish he caught before he released them. I don’t remember if I kissed the ones he kept, or not. But I could gut and clean a fish by the time I was four.
He has a plaque that used to hang in his office, when he was still a lawyer. I don’t know where it is, now. There were three pictures, all of he and I and boats and lake and walleye. And a poem, typed on a type writer, that he had written.
There is a lake I want to take you to, it said.
Creating a kind of heaven, on earth. An eternal promise. The suggestion that there was a place outside of the world that only he and I had access to.
Ironically, the people we know most and best, know better than they know themselves, usually won’t tell us the most important parts of who they are. My father is an alcoholic. He quit when I was a few months old. Mostly, because my mother ultimatum ed him.
He was a soldier, an army ranger, in Vietnam.
He doesn’t tell us anything about these things.
In high school, most of my guy buddies became enamored of my father. They could go visit him in his lawyer office and he would take them all out to lunch. He would talk with them about sex, and school, and war.
Once, I came into his office and two of them were sitting there, rapt. He stopped the story as soon as I came in. In the street, later, smoking cigarettes, my friends recounted part of the stories. Dead bodies, lost friends, the weight of a gun. What else does he tell you, they asked.
And I had to say nothing. He doesn’t tell us about that, at all.
I hate the sound of his footsteps, the way every door he touches seems to slam. I hate the way he moves through the world, blind to other cars on the road, to waiters, to my mother. But most of what he does is a huge attempt to not let himself affect us. He doesn’t tell you because he’s trying to protect you, my mother said.
And the whole world is full of slamming doors.
Mostly, what I need to apologize for are deathly things. If I think about that girlfriend, and about psychology, I can recognize that he is the only father I will ever have. I can know that we will both some day die. But that variety of apology rankles too much of pity. And pity rankles too much of arrogance. Of thinking I am bigger than he is and can somehow right our tilted ship by the sole force of my moral high ground.
I can’t live with those final things. Nor the idea that families should be about the establishment of proper roles and boundaries. The work of a family is the establishment not of roles, but of the family. And family is never, ever what we expect it to be. I know too many families that are three generational in one house, or single fathered, or two best friends that eventually realized they were as close to love as ever would be, or two women struggling to raise an orphan, or a twenty something girl trying to raise her three kid sisters on her own. Family isn’t roles so much as it is facts of our lives, our dailiness, our sacrifices and what we have to do to keep ourselves fed.
I don’t have to apologize for the fact he will someday die and he’s my only daddy. I have to apologize for the death I’ve thrown at him already.
When I was fourteen I became a suicide. I woke up in intensive care to bleeping noises and fluorescent halos and my father holding one of my hands in both of his. He was sobbing. I closed my eyes again and pretended I had never woken up. Pretended I never knew he’d been sitting there.
When I was sixteen I came home high and bleary. I had a gash running from temple to jaw. I had been raped by the thirty year old men I was using with. He took my face in both hands and asked if I was drunk. He slapped me and told me I would ruin his car.
When I was twenty one I called him from New Orleans Parish Prison. He hung up. I spit on the floor.
When I was twenty two and fresh out of rehab, living with the man I would marry, he came to our tiny apartment. There was a case of beer sitting by the door, and a bottle of whiskey on the table. I wasn’t there, but he asked my husband if I was drinking. He said I scared the hell out of him.
When I was twenty six and he passed through New York City, I told him I didn’t have time to visit, but he could come find me at work. I worked in a bar wearing a cowboy hat and a bikini top. I was on top of the bar, dancing, when I saw him come in. He stood in the doorway for less than ten seconds before he turned around. I didn’t follow him, and I didn’t stop dancing.
I knew he would be there, and I didn’t stop.
For some reason, I was home when my grandmother, his mother, died. She had been ill a long time, and they worked hard to care for her at home, taking shifts, bathing her, carrying her, changing her, keeping her skin as close to alive as they could.
She died in her armchair, and my hands were on her as she went. It was electric. It was like lightening. She literally became blue, and her lips didn’t look like human lips any longer, but like a corpse.
My father was standing directly behind me. I felt him, after she was gone, walk backward toward the wall. I felt him lean there.
I stood and went to him. I took him in my arms. And I said I love you Daddy.
It is odd that I was home. And I don’t much care, either for myself or for my dead grandmother. She and I have other things that bind us and her death is the least important thing between us. Still, later that day, I said to someone I was glad I had been there.
I was glad I had been there for my father.
It is easy for me to hate him, and I do. He is the most unkind man I have ever met. It is easy for me to pity him. He is deeply unhappy and broken. He failed as a lawyer. He lost the boat, his big house, his small island on Rainy Lake. He doesn’t have any friends and his relationship with my mother is mostly habit. She enables him. He ignores her. He sleeps on the couch and never does his own dishes. My sister, as middle child, assumes she will have to take care of them in the not very distant future, and still does her best to make things like Thanksgiving happen. My brother, like me, simply went away.
I fairly stomp out of the house, irritated at something cruel thing he said, and I go walking along the cornfields. The first memory I have of the world is my father’s pipesmoke. The second, or third, has to do with my father’s arms. My father, mother, and I were out walking in the fall, in the cold bright air, along a cornfield. I fell and hurt my ankle, hit my head and briefly went unconscious. I remember my father carrying me home. I remember the sound of his breathing, open mouthed, as he ran. He remembers this, too.
It was nothing, a little bump on your head. But I was a new father, and you were my little girl, and I was scared.
The sun is hard, and cold, and brittle. The cornfields go a long way. Pheasants rise as I pass, and hawk wheels lower to see who I am. Behind me, in the house, my father sits alone.
Other people do not exist in his world.
He is my people. I’m learning to pray.