I'm a bit late for Father's Day, but yesterday I was talking with a friend who is dealing with a difficult Dad, and I thought it might be helpful to share this story. I'll tell you the end first -- get counseling if you have issues with your family. You do not have to carry this baggage forever. Live your best years without hanging onto whatever you thought you were due.
I often joke that I was raised by wolves. My dad was particularly challenging. Cold, distant, angry, verbally abusive. My mother liked to stir the fire. It didn't make for a peaceful upbringing, and I got out of Dodge as fast as I could. The key was to be several area codes away.
When I got cancer at age 43, I went to counseling. I thought I would need help dealing with the disease, but we ended up focusing on how I could earn a living without losing my creative passion and how to accept my family. I'm pretty sure we never even talked about cancer. My psychologist was sly.
She got me talking about my dad's eccentricities. Not as a disappointed daughter would talk about her father but as an interested observer might see him. I remember telling her about the camper. For as long as I can remember during my childhood, my father slept in a camper parked in the backyard.
Her: Why do you think he slept out there?
Me: My mother said he snored.
Her: No, why do you think he slept out there?
Me: I think he was a ramblin' man.
I explain. As I heard it, Bill left a hard home life during the Great Depression at age 13 and road the rails. Bummed his way around the country. Fished in Mexico. Lived with Native Americans in Arizona. Learned to bead. Ran a bowling alley in Palm Springs. Got drafted. Went AWOL one weekend and fell in love with a girl he met in a bar. Married her, went back to the war and came home afterward somehow damaged.
He never accepted the responsibilities of family life, and sleeping in the camper made him feel unbridled. He was long dead, and I had pretty much written him out of my memories, until I met up with the counselor. At some point, it wasn't about me anymore. It was about him. His rough start. His unfinished dreams. I came to the conclusion that both my parents did the best they could.
Shortly after I finished chemo, I went to California to visit my mom and sister. When we talked about my dad in earlier years, we talked about what a missed opportunity we had. For some reason, this time we talked about what a missed opportunity he had. He made mistakes, did some bad things, but if you read about him in a book, you'd think he was an incredibly interesting character.
The next part of this story is uncharacteristic of me. I am not a sentimentalist. A former boyfriend dumped me because he said my spiritual attributes were nil. Those were his exact words. I never got mad about his comment, because it was true. So, you have to accept that this part is true, too. I had just returned from the visit home and was in bed, awake, thinking about the whole experience. No fan, no windows open. A piece of paper fluttered on the dresser top, and I instantly had this feeling of my father being in the room. I didn't see him or anything ... it was just a feeling of his presence.
Sat up straight in bed and said, "It's OK, Daddy, I forgive you." And I've been free ever since.
I never was big on Hallmark holidays. Always late with the card. Always late with the gift. I guess this time, too, but my friend's pain about feeling rejected by her father made me get up off my butt and say something. At some point you become an adult. If you pay attention and do the hard work, you realize that it's not all about you anymore. You are fine.
The counselor said I made a lot of progress. She said I was ready to move on with my life. Take the cancer journey wherever it was going to take me. She said the camper was finally pulling out of the driveway.
I always liked that metaphor. I picture myself cruising along on the open road, windows open, silver hair blowing in the wind. Loving life. Wishing the wolves a good night's sleep.