“Do you not give a damn about your father?” my Dad growled into the phone.
The truth is I cared — probably too much. And for my own health and well-being, I had to step back from my Dad’s snark-filled comments and Mt. Vesuvius rage.
Family — or at least the idealized notion of family — is sacrosanct to me. I cherish my relationships with my beloved aunties and uncles. When they aren’t teasing me for the latest Mattism (losing my keys, wallet, or mind), they are prodding me about my latest love interest or travel escapade. And as for my late mother, she was equal parts mentor and matriarch. From joyfully recalling the day’s events to lunching with her and her tennis girlfriends to Thanksgiving bowl-a-thons, I smile — ruefully — at the fond memories. There is a tinge of sadness too as I recall our family’s joyfulness.
More than molding me, my mother moderated — with her trademark compassion and wit — my father’s sharper edges. More professional than personable, my father would never be in the running for Mr. Congeniality. But with my mother’s not-so-subtle influence, he concealed his gruff demeanor with an amicable, if not warm, countenance.
How times have changed.
Without my mother’s softening influence, my father’s shrillness has spilled out. Never particularly warm or engaging, his biting commentary (“If you really cared about your father”) now imbues our conversations.
As his eldest son, I vacillate between compassion and disdain toward him. Yes, I am sympathetic that your wife of 37 years passed away. I want to help. Why are you hurling mean-spirited invectives toward me? I don’t understand. While the debate rages on, compassion would normally eke out a narrow victory — and I would endure his caustic comments and morose self-pity.
Until it didn’t.
After four plus years, I pulled away — more for my own self-preservation. After another dispiriting conversation, I would rhetorically ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” During each father-son conversation, anxiety would ensnare me as Dad collected and filed his weekly grievances: my brothers, aunts and uncles, and me. While I wanted to support him, the emotional toll was too exacting: my own health and well-being.
And so I went cold turkey. While I still cling to my idealized family hovering around the kitchen table or, yes, commemorating the latest Thanksgiving bowl-a-thon, I now understand that you create your own family. For some, that will include a doting father; for others, that will consist of beloved aunties and uncles. And, perhaps for you, that will include lifelong friends spanning your recess through university days.
Your family doesn’t have to share your last name; it is more important that they share a sense of love and appreciation for you. Pulling away from my father’s domineering ways, I have luckily found that with my beloved aunties and uncles. You can too — even if takes screening one family member’s call(s) for another.