Sunday, June 21, 2009

Whose Father Is It, Anyway?

Ten years is a long time.

I'm not that big a fan of Father's Day anymore. There are reasons for this, aye, and good ones in my own mind, but it comes around once a year whether I like it or not. For those of you that still have fathers living, by all means make an effort to appreciate one another today. Your time to do so is limited, and like all lives, they can end suddenly (yours or his). One of the saddest things I can think of is living a lifetime of regrets for things that were never said. In fact, I have a certain amount of impatience for that behavior, and maybe I'm just getting old, but wasting precious time in your life is a bit of a slap in the face of the Creator who gave it to you in the first place. Especially when you waste it wallowing in negativity.

But I digress. Sort of.

How does the ten years fit into this? Well, my father passed away just a little over ten years ago. Today is Father's Day. His birthday was June 16th. So we're at a bit of a trifecta, which practically begs for things like blog entries to be written about it. How can I stand in the way of this imperative?

The problem is, not all reminiscing produces good results. If you have lots of happy memories from your childhood, that is a grand thing. However, I was not a particularly happy child when all is said and done (and after all that was said and done). I'm inclined towards melancholia anyway, but it was a large and pretty dysfunctional household when I was a kid. I'm the third of six children, and I think all of us felt a bit lost in the crowd. We all tried to deal with it in our various ways.... somewhere around the seventh grade, I developed the tendency to never shut up. A cry for attention? Maybe. More likely, it's because I'm an actor; by our nature, we tend to be auditioning or performing for someone all the time, whether they like it or not. And I must admit that it has a special flavor of fun when they like it not. Such was my experience at home, anyway. My chief escapes were school, and especially, books. I've read a swutting lot of books, and I am very thankful that one thing I got out of my childhood was a love of reading (likely, blame my mother the Lit major, and those precious few years when I was the youngest). How did the others cope, and how well did it work for them? Well, you'd have to ask them. We've talked about it; the chief surprise was that each of us thought that others had it "better" than we did, and it wasn't really true.

Roundaboutly, do I approach my point.

I could just try to ignore it at this point, shrug it off and try not to think about what was, and what could have been. The things said that should never have been spoken, and what was left in silence. Actions taken, however ill-advised, and so much left undone. I know a lot of people who try to do precisely that: forget about it. But human beings aren't really designed to do that; just sublimating things underground heals nothing, and I'd even go so far to say that it'll make you physically ill. When something goes wrong in life, something has to be DONE about it, or it never goes away! My family (on both sides) had been a bunch of unhappy, repressed people for the last few generations. All the unwritten "rules" that governed the family were a stinking load of fetid dingo's kidneys rotting in the Mongolian desert.

Why Mongolia? Don't ask me now, I'm on a roll.

There was only one way out: BREAK the rules. This is what my generation (mostly) has done. We all shared a deep dissatisfaction, but didn't know how to deal with it. It's not fully agreed, I think, who started it, but we slowly began actually communicating with one another. This generally occurred when we were college age or older, and many of us were away from home. I tend to credit my oldest sister, who wrote me a gut-wrenching letter that revealed a whole lot of suffering that I'd never known she'd had to deal with. What's important is that we started to undo the past and form a family where there really hadn't been a whole one before. The beauty of it was that it was not because we felt we had to. We did it because we wanted to. Eventually, as a group (mostly....), we symbolically took the old "family code" out in the back yard, tore it up, burned it, and then spit on the ashes. Done, done and done.

The "infection" gradually spread backwards to my parents, who had also grown wiser with the years. Things actually got pretty good, and who cared if some certain members of the family whom I shall not name thought we were crazy? We're doing SO much better as adults, and have mutually resolved to never pass the old "traditions" down to our children. Enough, already. It's enough that we have our own personal foibles to deal with. I resolved to be a better parent to my child. I tried, managed to make some of the same mistakes my parents made, but mostly came up with my own. Fortunately, my daughter is very resilient, and I had a lot of good help. My chief regret is something that's not really my fault, but it hangs over me nonetheless. I have a long-term illness, and my daughter has had the backlash from it affect her whole life. It's stupid, I guess, but I'll never forgive myself for it. I will always feel like she didn't get my best.

It's forgiveness, though, that we have to thank for our latter-day family. Not covering up, not sweeping away, not pretending that the elephants in the room don't exist; we had to all forgive one another, parents and children alike, in order for the darker things to no longer hold power over us. It's forgiving oneself that can be hard. Still, the guilt was also part of the old "rules", so it has to go as well. That's an ongoing effort for everyone. Well, it gives us something to do. Things got significantly better when my father retired at 62, and was finally relieved of the major stress of his working life, and all of a sudden "Woody" (so was he called, for his first & middle names were, under the best circumstances, unfair) was a relaxed guy. It's a shame that he and the rest of us only got to enjoy that for about four years. When he was 66, he had a major stroke and wasn't expected to live. However, one thing we are as a group is cussedly stubborn, and he fought back. He even managed to live at home for a part of his last three years before the cumulative damage caught up with him at just 69. How very unfair, but we're fortunate to have had those three bonus years. We all learned a lot.

I think the proudest thing my generation has done was to break down the old walls. The proudest thing my father ever did was not just manage to raise six (adorable and talented) children and get them through school and all that. No, it was fighting back those extra three years. It wasn't because he wanted to (and I understand his feeling that way). He didn't do it because he wasn't ready to go. He did it because WE weren't ready for him to go, especially my mother. I cannot imagine how difficult that must have been, his right arm paralyzed, walking with difficulty, and simple communication beyond him (oh, I could get the gist of what he was trying to say when he talked, but his speech center never came back). Enduring all the doctor visits, the therapy sessions, dealing with other health issues at the same time, and the inevitable stay in a care facility.... which he did for others. If I inherit one thing from my father, that kind of commitment would be a good choice.

It's been ten years now, and I don't dwell on it except the nagging feeling that he got cheated. However, I have to keep perspective on it; a lot of bad things happen to a lot of good people, and we should be thankful that we didn't have it as rough as so many people in the world do. We were and are lucky, and we learned to get smart enough to make the best of it. Incidentally, we can, in all probability, blame smoking for the stroke. The doctors believe that a blood clot formed in his leg and broke off and hit his brain, the clot having formed in diseased arteries damaged by years of cigarettes. Please, for the love of your family, and in the name of common sense, quit smoking if you're addicted to those evil things. You will pay a price some day, and others may be forced to pay as well. We've known for decades what smoking does; there's no excuse for doing it now.

So, why are the ten years long? Mostly because we have a holdout: One sister, whose inner demons still have a hold on her, has practically not communicated with us since. I am still left wondering as to why exactly this is; I can guess at some things, but since she's not speaking to us, we don't really know. There is hostility, irrational anger and outright hate. It's very sad that she continues to choose not to join us in the "new" family, and live holding grudges in her heart. I've done what I can in the situation, but evidently I'm one of the more "guilty" ones. I am not angry, at least not for myself. I am angry for the part of my mother, who's been cut off from her daughter and her two grandsons for a decade. She has done nothing to deserve that kind of spiteful treatment, and that's what I find hard to live with.

My earthly father now resides with my Heavenly Father; his faith was quiet but sincere. Neither of them can approve of this situation, and my sister has turned her back on the memory of one, and on the love and mercy of the other. This is terribly sad, and I wish I had the power to do something about it. All I can do is pray.

So, on this Father's Day, my sister, if you really ever honored our father, then prove it by coming back into the lives of the rest of the family. We could, given the chance, help heal the hurts, the grieving, and deal with whatever it is that bothers you so much. However, the choice isn't ours. The ball is in your court.... and you'd better do it while our mother is still alive. She is, by the way. Not that you've asked. I'll allow myself one, somewhat bitter, comment: Get off your high horse, it isn't all about you.

It's Father's Day. And ten years is a long time. Too damned long in a life that's uncertain and mercurial. Make each day a Father's Day, and a Mother's Day, and the rest, because second chances don't always come along for a family. We're lucky that we got ours. Now, quit reading this blog and go call your Dad.