My father died yesterday. This was not an unexpected event. He developed pancreatic cancer more than a year ago, and the surprise isn’t that he died, but that he was able to be active and comfortable for so long. Thanks to the slow progress of his disease, we had time to see each other, time to talk, time to say goodbye. I know no amount of preparation can head off the grief that comes with the loss of a parent, but I like to think I’ll have one or two fewer regrets than I would have had if the disease had taken him quickly.
That being said, one question haunts me already: How will I remember him? Not just in my mind and heart but in my writing as well. All of my fiction includes a father figure of some sort: a solitary man in Uganda closing his heart to a street urchin; an abusive father haunted by the ghost of his son; a confused and lonely father trying to pick up the pieces after his wife has run away. None of these fathers are the same as mine, anymore than the branches of an evolutionary tree are the same as the roots. But I’d be a fool to claim they don’t come from him.
Until recently, I’m sad to say, I drew my characters mostly from the negative side of my father, because the negative side was always the easiest to see. He was, at one time, the kind of man who threw tantrums in public, beat his children, berated and ridiculed and even hit his wife. He was a creature of fear–afraid he was not respected enough, afraid he was being taken advantage of, afraid that no one actually loved him–and all that fear came out as one thing: anger.
Oddly enough, he was a family man, in his own way. He took his responsibilities as head of household seriously, worked hard to make sure we were all well provided for. All decisions—financial, communal, disciplinary—fell on his shoulders, and though I know it was a heavy burden, he never acted as if he had been given a raw deal. But… But he could not stand to be around small children for more than five minutes at a time. He could not tolerate even the most benign family activities. A day at the beach would go well if he had a friend to keep him company and play backgammon with him, smoke cigars. But if he had to listen to childish chatter and dig sandcastles, he became like a parent trapped at a kindergarten recorder concert—desperate to escape back to the world of adult noises, adult pursuits. Dealing with teens was even more difficult for him. The criss-crossing emotional currents and constant strains against his authority sent him into rages. He started working late, traveling a lot, avoiding coming home as much as he could. Given the dangers of his temper, maybe this was a blessing. But it didn’t feel like one at the time.
If that was all there was to my father, I wouldn’t be writing this post. But the truth is, he was a likeable man, even a loveable man. Those who worked with him admired and respected him to a degree that always made me proud, even as it mystified me. He loved parties. He loved to dance. He could give tear-jerking toasts at weddings. And I cannot count the number of people who, having sought out his advice, insist he changed their lives. True, other people’s love and loyalty often made me feel cheated, as if he had stored everything good about himself in other people’s houses, and kept the bad in ours. But it was still comforting to see these sides of him, to know that something good was there.
In his sixties, my father remarried. He had a new family—not just a wife and teen step-children, but a baby, too. I was skeptical, at first. I worried for his new family, wondered if history would repeat itself. But remarrying and having another child turned out to be the best thing he ever did. It wasn’t just that he seemed happier in his new marriage, or that age seemed to have mellowed him. He was actually doing things with them—things he had never done with us. He was trying to spend time with them, trying to be patient, trying to understand. It was almost as if somewhere between the first family and the second, he had dared to look in a mirror and question who he was–something I had always thought him incapable of.
You would think the change from nightmare father to caring one would have made me wildly jealous. I mean, here were these complete strangers getting the father I had never had. And maybe I was jealous—I don’t really remember. Because what I felt far more than that was hope and love. Maybe that sounds odd. But one of the greatest fears you can have growing up with an abusive parent is to believe there is nothing more to them—that he/she will always be the monster who raged and hit and did things that you can’t afford to think about day in and day out. They will always be the dangerous parent. And though it simplifies things to see them this way, it’s always disappointing, always impoverishing. You need them to be more than that. Every child needs their parent to be more than that.
So yes, I should have been jealous to see my father treat his new family with the kind of gentleness and understanding he’d never shown us. But instead I was moved by the miracle of it. To know that he could share time with his new son and not be desperate to get away from him, to see that his new family was not afraid of him, that they even sought out his company and valued his advice, to hear him talk (however obliquely) about the “mistakes” parents make in their youth—all of these things were a great gift. Because far from distancing me from him, they made it possible for me to talk to him. They made it possible for me to believe that we weren’t at complete opposite poles, that what I valued most—childhood, fatherhood, patience, love—he valued, too. Maybe it didn’t come naturally to him. Maybe he had come to it late in life. But he was willing to try, and that meant everything to me.
I’m unlikely ever to write about the kind of paternal figures you find in Little House on the Prairie or To Kill A Mockingbird. My fictitious fathers will probably always be reluctant dads, angry, conflicted, desperate to get away. And there will be days when what I remember of my father will not bring me much hope or comfort. But life challenges simplicity, and my father’s life proved to be as big a challenge to me as I can imagine. Will I be able to remember him in all his maddening complexity? Will I be able to love him for the father he was and the father he was not? Most of all, will I be able to put him into words, jumbled and exposed as a Picasso painting, and know that this is not all of him, this will never be all of him?
I don’t know. There’s a good chance I’ll fail, if only because characters are like children—they resist our dreams for them. But like my father, I’m willing to try.
This post was first published on Beyond the Margins on 11/13/2013.