At first glance, my grandfather still looked strong and healthy. He was smiling and sitting on his porch enjoying the warm air. Then he started coughing. I noticed the way he wheezed and how his head pulled back with every intake of breath. A month later, he succumbed to the lung cancer.
My father was kind enough to tell me of my grandfather's death through a text message. To some, this might seem cold, but the fact that my father told me at all was a shock to me. That he didn't tell me the date of the funeral until it was too late for me to make travel arrangements is more typical of my father.
I am an unwanted child to most of my father's side of the family, including my father. To these people, with the exception of my now deceased grandfather, I am nothing more than a living, breathing consequence of the bad decision making skills of a couple of teenagers.
All of my life my father has been a wide wall of either indifference or outright hostility towards me. Where he shows affection and true love to my brothers, I am dismissed as being too like my mother or forgotten altogether.
But after my grandfather died, my father started doing something that confounded and surprised me more than anything he had done in the previous 30 years of my life. He started texting me once a week. These were nothing texts that had no interesting reason for their being. He texted me to ask about the weather or to tell me something interesting that happened to him. He asked me how I was doing in these texts.
In my adult life, I've tended to take a very no nonsense, no holding back stance in my personal relationships. I spent years pleading with my father to tell me why I was never good enough for him. I wrote him letters, I called him, I sat him down and tried really talking to him. From his familiar face came only lies and denials. The pain of his indifference was made only worse by the word getting back to me of the horrible things that he says about me to other family members when he deigns to think of me at all.
I am the thorn causing sharp and aching pains in my father's side. I don't mean to do it.
My first offense was in being a daughter instead of a son. My father is an old-fashioned country boy who holds some of the more horrible ideals of his stereotype close to his heart. Women are of no use unless it is for the sexual pleasures of their men, the raising of children, the cooking, or the tending of the home. Even as a small child, I dared to have opinions and venture an outspoken moment where I brazenly called my father out for his views. I dared to express my pain over how he treated me.
Now, once a week, I receive a text that always ends with the phrase, “I love and miss you.” One might assume that such words coming from my indifferent and unloving father might cause a leap of joy in my scarred heart, but it just isn't so. Old wounds are poked and prodded, my mind jerking me back to the truly painful memories that I simply can't bury.
Not long before my parents divorced, my father's attitude towards me began to be too much for me to handle idly. My father is an avid hunter and I begged him for days to please let me go trekking through the woods with him. So great was my desperation in being able to bond with my father that I ignored his obvious disgust over my mother forcing him to take me. I heeded, with fear, every threat to me he muttered under his breath as we walked through those woods that day. Every time he would whip his head around to glare at me because he thought I was walking too loudly, every time he muttered how much he hated having to take me out, I stayed quiet. When, in disgust, he announced that I was too loud to have out with him and he took me home, I walked to my bedroom in defeat and I cried. I was 9 years old.
After about a month of my father's texts, I called my brother and asked him why he thought my father might be suddenly wanting to have any contact with me.
“He's probably thinking about his end game, what with his own dad just dying and all,” my brother said to me.
I didn't realize that my father could still hurt me so acutely, but there it was. I had had my own suspicions of that being the reason of my father's sudden interest in me, but I had hoped maybe I was being pessimistic or thinking badly of my father when, for once, he didn't deserve it.
Words and actions have memories of their own and are sometimes cruel enough to keep our pain fresh. Am I protected by the sting of shadows of the past or am I poisoning myself?
I am bent and pained by the burden of carrying the dark thoughts and feelings from my father.
The last text that I received from my father was of a silly, corny joke that he wanted to tell me. I used to call my grandfather and tell him stupid corny jokes. He was an easy giggler and I loved cracking that old guy up. I never knew that my dad was aware of that little thing I did with my grandfather. I'm fairly certain that my father has trouble remembering the names of my children, so his picking up of the tradition of stupid jokes took the breath right out of me.
My father is human. He isn't some malevolent monster hell bent on crushing me beneath his rugged steel-toed boot. When my husband and I decided to move 3,000 miles away from our home state, my father came to my house. He came in the door as I opened it for him and pulled me to him in a strong hug.
“I'm going to miss you,” he said to me. “I guess you really don't know what you've got until it's gone, or getting ready to be gone.”
I think back on that and wish so desperately that I had allowed an honest reaction of crying and hugging my father again. That's not what I did, though. I got angry with my father for his words. I thought back to how he refused to show up to my wedding because he didn't want to be near my mother, making my special day about him and his sorry feelings. I thought back to how, weeks later, I sent a homemade pie to his house and he threw it away, saying I probably poisoned it. I thought of him telling people that he felt sorry for my husband for having to put up with me.
I managed not to blow up at him that day. I clenched my jaw and smiled my polite smile and told my father that there was always the telephone. We never utilized that option much. Neither of us.
So where will this story take me? I can't answer that with any real certainty, but I'm not holding out for the angelic host to show up and sing the joys of the miracle brought about by a series of casual text messages. I do not believe there will be a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow. There won't be a happy ending where my father and I hug and laugh while walking off into the sunset before the credits roll. Endings in real life tend not to be tidy and neatly packaged, do they?
In the meantime, I have my memories and my pain. I greet these text messages with a hesitation, but I am polite and reciprocating. There is still enough hope in me to think that even if all my father and I can manage are once-weekly text messages, then things can end on a high note.
I have the option to let go of my bitterness and pain. At this point, I am in charge of that state of mind. I can choose to not let myself be a victim of the past anymore, or at least that's what all of those “motivational” posters on Facebook keep telling me. Maybe there are people out there with enough heart to change their point of view, but I don't really think I'm one of them. I'm not opposed to changing myself or bettering myself, but on this one thing, this dropping of the cross leaning on my shoulders, dragging behind me at all times, I don't think I can do it. People suffer horrible accidents and have to learn to walk and talk and feed themselves all over again. The miraculous ability of the human being to heal themselves and pull themselves free of pains and burdens inspires me. But not all the way.
There's no finish line for me. I'll always be here, on this straightaway looking at the finish line from afar, admiring the people who break the tape triumphantly and walk with their heads held high from their accomplishment.
My father is the architect of my crumbled foundation. There are no motivational posters to help a person who suffers being hated by a parent.
I wish I were a bigger person than this. I wish I could just say, “so what if his reasons are selfish and he's only worried about where he ends up as a result of his life's actions?” I wish I could just accept the contact as a kindness and take it into myself and let it start to close some of these open, seeping wounds.
I am the spitting image of my father. Neither of his sons resemble him as closely as his only daughter, his oldest child. I'm never sure how to react when I go in to the town of my birth, the town of my father, and encounter a person who knows my father but had no idea at all that my father even has a daughter. Is it amusing? Should I be glad that he's chosen not to mention me instead of bemoaning to this person what a useless sack of skin I am? These clueless people always inevitably tell me of the same observation. “You look just like your dad.”
My grandfather was the strongest link that I had to my father's side of the family. Now that he's gone from us, I have even fewer reasons to visit that small town. Sometimes in his texts, my father asks when I'm coming in again for a visit. The handful of times that I've gone in since moving away, my father has always made himself available to me for a visit. He's nice to my children, even if he can't remember their names. There are those small mercies where he's concerned, and I try so hard to remember that he has that side to him. The side that tells me to come see him when I'm in town. The side that giggles when my children play. It's there, and I do see it.
But at the end of the day I am still sitting here, mired down in a marsh not of my own making, but of my own maintenance. Absolutely, part of it is self-pity. No party is as fun and unproductive as a pity party. This pain and anger, though, are gifts. They are the only gifts that my father ever gave me. I hold them to me tightly, gripping them as a child grips a favorite teddy bear. Their close proximity does me no good, I know that. They poison my soul and break me, but this won't change. My poisons, you see, are precious to me.