- Family and Parenting
Dear Dad: An Unsent Letter
In light of your birthday yesterday, I thought I might take some time to write a letter to you that I never intend on sending or acknowledging in conversation. I have known you for almost three decades and I have recently realized that I never really knew you, and yet I never really would like to.
It's been four months since you last called me. I saw you briefly on my last birthday in March when my significant other and I joined you for a mediocre lunch at some biker bar in town. I walked with you when you bought my niece- your granddaughter- clothes for Easter off of the clearance rack, mentioning how beautiful she's grown up to be. I listened when you asked me if I've put on weight, or stopped taking care of myself.
Over the years that I've been alive, I don't believe I ever once felt anything akin to love from you. You have always been very cold and distant, never displaying any outward sign of emotion unless by doing so, you accomplished a goal that might result in personal gain. Your dabbling in drugs and alcohol for the majority of my life forced me into an even more grueling coming-of-age ritual than most children could dream of; late night rides, the reek of your clothes, my sisters and I being forced to serve your friends drinks while you played cards and remarked about how "well-trained" we were. I was 12. The idea of having tamed children thrilled you, which is most likely why I was forced to perform push-ups in front of my friends when I was 14 because I accidentally said "yeah" and not "yes" in front of you.
Just the other day, my boyfriend forgot to make me a lunch for the day. I looked for it in the refrigerator before leaving for work and was dismayed to see everything but a lunch. I didn't have time to make one myself, so I braced myself for a day of hunger, knowing that I would most likely be too busy to take a break and leave. And when that hunger set in during the afternoon, I remembered a memory that I had apparently taken extra lengths to eradicate from my memory- not having enough food to eat during school, waking up to find that you had already left for work and had dumped a pile of pennies and dimes on the kitchen table, supposedly for our lunch money.
Do you have any idea how humiliating it is for a child to have to count small change in order to buy lunch while other children stand around and wait? Do you know what it feels like to be worth so little that your father won't even take the time to send you off with something to eat? Most days, I simply just sat at my table and watched my friends eat lunches that were packed by parents who loved them. Fresh fruit, flavorful drinks, mouthwatering snacks and sandwiches. That change would jingle around in my pocket for the rest of the day. The memory of my embarrassment caused a brief emotional breakdown at my desk, almost ten years later after the incidences occurred.
I understand that you didn't have the greatest or warmest childhood either. Alcoholism runs deep in your family, just like it does in mine, and whiskey is held in higher regard than blood on both sides of the family. But there's a popular belief that terrible memories and a lack of love can be erased from the mind with effort; the ability to care for another person other than yourself can be learned. Yet these accomplishments require soul, and I believe that yours was chased from your body the day your father drove a fork through your hand after you absentmindedly laid it on the dining table while eating.
I didn't call you yesterday, nor did I attempt in any other way to contact you. And as a testament to my humanity, I do feel guilty. I feel the unwelcome thread of guilt in my stomach as it winds its way slowly to my heart, the weaker of my two emotional organs. My mind is stronger, and trumps what my heart believes to be true.
This isn't a hateful letter. It isn't spiteful or vindictive in any way. It is simply an acknowledgement that we are two very different people, and despite the fact that I might still love some small part of you, the lack of affection you feel for me is not un-returned.
I do want to take a moment to thank you. Thank you for indirectly teaching me to be strong and to rely on myself above all others; you showed me that the night that you, during a drunken rage, forced me out of your car and told me to walk home, an invigorating thirteen miles, and then forbade my sisters to come and pick me up from off the streets.
You taught me to defend those that mean the most to me. My mother, your former wife and the decades-long victim of your mental and emotional abuse, has witnessed this lesson in action. And my beautiful six-year old niece, who called herself a "fat girl" last night. You would be so proud to know that she is watching her weight this early on in life, lest she turn out like another "fat" me and thus an embarrassment to you.
I learned that drugs and alcohol are the crutches of the weak. To dull one's senses to the pain that naturally occurs in life is counterproductive. The feeling of being alive- whether that feeling hurts more than going to school hungry- is still the greatest indicator that you are, in fact, living. To be alive hurts. I know that more than anything now.
You taught me to be brave. That day when you tried to hurt my youngest sister and I stepped in front of you, seeing the look in your eye that said, "this one will be different." Never surrender to anything without a fight. Never allow anything wrong to happen simply because it's too hard to stop it. I am the bravest woman I know, and there are very few things in the world that still scare me.
And lastly, but most importantly, you convinced me to love myself. Not through your words or your actions, but because you didn't love me enough. Not really even at all. And because I never had that father growing up that was the envy of all of my friends everywhere, I sought out your attention from elsewhere. It was a long and sometimes enjoyable journey, but I ended up right where I know I would always be- alone, and without your love. And so I found a way to love myself, to look in the mirror every day and find something to smile about, to take a compliment from a stranger and know that I deserve it.
Have you ever had to say goodbye to a parent?
And so ends this journey that we've walked together for only a bit of the way, branching off like two old friends who have grown apart over the years. I no longer think about you, and I doubt that you think about me. I hope that you continue to forget who I am when I am married and have children. I would struggle to tell you that I don't want you to hold them.
I hope that you had a wonderful time celebrating the path of your life with your new family. My mind briefly flickered back to a memory of you and I during a softball game quite some time ago. I had hit what I knew was a home run, and you were coaching first base, asking me why I was running so slowly, screaming at me to run faster.
I will, Dad. And I do.