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How to deal with "Father Issues" in two simple steps
The best years of my relationship with my father ended 10 years ago, when his third wife became sick and he quit his lucrative computer consulting business. Until then, I had never noticed that the only role my father was comfortable playing in a family was that of the breadwinner and provider. He bought me beautiful first-edition books on my favorite subjects, and put witty and poignant inscriptions on the title pages for me, but he couldn’t just say “I love you.” Without an income to spend, he had absolutely no idea how to express love, protection, or caring.
I had to train him to tell me he loved me, years after I graduated college. He finally got it after two or three of our phone calls ended exactly like this:
“Okay darling daughter, take care, and I’ll talk to you soon.”
“Bye Dad, I love you.”
“I love you, Daddy.”
“I love you, Daddy.”
“I LOVE YOU, DADDY.”
“I LOVE Y-“
Dad might be clammed-up and tied into knots emotionally, but he is a smart, smart man about many things. Like math. Dad loves math. His work once held a contest to guess the number of crayons in a glass jar. Dad counted up one side of the jar, whipped up some crazy formula, and came up with the number 167. Actual number of crayons in the jar? 167. Dad gave me the crayons he won, thinking that my students would appreciate them. I was proud of him, but I didn’t give the crayons to my students. They were new crayons, unbroken, and I’m funny about unused stationery products. I don’t like to break them in or use them up, and I was certainly not going to abandon my dad’s hard-won perfect crayons to the scribbling, crayon-breaking masses. I loved my dad, even if he couldn’t communicate, and I didn’t want to see the one little thing he could provide me left to such a fate. So I put the jar in the trunk of my car and forgot about it for two years. Yeah.
Step one, compartmentalization: Complete!
The winning guess
Fast forward two years. Two years of barely talking to my dad or his wife, even on birthdays and holidays. Did I mention they only live 20 minutes away? I’m proud of my avoidance skills, and I think Dad is proud of them, too. So proud that he can’t call me to tell me that my childhood home is in foreclosure, and that they’re getting locked out in two weeks. Thanks for the advance notice, Dad. Thanks for being such a good steward of my childhood, Dad. Thanks for letting your wife make that call, and letting her make it all about my stuff, what I want to keep, what she can sell. Like that’s what I care about. Like I’m not worried about you, your health, your pets, or where you’ll sleep in two weeks. No, just give me back my scratch-and-sniff Strawberry Shortcake dolls and I’ll step quietly out again, no guilt trip, no nothing. Like I feel as little as you apparently do.
Now I’m angry. So angry my arms ache because there’s nothing for them to punch or tear. So angry I can’t sleep, and I force myself through every day at work, hoping nobody notices. Tribulation I can handle stoically, but empathy brings me to my knees. I don’t know what to do, how to face the task ahead of me. I don’t know how to walk into that house for the last time and find what’s supposed to matter to me.
Last Tuesday, in an effort to cheer me up, my best girl friend Sam said “Let’s go camping!”. I mentioned it in passing to my boss, and she didn’t let up until I agreed to actually go instead of wishing I could go. Sam and I made last-minute plans, and I got us lost halfway up the Delaware river on the way to the campsite. But soon enough, we were pitching a borrowed tent, tethering the dogs to trees, breaking open the beer, and starting up a nice roaring campfire. Except… we didn’t have kindling. Or dried leaves. Or lighter fluid. Or some convenient dead branches. Every camp counselor I’d ever had, including the one I used to be, was screaming in agony through the cosmos over my lack of preparedness.
So we improvised! We raided our cars for fast-food trash, junk mail, and binders from conferences we couldn’t even remember. But nothing really caught, and the can of Raid that said “Never put this can near flame! Danger! Danger! Run away!” actually extinguished our little embers. We were left in the growing dark with a pile of cord wood that wouldn’t light and some really offensive burnt smells.
“If only we had those home-made fire starters I used to make in Girl Scouts!” I lamented into my third beer. “The ones where you pour old melted crayons into egg cartons and… hey…”
Yes! The jar of 167 crayons was still in the trunk of my car, under two empty bags of dog food, half my CD collection, and the umbrella I’d been looking for all year. This was why I never throw anything out! This was the moment it all makes sense!!
I brought the jar to Sam, and I choked up as I told her its story. She said it was perfect to burn these crayons now, and we broke and sprinkled handfuls of them over and under our unlit logs.
“Okay Dad, this is it – this is your chance to provide for me again. Like you used to – like you always knew how to do. I need you now, Dad.”
I was crying as Sam lit the little papers wrapped around the broken crayons. Things melted, things flared. We threw in the last of our wadded-up paper and watched as wrappers curled and colors ran together…
Step two, release: complete!
The well-traveled jar
I felt so good, so empty, and so free at that moment, that the fire itself seemed irrelevant. Did it even matter if the crayons worked or not? I was suddenly so relaxed, and peaceful, this could be enough…
Who was I kidding!? Of course it mattered!!
We had fire! The logs snapped and sparked and eagerly submitted to the flame. Heat roared up and Sam and I cried out in primitive victory together. Our little campsite became a nomad home, with the fire as its life-giving center. The dogs were transformed into newly-tamed wolves guarding us from rival clans and wild beasts. We feasted on the flesh of freshly-killed hot dogs and scavenged for mushroom-like S’mores. We had made fire, and we could take on anything. Anything.
Thank you, Daddy. I love you.
And yes, I do want my scratch-and-sniff Strawberry Shortcake dolls back! Do you think they still smell like heaven after 20 years…?