Dear Dad, I Need You In My Life
Like many, I long viewed my relationship with my father through the rosy filter of nostalgia, marked by memories of watching horror films together and, most importantly, sharing an intense love of Notre Dame football. But estrangement with my parents has lead to my recently peeling back that filter — and now I’ve been left to question not only those untarnished memories, but the compartmentalization that allowed me to cling to them.
When I texted my dad about a Notre Dame bowl game a year and a half ago, and he didn’t recognize the cell phone number I’ve had for 15 years, I finally was forced to face the anger and sadness that have developed over the course of my life. I was staring at the evidence that he had been more absent than my memories had pictured him.
Attempting to come to terms with these feelings has challenged my independent streak; it was a painful moment saying the words “I need my dad” in therapy. But it’s true. It’s true for all of us that we need family. While our families may not all have the same structure, the people we grew up with are important to us. We derive some of our value from where we come from; it’s natural to want connections to those people, no matter how nurturing they were or weren’t when we were young. We also want to see those people as good, so that we can see ourselves as good; those are the people who in large part made us what we are as adults.
Adopted kids like me have an additional tendency to protect our parents, and I often protected my dad — including from the harsh things my mom said to me about him. But in doing so, I may have underestimated him. I may have put him on a pedestal. I may have done both. I certainly wasn’t fair to myself, and I could have cheated us both out of what might have been a better relationship.
Still, I refuse to believe it’s ever too late to change things — to find healing and connection. And though I’ve agonized over how I’m supposed to open a line of communication with someone who doesn’t know my phone number, I realize now that the answer is simple: I need to put my fears and hopes out into the world for my dad to find when he’s ready.
And so, I’ve written a letter — a letter I hope will reach both my father and all those who have questioned their own nostalgic memories and fractured relationships with their parents, and who now seek the comfort that comes with solidarity.
Tracy Chapman’s “Revolution” came on my Spotify the other day, and I was overcome with a mess of emotions. I spent the next two hours listening to it on repeat and crying, wondering how a relationship that had begun with laughter and music, then operated on a mostly satisfying autopilot after my high school graduation, had been reduced to a couple of six-word emails on my birthdays and you no longer recognizing my phone number.
That was the moment I realized you hadn’t been very involved in my life for quite some time. I had given you so much slack because of your unequivocally awful parents that even when our relationship wasn’t overshadowed by Mom’s dominating presence, I always forgave you before I even felt angry.
But I’m angry now.
Not being in my life is your choice. It always has been. I know you’re capable of more because of how much we talked my second year away at school. Telling myself that you’re “not a talker” and “bad at the phone” was an excuse I made for you — one of many over the years. Because our relationship wasn’t as contentious as the one I had with Mom, I thought our relationship was good — or at least fine.
It wasn’t until you broke a 25-year streak of saying nothing when Mom and I fought — other than occasionally shouting down our disagreements to “restore order” in your environment — that your distance began to seem like a conscious decision. Five years ago, Mom had acted so atrociously at a get-together with other family friends–four months after she told me not to bother coming home for Christmas–that the person who was co-hosting it with me noticed and was uncomfortable. Even though there were other people present who watched her refuse to hug me when I said hello with a big smile, and actively avoid me while whispering about me to another friend from across the room, you never bothered to find out if the story she told you was true. You just wanted there to be no conflict in your life and Mom being upset at me (hardly unusual) was bothering you; so you sent me an email rife with blame and anger instead of calling and speaking to me.
I sat down on the sidewalk in the rain and responded, telling you for the first time some of the awful things she had said to me and about you over the years, that I’d never bothered to make your problem. You didn’t so much as acknowledge receiving my email.
All these years later, I still can’t think about this without crying. I expected more from you — even though you hadn’t weighed in when she initially un-invited me from Christmas in a trio of emails signed with both your names. “Well, he does have to live with her,” I told myself. “He doesn’t want to rock the boat.”
Since then, I’ve spent some time — when I wasn’t dealing with trauma, illness, and economic hardships — considering how much I’ve let you off the hook over the years because of your less-than-ideal (to say the least) parents and because of your wife’s influence over your daily life and our relationship.
But those things alone don’t make the decision to completely withdraw from my life okay. I may be an adult, but I need you. Of course I do.
So many of my best traits come from you. My dark, dry humor. My ability to land on my feet. My ability to deal with whatever life has thrown me — and it’s thrown me a lot of shit (most of which you don’t know about because you haven’t asked). My willingness to work hard and get done what needs to be done. My athleticism. My enjoyment of nature and simple pleasures, like a beer after a long day (well, wine for me), and a song I love on the radio. My poker face. My politics. A perfectly thrown pass.
It’s disorienting to be estranged from someone I credit with those things and more. And, you know, Dad, I have always liked spending time with you. On the rare occasions we’ve gotten to hang out just you and me, we always have fun; it’s been so effortless. Despite how different we look because we don’t share genetics, people who see us together always tell me that they see the connection. The sorrow I feel missing out on the times we could be spending together is pretty intense at times.
I wish I knew if you were proud of me.
As I said in the Facebook post I saw you “like” without comment, I hope you’re pleased with the work I’m doing. It may not have been intentional, but your innate sense of fairness and reliance on reason rubbed off on me. Don’t think I didn’t see that Dukakis button on your desk. I was 9 and we were surrounded by Bush signs and supporters; I noticed that you were different long before I was old enough to participate in heated political discussions with you and Uncle Jim over games of euchre at Christmas.
My childhood — the good parts and the bad — are why I grew up to be a human rights advocate and unapologetic culture change activist.
I will always want you in my life — something I have told Mom in emails over and over and over, even if she has failed to mention it. Of course, I want both of you in my life. I have always made the phone calls, done the traveling (with four or five exceptions in the 15 years I lived within driving/train ride distance), extended the olive branches, made the excuses, done the ignoring of hurtful moments, and made the effort to create meaningful connection.
But I can’t be the one doing the reaching out anymore.
I need you to participate. I need you to show me some sign — any sign — that you want me in your life. An email, a card, a phone call. I don’t require much, and I’m willing to acknowledge and forget, just like we did on my 18th birthday when we talked about my childhood for less than 30 seconds and agreed that we could have an adult-adult relationship. “As long as you act like an adult,” you said. Well, I have. I’ve shouldered my adulthood on my own without my family’s help, through recessions and job losses, through illness and injury, through abusive relationship fallout and friends abandoning me. I’ve held up my end.
I’m turning 37 next week. I don’t want to celebrate my 38th birthday without my dad. I hope putting this out in the world will prove to you how much that’s true — how much I love you.
People refer to love as a verb — something we do, not just something we feel. While that’s true, I don’t actually need you to do much. Love doesn’t have to be simple or perfect; it’s something we can choose.
I hope that you choose to love me.
Lead image: Pixabay