I Think I Like My Dad Again

Note to anyone wanting to reconcile with an estranged family member: Try an offer of coffee at 8 am.

Nov 14, 2013 at 2:00pm | Leave a comment

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Piled into the back of a pick-up track with Dad.

I left Lesley manning the ship here as I headed home to Oklahoma to hang out with a close family member in hospice last week. During my second day of my visit, my dad set out from his neighboring now-home-state to join me, and someone asked me to call him for a status update on his ETA. 

Hmmmm, OK, I thought, scrolling through my phone until I found an entry entitled "Dad." I hit a button and called the number. No answer. Eventually, a voicemail picked up and I was asked to leave a message by a dude who was decidedly NOT my dad. Oh, well.

"I don't have his number," I shrugged.

The person I was speaking to looked at me a bit strangely, but I wasn't too surprised, considering my father and I have spoken to one another on the phone probably 4 times in the past 5 years. We just don't really have a relationship, and I took developing one off my priority list awhile ago, while I dealt with stuff like getting sober and becoming a parent myself.

If you've read almost anything I've ever written, you probably already knew that I have capital-D Daddy Issues. Primarily, low self-esteem and a tendency to seek sexual attention and approval from men, especially older men. I refuse to feel ashamed about that -- I hate how our society turns the whole "Daddy issues" thing into a punchline about women, like it's OUR fault if our dads were dicks. "Your dad was a jerk and it gave you lasting emotional and sexual issues." HILARIOUS!

But as far as bad dads go, it could be way worse -- I didn't get the Dad that hits, or the dad that touches, or the Dad that rages, or the Dad that drinks. Emotionally, my father was simply never there. He was an empty physical presence in my childhood -- a warm body who didn't speak or touch or express love.

It could be worse, but it still affected me deeply, that hole in my childhood that left a hole inside me that I have since stuffed with food, drugs, sex, booze, shopping. But on the second morning of my Dad's visit, when I found myself blinking sleepily at a text message from him that read "You up yet? Starbucks?" I didn't feel angry or sad or empty or anything but grateful. Note to anyone wanting to reconcile with an estranged family member: Try an offer of coffee at 8 am. 

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Close-up on Father/Daughter

Later in the visit, he kindly drove me to have dinner with an old friend across town and gave me some really insightful life advice along the way. He told me weird stories from his kind of arty, Bohemian young adulthood. When I asked how he ended up with my strait-laced mother, he told me that after his first wife, he decided he needed to be the "crazy one" in the relationship. I was reminded of how similar we are.

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.

And maybe I've just done enough work in therapy, but I think that with this short visit I have officially crossed over to "not really angry" with my Dad anymore.

It's easy for me to recognize my dad's depression now as the dark shadow that hung over my childhood, because it's a dark shadow I share as an adult. 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.

In one of our rare phone conversations a few years ago, we talked about our shared depression for the first time. My dad's is extremely severe -- before finally getting proper medication for it in his 50s, he made a living through backbreaking physical labor largely because he needed that endorphin rush to feel normal. He confessed that he was "deficient" during the years my brother and I were children because of it.

And it's true -- he was deficient. I can't excuse that entirely -- I too fight a depression, a darkness that wants to separate me from life and my child. But I fight harder than he did. And there was more beyond the 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 learned from him that my body and my sexuality are the best ways to get attention and love, and it's very hard to unlearn, to truly believe that my brain, heart and talent are more important than how sexually desirable I am.

But I am not an adolescent girl anymore, and I can set boundaries today, boundaries that I believe my Dad is trying to respect.

So yes, I still have Daddy issues. But I also have my Dad's phone number, now. I went ahead and entered it into my cell.