My father’s family is full of crazy stories. I call them the family apocrypha because they seem incredible and there is no way to verify them. Like: his father was divorced (true); the divorce happened when he fell into a lengthy coma and his first wife gave up waiting for him to wake up (Days of Our Lives); that first marriage produced a son (true; I met him once. He seemed very nice); grandpa then married my grandmother (true) whose family disowned them because he was divorced and they saw this as adultery (true) until he converted to Christianity and they had children, at which point contact was resumed (true). Or: my Dad’s cousin was murdered (true; at least I have no reason to believe she wasn’t actually his cousin and I’ve looked her up so I know the basic story is true); the murderer was never found (also true); my grandmother was involved in undercover sting operations to try to find the killer (As the World Turns); this affected her deeply and the resulting trauma is why she was such an abusive shithead to her kids (very unlikely).
I heard these stories for as long as I can remember, whenever my Dad and I were alone. If the house was empty, if we were outside on the deck and it was night, if we were driving somewhere, the therapy session would begin. I’d hear about his mother had abused him, and all of the justifications for why it wasn’t her fault; how his father never left her and how he idolized him for staying; his hopes and dreams and work and marriage. The kind of thing a dad should really be discussing with his wife, not his nine-year-old, and I hated it.
There were no boundaries in my family, and it nearly washed me out of existence. My mother’s criticism and rejection were unrelenting, her threats to get rid of me–kick me out, give me up for adoption, send me to a foster family–unwavering, and my father backed her up. I can remember once or twice when he stood up for me, but it was rare. Because standing up for me meant he would become a target too, maybe, and he already was and it wasn’t pretty. Because reality for them was what my mother wanted it to be, and as much as he could, he lived in it, and in her reality I was permanently and inherently inadequate. Because as much as he had many wonderful qualities a strong will was not one of them and he gave in–not just on this, but on where he should work and where they would live and what they would do for fun and what kind of person he should be. She liked gardening; he gardened. She liked repainting the house; he painted. She wanted rescue animals; he cared for them. She didn’t like camping; he stopped going camping. She resented that other people had been to Europe and she hadn’t, and they made promises that they would travel there together when they retired; they retired, and instead of traveling she got another job and told him he wasn’t a real man because he wasn’t working, and they never went to Europe.
To the extent that I had a parent, he was my parent. He was the one who would take care of me when I was sick. He was the one who would show interest in my schoolwork, in what I was reading. He was the one who would sometimes take me places. He was the one who would help me, when she let him, if I was in a crisis. When she let him, he acted like he enjoyed my company, which is more than I can say for her. He was so easily pleased by the smallest trifle of affection, which from her he never got. All I can remember of them together is him trying to be close, and her rejecting him. And he stayed, just like his dad.
When I’d grown up and moved out, our therapy sessions changed. He’d call me once a week whenever he and my mom weren’t getting along and complain about how she was treating him; I’d listen and validate his feelings. Yes, you are right, that does sound crazy; no, I think anyone would feel angry about that; what she did was certainly not right; etc. I’d know when they patched things up because I wouldn’t hear from him for months, and then one day he would call again and it would be like nothing had ever happened. If I asked him how things had been resolved he would be offended; how could I imagine there had ever been a problem?
When he got sick last year, I agonized over what to do. I felt, rightly or wrongly, both that I was the last person on earth who should feel obligated to help him, and also possibly the only person on earth who really understood the situation he was in. I asked myself constantly how much help I could afford to give. What I could do that wouldn’t compromise my ability to take care of my daughter, who after all needs more than the average kid herself, and I don’t have a partner’s support. When my Dad was in the hospital last year, his wife (I am trying to retrain myself from referring to her as my mother) spoke to me only about the ways in which she assumed I would take care of him so that she wouldn’t need to take time off work. You know, your spouse of 45 years may have just been given a terminal cancer diagnosis but that’s no reason not to attend tomorrow’s IT meeting at the glove factory, and why should you miss it when your adult type 1 diabetic single mom of a disabled girl daughter can obviously easily step in to do it all for you? When I drew a line–“Frances has two doctor’s appointments and an x-ray this week that I need to be there for; I can’t be in the hospital this week as much as I have been”–she stopped speaking to me again. But for my own self-respect, if nothing else, I wanted to make the offers that I could.
They were rejected. They weren’t what my mother wanted or believed herself entitled to, so they were rejected. I was cut off, again. The same old pattern–his wife wanted to get rid of me, so he went along with it. Only this time it was his last year on earth. It punished me, as it was meant to; it also deprived my father of what could have been important support, and kept my daughter from the grandfather she loved and my Dad from the granddaughter he loved. Cruelty on cruelty and none of it mattered so long as it hurt me.
Since his wife doesn’t speak to anyone in the family except my brother, I called Dad regularly to find out what was happening and let other people know. It was the one thing I could do that she couldn’t stop me from doing. Until they moved. (Don’t ask.) And then I didn’t have their address or phone # and couldn’t call anymore.
He was admitted to a hospice shortly before he passed away and it was the first time I was able to see him since before they moved, but he was no longer in a state to recognize anyone.
After he passed away I was informed that since I was “never around” and “didn’t seem to care” that my presence at the informal memorial gathering was not considered important enough to make sure I would be able to attend. So I didn’t. I’m glad I didn’t. It seems like it had very little to do with my father or his memory, and no one from his side of the family attended–I don’t know if they were even invited.
But–and in my tradition of Longest Prologues Ever, I am finally getting to the point–I would like to say something publicly in his memory. He erased himself all his life in the belief it would make him loved. I don’t want his death to erase what’s left.
He was fundamentally a gentle person, fundamentally unequipped to deal with the abuse and dysfunction he was immersed in. Where some people might fight back, or escape, he accommodated. If he could only be loved by allowing himself to be hurt and not complaining, that is what he would do. He expected others, myself included, to do the same, and when I resisted he could be cruel. Nothing made him angrier than my tears. I’ve learned since that this is a common effect of a traumatic childhood. (In one study, children who had been abused by their parents screamed at, shoved and hit other children who were crying.)
He loved hockey and started playing when he was very young, as goalie. He made the team in University; his parents told him they would not pay for his education unless he stopped, so he did. It was a regret he carried forever. He thought he was good enough that he might have played in the NHL, but he never again played seriously, though he played recreationally throughout my childhood.
He loved the stars. Golden-age science fiction of all kinds was his favourite entertainment, and he believed that space travel would become commercially viable in his lifetime, and one day he would look at the earth from space. I wish that had happened for him. He wanted to be an astronaut; if memory serves he applied once and wasn’t accepted. But the fascination was lifelong. He bought the nicest telescopes he could afford, astronomy maps and magazines, books and documentaries about astrophysics, whatever he could that was–literally–out of this world. He grew up on Star Trek and to him none of the new shows ever compared to the original. He read Heinlin and Asimov and Douglas Adams–any paperback of intergalactic or multidimensional or time-traveling adventure. He loved technology. When I was young he’d build radios out of parts bought at specialty shops downtown; later on he had several computers in various states of rebuild and repair in his house always.
He loved Tolkien. I can’t tell you how many times he read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, or how much he loved the movie adaptations. He had no time for realism but any larger-than-life story set somewhere very far away he would enjoy.
He loved camping and the outdoors. Once, when I was young, we went camping on a lake as a family. Though our food was tied up to a tree branch, it was stolen overnight, possibly by a bear. What a thrilling thought to a young child, that a bear had maybe been that close and we all slept through it. In the morning he and I went fishing and caught our breakfast. I was so proud. Of course his wife hated camping so we never went again.
He also loved his parents’ and his wife’s parents’ cottages, and we went there once a year. When we did, he loved to stop in Bancroft to hunt through the old quarries to see if he could find anything to add to his rock collection, which had a special velvet-lined drawer in the den of our home. Bits of mica and fool’s gold and quartz, whatever he could find. Every time we went rock hounding I’d find all the shiny blue stones and ask, “What’s this one, Dad?”
“How about this one?”
“That’s sodalite, too.”
Every stone I ever picked up was apparently sodalite. Frances and I both have pieces of sodalite in our rooms.
He loved carpentry, and had a whole workshop of fancy and very dangerous machines for woodworking. The furniture he made was beautiful–put together and finished perfectly.
My love of the outdoors comes partially from him, but also partially because when I was younger, people were scary and trees were safe, so I spent as much time as I could with trees and as little as possible with people. And I look at all the things my Dad loved to do, and with the exception of hockey, they are solitary, demanding technical skills that are consistently rewarding if you put in the time and effort to master them. Unlike people, or at least the ones in his life, the radios would work every time if he put them together right. Quartz was quartz was quartz, and would stay quartz, even if he looked away for five minutes. Andromeda wouldn’t switch places with Ursa Major and demand that he act as if they’d always been there. If a table saw hurt him, it wouldn’t have been on purpose, and he wouldn’t have been expected to act as if he hadn’t been hurt in order to prove how much he loved it. I’m speculating on his reasons, but I think it’s true.
His love of decadent food was legendary. Dark coffee, practically solid. Red wine, after they’d left the church. Fancy chocolate liqueurs. Any excuse to visit a bakery or the Sara Lee factory outlet was seized upon and he’d emerge with carts full of kaiser rolls, croissants, danishes, any kind of pie, rich fudgy cakes, and boxes of fancy cookies. His delight in the food of Christmas never paled. Every year I’d make him tins of treats–peanut butter balls dipped in chocolate, truffles, cheesecake brownies, sugar cookies plated in icing–and every year he would be thrilled. Entire boxes of sugary treats he was practically required to eat for politeness’ sake. And lucky man, he never put on an ounce from any of it.
He adored Frances. Which is only sensible because my completely unbiased opinion is that she is as close to perfect as it is possible for a person to be, and on which point he agreed with me entirely. They bonded over science and Lord of the Rings and beautiful stones and Christmas decorations and movies. They would snuggle up together and bask in the glow of their mutual affection, and it was a joy to see. Every time I called him, right to the end, he would ask what she was up to, and I would brag about her acts of kindness and brilliance, and he would chuckle and say, “She’s such an angel. She’s so precious.” When she was a non-napping baby with enormous blue eyes and intense leg-kicking arm-waving interest in everything around her, he would smile and say, “She’s a real going concern.” I’m still not 100% clear on what that meant exactly, but it was intended as a compliment.
His expectations were so low that it took practically nothing to make him happy. Listening to the same beautiful passage in the same beautiful song for the 50th time. A really good cup of coffee and a nice sandwich with good deli meat and cheese. Sunshine. And yet his life left him so confused about people and relationships that, though he loved people, he had no idea how to be with them. That parents were supposed to protect children was something he never learned, not for himself, and not for me. That relationships were not supposed to be tests of emotional endurance went over his head. To him, love too often meant hurting and being hurt. Whenever he got close to seeing this, he chased himself away so as not to hurt his wife by leaving her–as if anything would ever make her happy or satisfy her. As if that was worth the sacrifice of his life. I made the point to him once that staying wouldn’t make her happy because nothing made her happy, and he agreed, then said he was going to stay anyway so he could take care of her when she got old and sick and needed someone. When he got old and sick–very, very sick–she sent him to his oncology appointments alone and I was not permitted to accompany him.
We talked about her–well, I mentioned that already. But the door he opened by complaining to me about his marriage I walked through with why I wasn’t going to accept her treatment of me anymore. He didn’t like it, but he understood. And then he would forget (or “forget”) ever having had the conversation and we would have it again. He had this double consciousness, on the one hand believing that he was alone and lonely because no one really cared about him, and on the other knowing that it was really because his wife drove everyone away. He wanted so badly to have people around him and love in his life but he wanted even more to give her whatever she demanded, and the two were incompatible. I held out hope right until his diagnosis that one day he would see that he didn’t deserve it, that his sacrifices could never be appreciated and that his life would be better without her–but it never happened.
It was such a waste. If he’d had the slightest bit of reliable nurturing as a child his temperament would have made him a natural friend to so many, and his life would have been so rich and full. Instead he made himself live and be happy with a feast of crumbs. He exclaimed over every one of them as if it were a prize.
I wish someone had told him he deserved more when he was young enough that it could have made a difference. When I visited him that Saturday and held his hand, I told him so. I’ll never know if any part of him heard me, but I hope it did.
He said he didn’t want a funeral. But that, I think, is his belief that no one cared combined with his unwillingness to impose; I think if a bunch of people had got together during his life to share fond memories of him he would have had the best time ever. It’s too late now, and I wouldn’t have had any weight in the decision-making process regardless, but if you have a fond or happy memory of him to share, I would love to see it here.