I haven’t blogged about my dad in recent months any more than I’ve talked to him, and felt that was a fairly merciful thing to do. So I was surprised to learn recently that he feels hurt by how little he appears on these digital pages, almost as if, in my eyes, he doesn’t exist.
I’m mentioning this now because this entry is about my dad. Not about his role as my mom’s husband, which is a near-constant topic of conversation in my family, but about his role as my father. This is why I don’t mention him in my blogs now, and why, even before we learned of his adultery, I didn’t mention him often either.
I am much more like my dad than my mom. My mom and my brother are logical creatures, my dad and I have to work harder to construct logical arguments. We are comfortable with emotion, while my mom and brother tend to find their emotions pretty worrisome. They have very little interest in work for work’s sake, or ambition, while my dad and I love to work, and always want to climb the next mountain. My dad and I both want to admire our superiors, while my mom and brother do not believe that anyone could be their superior. My dad and I prefer being nice to coworkers, relatives and other people we encounter on a daily basis, whereas my mom and brother view that as an irritating and highly questionable social obligation. My dad and I are sensitive to medication and food, are much more prone to stress, genuinely enjoy exercise, get cranky when we’re hungry, take insults personally, flare up fast and die down just as quickly, and every step of the way, my mom and brother are opposite. For those of you who believe in astrology, guess which two of us are Scorpios and which are Aquarius’s.
I am grateful for everything my mom has taught me, but I am much more like my dad than my mom.
When I think about my dad’s role in my life, I think about my ninth year, when we moved from the Seattle area to a town in northern California. It was the first time my mom, brother or I had lived more than twenty minutes from her extended family. Used to celebrating every birthday and holiday at one of their houses, we now decorated a Christmas tree and went trick or treating alone. I resented the palm trees that stood like alien spacecraft where pine trees should have been. School lunches were eaten outside for most of the school year, instead of inside, out of the rain. Instead of working retail’s consistent hours, my dad had to take week long business trips through California and Nevada. Left to navigate Santa Rosa alone while my dad traveled, my mom hid her anxiety well, but I still felt it. My brother was two going on three and a tiny reminder of how fragile this family was. Like most toddlers, he had little to contribute except a need for fresh pacifiers.
One night over the dinner table, my parents reminisced about vintage science fiction movies, particularly a black and white classic they remembered enjoying as kids. It involved creatures with lightbulb-style heads that sucked people’s brains out through the back of their necks. Only a scar on the back of their neck betrayed a victim’s brainlessness (whether the aliens only removed the important bits of the brain or replaced them with something else that allowed victims to function normally, I can’t remember).
A few nights later, laying in bed listening to them murmuring to each other in the living room, I was overcome with terror that aliens would take them and my brother away. The fear evolved and multiplied over the following months, including the possibility the aliens from that movie would land outside our house…
I couldn’t sleep for years afterward without the blanket pulled up over the back of my neck.
During the day I was a relatively calm, happy nine year old, doing well in school, making a few friends, playing with my brother in the afternoons. But once I was put into bed in the darkness, with the California crickets cheeping outside my bedroom window, all hell broke loose in my brain, and I would cry in complete terror of aliens abducting my family.
My mom sympathized but couldn’t understand how her otherwise sensible daughter would sink into fear about something she knew made no sense. I did not believe in aliens at all, and yet, I spent each night hugging myself and sobbing at the thought of them. As my mom’s patience lessened, my dad took over the visits to my room. Desperate to make me see how ridiculous my fears were, he finally joked that it was more likely our petite Himalayan cat, Maggie Two, would suffocate me by pooping on my face in the night, than aliens would visit the house. The image did make me laugh… but the fear still seized me the next night.
One night, he told me that he too knew what it was like to worry in the night. I remember feeling awestruck that my big, adult, world-conquering dad could feel anything resembling the helplessness I did. He said that when he had a lot going on at work, he would find himself laying awake, mind racing with all the things he had to do the next day. In that state of mind, he said, it was easy even for a grown man like him to start thinking everything was much worse, the world much scarier, the future much riskier, than it actually was.
He showed me that it was my thinking, and not the world itself, that changed when daylight turned to night. He said that when he got in that state it helped for him to get up and write things down to get them out of his head, a trick I still found helpful years later in high school. He also said that all you could really do was change the subject. He liked to build fantastic bicycles in his mind, and wondered what I could dream about.
We decided I should try designing dresses; I spent months dreaming myself to sleep fashioning clothes. In fact, I still did it sometimes after returning to Washington.
My mom hoped that once we moved back to the Seattle area, a year later, my anxiety would go away. It was a natural assumption, but even after returning to our home, I had new things to fear, namely, my own pre-adolescent insecurities. I felt guilty about stealing a classmate’s eraser in kindergarten, about sexual experiments as a six year old with a cousin, about using my hands instead of tongs when putting an English muffin in the hotel brunch toaster. A tall, slightly overweight ten year old with more A’s than friends, I didn’t have enough of a life to commit any real crimes, but in my state of mind, contaminating the English muffins of strangers was enough to reduce me to tears.
So again it was my dad who helped. When my constant “confessions,” moments of irrational panic, and preoccupation during enjoyable family activities had reached its most frustrating, my mom left the house on a weeknight to go out drinking with my aunt. This was unheard of and, more worrisome, preceded by her muttering something about the possibility of my needing therapy. In my family, and in the pragmatic do-it-yourself Northwest in general, therapy was for crazies and wusses.
My dad took his position next to my bed and I told him my latest guilty secrets, that I’d found myself looking… at people’s… butts. I was fascinated with watching people’s bottoms in their clothes, I sniffled.
He heard me out, as usual, reassured me, talked of various things. I was crying, as always, and we talked about how upset I seemed to be all the time, despite their monitoring my dairy allergy and possible hypoglycemia. Then he asked me if I’d ever thought about killing myself. I was taken aback but also knew it required an honest answer, and I remember feeling surprised to discover that, no, absolutely not, never. He told me about his suicidal mother and how painful it was growing up in that environment. That, even if I felt like I was losing my mind, I had to keep it together for my family, because losing me would break them.
It may seem like a dark thing to tell a ten year old, but for me, it was the proverbial wake up call. His mom’s circumstances put mine in perspective. It also showed me how bad things could get if I didn’t find a way to reign this in. I was a little impressed that he thought I was mature enough to hear such a terrible part of his past. And I recognized the implications of his story, that even if I wasn’t suicidal, I was really bothering everyone who cared about me. While I had, for whatever reason, felt compelled to hate myself, I began to see that maybe it would be nobler and more grown up to start liking myself.
Soon after, my mom suggested I just not think about anything that hadn’t happened that day. I’ve talked about “What About Bob?” before; my mom was giving me a vacation from my problems, and the trick worked. A year later I discovered yoga and, a year after that, began journaling, both of which are still tools I use to counteract anxiety.
But it was my dad who said, it’s okay to feel this way, sometimes I do too, here are some ways you can deal with it, and while we try to ignore this during the day, we both know this could get ugly… so for our sake, even if you can’t do it for your own, you must stop hating yourself.
Around the same time he was offering me that help and guidance in the wee small hours, he was becoming a more elusive figure in my daytime life. He would travel for days and occasionally weeks at a time, and when he was home, he seemed increasingly emotionally absent, talking about work or joking around but not truly interested or mindful of the nuances of our lives. As my brother and I grew older, we couldn’t skip school to travel with him quite as often, removing a major opportunity to spend time with him. By the time we had settled in a house in Eastern Washington when I was sixteen, it felt that his understanding of our daily lives, our classes in school, and our social dramas, was ever-lessening. He lost track of our family in-jokes, stopped listening to our conversation at the dinner table, often gazing into the distance while we talked about our day.
He thinks that we judge him for traveling, but we don’t. My mom and brother and I appreciate the wonderful life he always generously provided for us, and we admire his business success. I have patterned myself on his professionalism my entire life, always striving to match his forthright humorous honesty, his work ethic, his creativity, and his ability to manifest innovations even when his company was dragging its feet.
My dad has asked me whether I have any good memories of him at all, and this is my honest answer: yes, a lifetime of them. Mountain biking in Spokane on snowy and sunny days. Sitting in the car arguing over the morality of the death penalty after he picked me up from debate club one evening. Reviewing movies and classic rock bands together. Practicing throwing and catching a ball, afternoon after afternoon on a sunny patch of grass outside our condo. Drawing at his desk at Lynnwood Yamaha, the store he managed the first eight years of my life. Playing in hotel pools with him and my brother when we traveled on business trips. Going with him to motorcycle conventions in Seattle, Toronto and Montreal. Talking to him about my job in New York. I remember all of this, Dad. And I remember what you gave me during my nutsiest childhood moments.
I remember that I am much more like you than like Mom.
We’re not talking right now, and I know, that doesn’t feel right to you. But it feels right to me. Because there is a lot to process, and not just that you cheated on your wife, my mom, not just that you lied to us, not just that you have said things recently, to me, that make me hesitant to speak with you for fear of your criticizing me yet again. It feels right to me, because I am much more like you than like Mom. And Mom has not cheated, not lied. I am in love with a man I would rather be faithful to, than not, honest with, than not, sincere with, than not.
I am much more like you than like Mom. Right now, I find that hard.