“We have a personality clash,” my father would flippantly remark before storming off. This was his throwaway line.
I stood there dumbfounded. A sensitive teenager, the words wounded. There was a cold dismissiveness in his voice.
“What have I ever done to you?” I wondered.
The answer: Nothing. But that doesn’t stop the lingering hurt. In 1997, 2007, and, yes, 2017.
As an adult, I hear friends beam about spending Father’s Day with their old man. There are golf outings and sporting events interspersed with fatherly words of wisdom. It is heartwarming. Like put it on a Hallmark card heartwarming. But, truthfully, there is a tinge of envy. And, on some days, that tinge hardens into cold resentment.
While my two brothers and I struggle with my father’s cool indifference, my unaffected father has seemingly moved on. He ignores text messages; shrugs off family phone calls. My brothers and I are alternately dismayed and disgusted. But more than revisiting family anguish, my column focuses on strategies to cope with an AWOL father.
When your anger smolders, it is difficult to feel compassion or even understanding. But amidst my simmering fury, I harken back to my my father’s father. For my brothers and me, he was a well-coiffed (albeit unapproachable) grandfather. For my father, I suspect he was that much more distant. And even to this untrained eye, my father’s joylessness bears a striking resemblance to my emotionally detached grandfather.
When I envision my father’s frayed relationship with his own father, there is a mixture of pity and, yes, compassion. My father, like me, craved a nurturing, loving relationship. Instead, my grandfather — a stern disciplinarian — coolly distanced himself. Apparently, indifference, like olive complexion, runs in the family.
Build Your Own Family
While my father’s iciness stings, my brothers and I have found solace in my extended family’s warm embrace. In my case, my uncles and I have formed an unbreakable bond. When we converge for the holidays, my uncles and I exchange good-natured barbs about bowling, basketball, and expanding bellies.
Uncle Johnny loves to regale the family with (tall) tales about my insatiable appetite. “They had to go to the Far East for more potstickers,” he booms. But amidst the jocularity, there is mutual love and adoration. My cold heart? It thaws into a mushy puddle of affection.
During one heated confrontation with my father, I collapsed into streaming tears. Distraught and defeated, I slumped into bed. My mother dashed in to console me. “I want you to be a better man than your father,” she gently whispered. And she is right; instead of succumbing to the, at times, overpowering pain, I can be a better man. As my uncles remind me, we are more — much more — than our trying circumstances.
With fatherhood — if I get there, that means taking a vested interest in my kids’ lives. With my burgeoning career, than means balancing professional ambitions with personal obligations (carpool duty? soccer practice anyone?). With myself, that means continually striving for self-improvement — even when the howling winds of hurt, anger, resentment threaten to bowl me over.
It is okay to feel hurt — even embittered. At times, I will ruminate — dwelling on past disagreements and wondering how our relationship deteriorated into the occasional text message. But even as the hurt threatens to sink you, it — like an unreturned text message — can and does eventually fade away. And that life lesson is more valuable than any Hallmark memory.