Wednesday, April 1, 2009

All About My Father

Okay, this blog is not going to be about books or new releases or reviews or awards or anything related to literature, my own or anyone else's. Maybe. This blog is about my life, and the reason I say "maybe" is who knows what shapes us as writers or artists in general?

Anyway, I'm not much for philosophical discussions. I wanted to talk to you about having a perfect Sunday the other day with my honey, which wound up with relaxing in front of the TV watching a movie from Netflix: ELEGY, with Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz. No, this blog is not a movie review either, although we both liked the movie and found it very rewarding by the end.

The reason I mention all the above is because, like good art should do, ELEGY touched me on a deeply personal level. And it wasn't necessarily about the major themes of love, loss, and commitment that the movie is about, but about the side story to the movie: the relationship of Ben Kingsley's character (a selfish, egotistical writer) with his adult son.

That relationship reminded me a lot of the anguish I experienced growing up with a father who was a perfectionist, selfish, and, in no way, shape, or form, a family man. While the details differ markedly, the father-son relationship at the core of the movie was so like the one I had with my own father that I am still thinking about it today, three days later.

See, Ben Kingsley's son in the movie is furious with Ben for leaving the family when he was still a boy. He has never gotten over this rage he holds toward his father and is literally blinded by it. He cannot forgive his father for abandoning him and his mother...and it's coloring his own relationships as an adult (relationships that are eerily veering off in directions very similar to his own father's failings and shortcomings). I understood the son. Even though my father never divorced my mother (but, oh, how often I wished he would have!), he was emotionally distant and thought so much about himself that he never made much of a connection with our family.

And, like the son in ELEGY, I could never forgive my father for this. Growing up, I had recurring dreams where I would scream at him, saying all the things I never dared speak aloud. And I too felt cheated by life and furious at not getting the father I thought I deserved.

But there is a short scene in ELEGY that economically revealed a shift in the movie's father and son relationship. Ben and his son are in a coffee shop and the son is giving Ben the same old shit about being worthless as his dad, when Ben suddenly gets up and says they will have to talk later, that he has an appointment. The son is outraged and thinks at first this is par for the course. His father has never been there for him before, so why should today be any different. He challenges his father, wondering underneath his words: what could be more important than your son, sitting here before you with a problem? But then Ben tells him the appointment: his best friend has died and he has to hurry off to make the funeral. The son is taken aback and you can see the shift in his perception of his father in that moment. What he sees is not the father he was denied, but a human being, in pain. That moment, the son turned a corner.

My own corner turning was not as dramatic. It took me many years to realize what the movie son realized in a dramatic instant: that my dad, for all his failings, was NOT put on this earth simply to fulfill my yearning for a good father, but was simply, like me, a human being. I didn't stop thinking my father wasn't a good dad, but I did realize well into my adulthood, that my father was just another human being. With limitations.

And when I realized that, well into my thirties actually, I could begin to love him. Maybe not as a father. But as a person. Like the son in the movie, I finally came to understand that the only way I would ever have any kind of relationship with my dad was to accept him as he was, and stop wishing for him to be something he never could.

After this realization, I began to have a kind of relationship with him, more than I ever had. I won't say it was great or life-changing, but it was honest and real. I often wonder about the timing of my own realization, though, because it was only a few years later that Dad dropped dead of a heart attack one morning in the bathroom.

And I cried at his funeral, something I thought, through most of my life, I would never be able to do.


  1. Aww, that's a sweet, touching story. I loved my dad so much and the last time he walked out of my house he said I was possessed by a demon and he'd never come back until I got "right with the Lord." I haven't seen him since. I don't know, kids don't come with an instruction booklet and neither do parents. I think we just muddle through the times of our lives and hopefully, make the right decisions as we go. Or at least make the decisions that seem right at the time, because only time will tell if they right or night.

  2. Very nice, Rick. I forgave my father only after I had stopped drinking; he drank many years as well. And his last week before cancer took him away, I sat in his room as he came and went out of a coma, he would look at me, barely recognizing me, but some kind of recognition was there, he was my father, I was his son, and no matter what, we loved each other. And the drunken angry years just drifted away...we had come together.

  3. Excellent post, Rick. Everything rang true to me. Your point about the movie condensing the "realization" into one moment is right on target, too. It's one of the transformations that movies make of real life that is often not realized.

  4. For me it's sort of been the reverse: every message I got from my father was that I was put on the earth to be a good daughter to him. That his wives were there to take care of him. When I had my first short story published I tried to reach out to him, send him a copy, even though we weren't close. His only response was to tell me that it made him sad because it reminded him that I didn't treat him the way a daughter should treat her father.

    I'm glad you found a way to reconnect with your father before it was too late. Sometimes I start thinking about what might happen if I contacted mine, but all I have to do is replay the conversations with my mother and step-sister in which I found out about the ways in which he abused his wives, and I have no urge ever to speak to him again.

    People have occasionally told me that because he didn't physically abuse me I have no right to be so angry at him, or to shut him out of my life. But a relationship has to be about more than a lack of abuse. I'm glad you two found that something "more", even if it took a long time.

  5. Interesting and thought provoking post. As a parent of two grown children, I remember often wishing babies came with instruction manuals. I know I made mistakes, I just pray I didn't make any major ones.

    I'm glad you got to make a kind of peace with your father.

  6. Heather,
    Abuse doesn't have to be physical to be abuse. And no one can tell you you have a "right" to be angry. Emotions aren't governed by "rights" they just are. I hope you can find peace.

  7. My situation was very similar to both yours and the one in the film. The biggest difference is that is was my mother, not my father. My father raised me and (is still) a wondedrful father. My mother abandoned me but kept my three older sisters. I thought most of my life, that she hated me. And after many years of drama and pain (and as with everyone else, it's a very long story) in my late thirties I learned that my mother alaways did love me. She just wasn't a good mother, though she tried to be in her own way. At that point I did see her as a person; ironically, in a lot of ways, I saw that same person in me... her better qualities. She and I became very good friends. Unfortunately she passed away quite suddenly a couple of years later. Though I'll never be able to carry her in my heart as a mother, she'll always be there as my dear friend.

  8. As I read your blog, my husband Scott, sits on the floor going through a box of books. These books were from his father's collection who recently passed. I see his joy, pain, frustration, humor, and a deeper sense of understanding of his father as a person emerge as he looks through the titles. Interesting how book collections paint a picture of a person...
    Thank you for sharing this side of you Rick.
    dee - not anon, but can't get this blog thing down.

  9. What you have said makes a great deal of sense.
    I had many issues about my childhood and especially about my mother. I often feel guilty that I still cannot feel more affection for her than I do. She is almost 80. Many of my friends have lost one of both of their parents at a young age, and still grieve for them, yet here am I, not really feeling any attachment to my own mother.

    Yes, it helps to view a parent as another human being as opposed to 'just' being our parent. However, what happens when you don't particularly like them as a person in their own right, as well as being your own parent?

    Now that I have children of my own, I have found my own upbringing even harder to understand. I could never put my children through the sort of childhood I had. My parents weren't intentionally cruel. They did what they thought was right. By doing what they thought was right, they allowed themselves to be blinded as to how that affected the lives of my sister and me.

    In the case of parents who are distant, it makes one wonder whether they should have been parents at all. However, to be fair to parents of the older generations, society's expectations have changed a great deal in the last 30 years or so. When my parents married, it was expected that children would soon follow. I am sure that was the case too when your parents married. So, in a way, they had no choice.

    I used to feel bitterness about my upbringing, but I realised that all that did was to sour the rest of my life. I have accepted that my parents did what they thought was right for me. They made mistakes, but if I was to tell them that now, it would only hurt them. It would achieve nothing.


    P.S. Have you ever read the novel, 'Of Father and Son' by Edmund Gosse? I love that book. It's going away from the theme of your blog a little, but it is a gripping true story of a son who feels his father is distanced from him. I enjoyed it because Edmund Gosse describes how it feels to be raised in a strict religion.

  10. I understand your feelings towards your father. For a long time my dad and I had a very strained relationship. He had gone through alot of hard times in his life and he really didn't know how to deal with all of that, so alcohol was a major part with him while I was growing up. There were many, many scary nights. But, as I grew up, and after a couple of medical scares with my dad, he has quit the alcohol and we now get along fine. My wife recently gave birth to our first child. A son. My mom told me something in confidence that my dad had told her while they were babysitting Gabriel (my son) He told her that he wished he could have been a different dad for me when I was a baby and throughout my time growing up. I know he is truly sorry for what he was back then; even though he hasn't actually told me. And I have forgiven him.

  11. Sarah: I know what you mean about not even liking parents as human beings. But I also think how liking and loving someone can be mutually exclusive. Thanks for the book tip; it's one I will have to check out.

    Duane: Your story touched me. I knew, from my mother, that my dad was VERY proud when my first book came out (the only one he saw published) and that made me feel good, because I wouldn't have known from him.

  12. A very thought provoking post. I enjoyed the movie very much myself and happened to have watched it with my mom. My mother’s relationship with her father was very strained just as my relationship is with my father – though for very, very different reasons. When we started talking about the relationships after the movie, I realized that the grass isn’t always greener. I always knew that, but it helped me to be reminded that just because I wanted what I thought would be the perfect father, if he changed there would probably still be problems, just different ones. So you can still have a wonderful person as a parent and not be able to have a relationship with them.

  13. Rick Honey I'm so sorry about your dad, I'm glad you had some kind of relationship with him in the end.

    May dad has rarely had anything to do with me. He'd rather have his ballZ in the purse of the COW he married that bore him my sisters & brother with Who {for God only knows why} they wont talk to me at Grandmas funeral my sister the oldest of the 3 made a pic memorial of Grandma with dad my aunt Janet & Uncle Gary & all the grand kids BUT ME I was totally left out not even mentioned at all like I didn't exist. I was at the funeral Janet told me he dad & Gary had a meeting as to weather or not I should be there if they had told me not to go I SURE AS HE** WOULD HAVE. {I'd like to see my family that hasn't seen me in Yrs let them keep me away. Besides everyone knows out of the Grandkids I was closest to her because dad didn't really seem to give a Crap about me so Grandma made up for it & for that I'll always love her & I miss her deeply she's been gone 2 yrs Feb 28. I talk to Janet & go see her when we go to KS so I'm staying in touch but when she passes away that'll probably be it for any communication on Dads side when he passes I probably will find out from someone reading his Obit in the paper & I guarantee you it'll say he had 3 kids & not 4 & since I'm sure i wont be mentioned i know the fact hat he was preceded in death by twin grandsons in Nov of 99 wont be mentioned either. I have decided to He** with him & the Witch he married who I'm sure filled my brother & sisters {I have 2 Sisters & 1 brother out of 7 grandkids My brother is the only boy}heads with lies or over truths about me to the point where they wouldn't even look at me at Grandmas funeral. I'm pretty sure I'll never know why & I guess I have to be fine with that. Far as I'm concerned dad is dead to me {Sad but true}. he hasn't been in my life but all total maybe 6-8 hrs of the last 30 yrs i have done fine with out a dad I don't need him. Id like a relationship with my Sisters & brother but it wont ever happen So I'm done with the whole thing. I find out info from Janet that does me fine & i find out more from Janet than I probably ever would have Grandma she was not the kind of person that Liked change or telling info she tell u what she wanted you to know that's it just how she was.

    Anyway I could go on & on but ill stop here

  14. Thanks for sharing your personal feelings openly and honestly, Rick!

    I was never really close to my father, even before coming out we had an "awkward" bonding. He's now had a couple of "minor" strokes (is any stroke minor?) and, in the rare few times I've seen him in the last three years, I'm not sure he even recognizes me. Thinking about him, and the father I never had, makes me sad knowing its too late to change/fix our relationship. So, whether he understands it, or not, I use every chance I get to let him know I love him. He comes from a simple background (backwoods Kentucky - no kidding, the name of his hometown was "Dogpatch!") and lived life as best he knew how (as the youngest of 13 children, gleaming parental knowledge from his "ignorant" parents), even if it meant spending two-thirds of his life in front of a tv in his lazyboy. I am sure he will go to his grave, someday, a happy man - I can only hope I do, too! -Daley

  15. I just had a turning point of my own, realizing just how fortunate I am for the relationship I've had with both my parents.
    Dad was always a presence in my life, and still is. I look forward to our Med cruise in December. This may well be his last hurrah, and that has made me sad, until I read this blog. I need to get the proverbial grip, cherish the moments we do have left and make the most of every one of them.
    Thanks Rick.