Monday, July 28, 2014

"Don't Get Too Close, It's Dark Inside, It's Where My Demons Hide"

Just as a disclaimer: this post very well may be somewhat provocative!  Read with caution, and read with an open mind and heart.  In no way do I mean ANY disrespect – least of all to my late father.  This post is to share more of the man my father was, the demons he battled, the ugliness yet profound human experience behind his moments of weakness, and the impact it has had on me – his daughter – and how it defined and redefined the relationship I had with my father. 

This photo was taken just a couple weeks before my dad entered hospice.  Santa Barbara, Summer 2013

Having an emotionally available father as a kid is a simple yet profound benefit to a child’s own emotional development.  As a child myself, I always questioned and wondered why my dad was so distant from me; and from my brother and two sisters for that matter.  Often I speculated why more often than not I didn’t feel like I could run to my dad for comfort, consolation or compassion.  It sounds cliché but I wasn’t his little princess.  And even, a handful of times (quite literally) his harbored anger would come out towards me; or displayed itself to me - much to my horror. 

My dad and me.  Not sure how old I am here.  =) 
I can remember, one morning (as my dad was likely on an important phone call) I persistently pulled on his pant leg for some good old fashioned daddy attention (being five the world revolves around you). I was shocked and shaken when he lost his cool, yelled and pushed me to the ground.  Another time at Disneyland my family and I were paddling in the canoes and the skill and art of paddling was lost on me – unfortunately my dad was sitting behind me in the canoe and reaping the benefits of my lack of paddling skills.  What I didn’t expect was when he ripped the paddle away from my grip, somewhat publicly shammed me for my lack of skills, and scolded a line that silenced me for the rest of the time at the Happiest Place on Earth. Yet another time, my parents took us to Sea World in San Diego, and while eating lunch, I blurted something out inappropriately (don’t ask, I don’t remember), and my dad turns to me as he scolds red in the face: “you had to open your fucking mouth!” Again I was silenced for the rest of the day.  Other memories are clear when my dad’s anger would reach a boiling point of throwing a coffee mug at full force to a wall as I listened and watched the shards shatter; or even being horrified when he threw a lawn chair straight through our back yard glass door in a fit of rage and argument with my mom, and hearing the clash, and watching the spikes and daggers of glass fly in an infinite number of directions, as I stood – powerless to stop it or his anger.

My dad and me.  
Admitting, I feared my dad.  Heaven forbid I’d beg or plead with him for any ounce of freedom, or took longer to get ready for school in the morning, or got a bad school report – his temper would seep through his crumbling façade.   

            The temper I recall from him as a young girl had somewhat subsided and was somewhat replaced with this emotionally removed and blasé scene of a father figure.  Maturing into my adolescents (if ya call it maturing) I’d secretly wish for my dad to take more of an interest in my life beyond my grades, household chores and financial future.  My dad majored in economics after all and was an accountant, so perhaps that was his way of “connecting.”  As much as he’d talk to me about the importance of Quicken, I equally wished he’d ask me about my high school social situations or teen crushes - but he didn’t.  As much as he’d give me political talks about his ideology, I wished he’d wait up for me to come home some nights from the Prom or Homecoming – but he didn’t.  He continued to drive me to school in the morning; he continued to educate me on Quicken; he continued to keep tabs on my grades and not much else.  Needless to say his paternal behavior was a far cry from that emotionally available ideal dad I painted in my mind. 

Me, my dad, my brother Joey, and older sister Katie.
              It wasn’t till my later years in high school – college really – that I came to understand my father on a deeper level; on an adult level, and I came to understand why he placed the distance he placed between us - his children.

With no easy or poetic way to say this, so for lack of better words: growing up, my dad was perpetually beaten. Truly he faced unfathomable physical and emotional abuse – and arguably dealt with neglect as well.  Growing up in the middle of 13 kids (literally the 7th out of 13 kids, and having a twin brother on top of that), in Kansas City, Missouri (quite literally the middle of the country) he surly wasn’t alone in the routine beatings.  Without fail, one or multiple of my dad’s siblings will recount (either in a brief tongue and cheek manner, or a long descriptive manner) on any given family gathering a time they got a whipping.   

            To hear of how a spanking gone too far was resorted to bare ass whipping with a marbled stone belt shocked me!  To hear how my grandma Quigley would fly off the handle (on a number of occasions), lock her pack of kids in the basement seller, scream, rant and rave about how she’d burn the house down with the children locked inside, till finally my alcoholic grandpa talked some sense into her and ultimately let the traumatized kids out – hours later – sickened me! To hear so many scenarios of how my grandma habitually would insult and put down my dad for being analytical; her common line was, “oh you’re just so damn slow!”  I was appalled!  And to hear how my passive grandpa would resort to a bottle of liquor every night and black out on conversations he had with my dad the night prior broke my heart!  

My dad's entire family; all 13 kids plus his parents.
            Not only did he face perpetual abuse throughout his childhood and adolescents, but he was deeply wounded (mostly emotionally) in his time serving in the air force at the height of the Vietnam War – a largely unpopular war. Clearly a topic for another post. 

After disclosing to me the traumas of his youth under an alcoholic father, an extremely abusive mother, and the pains of an unpopular Vietnam War, I came to understand the deep, long and wide wounds that he bared.  In simple words my dad was a scared man!  He shared with me at some point in college: “when I became a father for the first time, I vowed I wouldn’t repeat the cycle of abuse; I vowed that I would spare you and your siblings from the horrors I faced as a kid; and there are some things from the child abuse I will never share with you, and I will take it to my grave.”  In the latter of his statement he was indeed successful; for I can only imagine what level of abuse he kept a secret.  And by and large he was indeed successful in breaking the cycle of abuse, and his way – the only way he knew how – was to cut himself off emotionally.  It took me growing up into a young adult to get it; I didn’t and sometimes still don’t understand his means, but I am deeply touched by the ends.  More so though, I came to understand for years he had been conditioned to not be affectionate; not show emotions; not talk about his feelings; much less indulge a daughter or son for that matter in their feelings.  As a father he was in uncharted waters, and was likely terrified of dealing with emotions.  He was emotionally constipated. All jokes aside though.    

            Even after I moved away for college and then to Philadelphia my relationship with my dad was a strain.  Don’t get me wrong, I was grateful for some clarity, but I couldn’t help but think: “well com’on now, shit is out on the table, so let’s try and move forward; I get where you’re coming from, so try and understand where I’m coming from.  I need an emotionally open dad!”  But it was a process, and for my dad a lifelong process – till his dying day.

My folks and I on my graduation day from SFSU. 
I can say with confidence my dad’s role in my life was a large component to my shy and cautious state growing up; something I’ve overcome.  I can say with confidence my dad’s behavior in my life has made me skeptical, guarded and weary when it comes down to anyone I’ve dated; something that’s gotten better yet I'm still working on.  And I can say with confidence my dad’s tendency to retreat from anything that required a touch of emotion was one component to my lack and sense of self-esteem; again something I’ve overcome. Among many remedies for these "issues" I have to give credit to years in therapy and spiritual direction. It's fascinating to think of how my grandparents on my dad's side parented; how that (obviously) affected my dad's parenting style; and ultimately how that has shaped me (for better or worse). Just makes me think - isn't there some Bible verse about inheriting the sins of your ancestors? While it's not meant to be taken literally, it does force me to think about the cycle of dysfunction. But I digress. 

Now because of or in spite of my dad’s cancer battle, it perhaps, and likely made it possible for him and I to finally have some lasting conversations, closure and ultimately forgiveness about his child abuse and how it determined the role he played as a father in my life. In that last year, I heard him tell me how proud he was of me, for going off to and finishing college.  In between chemotherapy and radiation treatments I’d hear his admiration for my, (as he called it) “wanderlust spirit,” going from Rome for a semester in college, off to San Francisco to finish my BA, and moving across the country for two years to teach in West Philly.  I smiled when he'd say I take after his analytical mindset; his perfectionist mindset and his photographic memory - which I can vouch for. More importantly though, I saw him face the reality of his own mortality; something to be grabbled with.  And with that, not only was he able to let years of harbored emotion out, but we were able to let years of harbored emotion out – together. In that year I saw my father cry more than I ever saw him cry - ever. He spoke to me of his deep pain and regret that he wouldn’t get to meet the man that will take me as his wife; how it pained him that he wouldn't get to walk me down the aisle or meet his grandkids - all of which are also deeply painful for me.  These were some of many closure like conversations I had with my dying dad. 

Fall pumpkin festival at the Orange County Great Park; Fall 2012.

Now I don't know if it took me moving away multiple times (having time and space away from my dad perhaps gave me space to have my own bit of clarity) and then returning to Southern California a different and grown woman, or the reality of terminal cancer to provoke these conversations between us. Nevertheless, I can say that there was a genuine humility and great goodness in the way he spoke to me in those last years (not just his cancer battle year, but especially in his cancer battle year), and that there was remarkable forgiveness, lasting peace, and profound confidence in the deep love my dad has for me.  

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