Usually my dad lives in an assisted living facility in southern California, near my two sisters but far away from me. But in the last few months, he’s spent quite a bit of time in the hospital and in a rehab facility. To summarize very briefly: he fell, was taken to the ER, and doctors there discovered several previously unknown heart problems. In March he had two stents put in, and this week he got a new valve. Knock on wood, he’s doing pretty well.
What I have been thinking about lately is what kind of daughter I want to be to him. I mean, over the past decade or so, I have kept a lot more distance from him than I used to. Is that the way I want things to continue to be?
This is a hard topic for me, because on the one hand, I often feel like he sexually abused me when I was a girl. Yet on the other hand, other times I feel confused and am not sure it was him; maybe my fuzzy memories don’t have it exactly right. Maybe I am blaming the wrong person.
“But wait a minute!” says the first hand. “Even if he didn’t explicitly molest you, he did expose you and your sibling to pornography at a young age. He did make inappropriate comments about his daughters’ bodies starting from the time they were toddlers. He did cheat on your mom with at least two different women–that she knew about. Even after he left your mom for a new girlfriend, he cheated on her, too. He has lived with more women than you can remember and often talked to you about their bodies and sexual attributes from the time you were a teenager (eww). He was unreliable with the child support to your mom. He declared bankruptcy at least three times–that you know of. He made many promises he didn’t keep. He has cheated on his taxes. He has been selfish and oblivious and irresponsible his whole life. Even now, he’s only able to manage in assisted living because you and your sisters help pay his bills (which he acts like he doesn’t notice). He’s not what you consider to be a good person.”
“Ah,” says the second hand, “you are too harsh. While everything you say is true, you haven’t put it in a proper context. Consider the era he grew up in, when it was clear that men were entitled to freedoms and privileges that weren’t there for women. You know his mother brought him and his brothers up to believe that. As for the body comments and the porn and the hundreds of sexual partners, well, he thought he was just going along with the liberal sexual values of the 1970s. He felt he was being a free spirit, accepting sexuality as part of a normal human experience. He didn’t think any of it would be harmful. But more importantly, aside from any pain he causes, your dad is now elderly and disabled, has almost no money and is lonely. You can’t just ignore him.”
You get the idea. My two hands can go on at length. And while I have this internal argument going on, it becomes hard to take action. I end up just letting it slide, not connecting with him, and getting information second hand from my sisters. I never call my dad, though I do send get well cards and short email messages.
His hospital stints this winter and spring have re-awakened me to his mortality. Maybe he’ll be here another ten years, I don’t know. Or maybe he’ll fall next month and not recover. Do I really want to spend the last months or years of his life paralyzed by this internal debate?
Well, no. The answer is no. Instead, I want to be intentional about my actions, about my relationships. If I don’t call my dad, I want it to be because I thought it over and made that decision. If I do call him, I also want it to be something I decided on, rather than a response to momentary feelings of guilt.
So that’s my goal right now, to make a thoughtful decision about my relationship to my father. I talked about this to E in my (online) therapy session today, and we decided on some writing and reflecting I will try to do. I’m sure you will hear more about it in the coming days.
NOTE: Image created on Canva using stock photos; the photo is not my father.
Also, here’s an earlier post that describes my dad in more detail… not that I’m sure anyone needs more detail!