Lately I've been getting a lot of It Happened to Mes about fathers. Dead fathers mostly, but also beloved fathers. This is one of the few ways fathers are a part of my life, since I don't have much of a relationship with my own.
When I say that you probably picture some deadbeat who skulked out for cigarettes 20 years ago and propelled me down the worn path of poor sexual decision-making trod by so many fatherless girls. But no, he's sitting at home with my mother, probably happy in his arm chair with a stack of hunting magazines and a cluster of fishing rods for practicing his casts on commercials.
Their relationship is just fine. It's ours that's non-existent.
I don't know if I have the right phone number for my father, because I never call him and he never calls me. For a lot of years, I tried to force him to interact with me -- enlisting my mother to nag him until he sent me the occasional one-sentence email asking if I'd read some book. It was unsatisfying, and I eventually realized that looking for a real relationship with my father was like trying to buy apples from the hardware store. He just doesn't have them to give.
My mother tells me that when I was a baby, my father would come home from work on his lunch break just to rock me, barreling past her to my crib, so that she was offended a little that he didn't want to see her, only me. I can't imagine that man.
Maybe my father likes babies but not girls, or more likely, something happened, around third grade I think when my appearance begins to grow unkempt in pictures, the backgrounds darker and less pristine, the standards of behavior relaxed.
It's probably my dad's depression, the dark shadow that moved in. I know the dark shadow, I share it as an adult, so I can comprehend the way it curled around us, the way it wrapped my father in a dark cocoon, until we couldn't see each other anymore.
The truth is that my father was never there. He was an empty physical presence in my childhood -- a warm body in who couldn't speak or touch or express love. In group therapy, we are sometimes asked to do "family sculptures," in which we pose ourselves and other members of the group in living portraits of our family system. I am always on the floor, hands outstretched toward my father, who looks away, unnoticing.
For a few months, when my family was rocked by the confession and subsequent hospitalization of my Oxycodone-addicted family member, we all started to break through our denial and dysfunction, to come up into the sunlight like startled blinking moles.
My dad called me one day during that time period, and wanted to talk about his depression -- that he made a living through backbreaking physical labor for so many years because he needed that endorphin rush to feel normal, and that he feels he was "deficient" during the years my brother and I were children, before he was prescribed Zoloft and was able to go back to school and start a career at a job he loves.
It's as if there was some sort of magical spell cast over the whole conversation, where for just 10 minutes we could speak honestly with one another.
The moment passed.
Sometimes I think that everything I ever did (and still do) was an effort to gain my father's love and approval. He is smart, so I overachieved in school, winning every award and bringing home the perfect report cards in an effort to gain a flicker of his interest. He loves books and once had aspirations to write them, so I became a professional writer. In that way, this article is kind of your fault, Dad.
I joke a lot that I have "daddy issues," by which I mean low self-esteem and a tendency to seek sexual attention and approval from men, especially older men. That's not technically a joke, since it's completely accurate. Then again, the best jokes are. It was more than just inattention -- my dad had and continues to have a lack of boundaries around sexual topics and other people's bodies, which you can imagine was pretty formative on an adolescent girl. I inherited his inappropriateness, although not and never with children.
In so many ways I am like him. I too fight a depression, a darkness that wants to separate me from life. I fight harder than he did, at least for now.
Today having a relationship with my father is not high on my list of immediate goals. He doesn't really want to try, and I have plenty of other stuff to work through. Most of the time, I am ok with this, although I feel a twinge when I hear about women who are close with their fathers, when I see a father twirling his daughter during that father-daughter wedding dance and my brain starts going off about how stupid and disgusting the whole concept of paternal love really is. YUCK, who wants it, right? Right?
The fact is I will probably be getting married sooner rather than later, and while I will invite my father to my wedding if I have one, my skin starts to crawl thinking about being pressed up close to him while sappy music plays.
In the end, I'd just be slow-dancing with a stranger.