I watched him lying on his bed. This once super-human force, my father, now lay still, an empty shell, small and vulnerable. Almost unrecognizable. Formerly bigger than life itself, how could this be the man who dominated my puny life? The bed appeared to swallow him.
I spent my life waiting to see him exposed and weak. I felt empty.
I could touch his hand. But an impossible, impassable distance separated us. How does one bridge a chasm created through the span of life?
We hadn’t spoken in years. Answering the phone, he’d pass me to my mother. Could he hear me now? Would it matter? His eyes were open. Did he sense my presence?
He succeeded at everything. He never made me feel loved. Did he ever try?
The best fathers seek to make their sons and daughters strong, tough, and resistant to life’s slings and arrows. Some father’s nurture. Though that is not a word often associated with men.
Others believe their purpose is doling out an unhealthy dose of life’s brutality to their mewling sons as early as possible. Learn or die.
My father was the second type. ‘Nurture’ and ‘neuter’ were distinctions with no difference for him.
He was a proverbial armored giant. Unbeatable. Combat tested, a former Marine. Life is a battle, damn it. And he would be the last man standing. What’s not to admire?
Always anticipating, he designed every encounter to ensure my defeat. I lost before I knew there was a contest. Every time.
I never knew what hit me. I know - a shallow learning curve. Distrust was my main defense. I learned that well. And he turned that against me too. Not trusting, I depended on his unwavering duplicity.
Seeing through that, he showered me with gifts, favors and treats. But I did without, rather than fall yet again into the trap of trust. I learned never to sell myself for cheap affection. Gifts come at a price too dear to be paid. That untasted carrot could never be worth the familiar stick.
Who mistakes distrust for strength? Resistance for resilience?
After all, what chance does a ten year old have against such a seasoned foe? Ten year old’s strategies should focus on the strife of toy soldiers. Not life and death struggles against their fathers.
I received and accepted food, clothing and a dry bed, but never counted on that bountiful existence. Things can change, you know, without warning.
Was he proud of me for my well learned lessons? Is a warrior proud of the defeated?
It wasn’t always that way. To break trust, one must have it in hand.
I had a dog, Samantha. She was a beautiful, tan and white collie mix. Her eyes were a deep, tender brown, I’d never seen before. She was my first love. I cared for her. She adored me. We were inseparable.
One summer day she entered our yard and walked straight to me, with a bright doggie smile on her face. She arrived bearing love at first sight. I reciprocated.
Dad said I could keep her if no one was looking for her. I kept her.
We lived in farm country. Leashes were unheard of. We walked the fields and explored brooks unrestrained by anything but whims. She stayed by my side.
One day she was gone. Nothing said. No warning given. Too much trouble, my father decided to himself.
I came home from school and missed Sam’s enthusiastic greeting.
“Mom, where is Sam?”
“Oh, Dad gave her to a farmer.”
That was literally the whole conversation. My father said nothing. My brothers and sister said nothing.
For hours, I lay on my bed and entered a black hole I never escaped. The tears ran dry but the pain remained.
Mom called me to dinner. I came out and took my seat. We ate in silence. That was it. No explanation. No further reference. Carry on.
This wasn’t a punishment. I had done nothing wrong. This was ‘Dad being Dad’. Only then, no one said such things. Back then, no one said anything.
You may think, ‘It was just a dog. Get over it.’ But Sam was not just a dog. And the wound cut deeper than ‘just a dog’.
In a heartbeat, I knew my feelings carried no value. I held no value. If what I held dear was disposable, then I was disposable.
I was not to act out, nor speak out. But to behave, comply and obey. What did my feelings have to do with anything? Emotions are for babies.
But I could not articulate that at ten. Well into adulthood I rediscovered that wound, suppressed for decades and long thought healed. Pursuing my career, I pushed all that kid stuff away. But my broken life spoke of my loss.
What would you expect of someone whose nickname was ‘Mr. Neverwin’? Does excellence come to mind? I earned that name bucking my father’s relentless system. And I never won.
Can a young life, already have a turning point? Can one event deemed meaningless by all be the pivot point? I sailed happily into the squall which sent me forever off course and rudderless.
My folks paid for college. Many colleges. I dropped out on discovering they offered no degree in pharmaceutical abuse.
They gave me a car. I wrecked it.
Relationships came and went effortlessly. I had numerous fiancés, and rumor has it, a few kids scattered about. How many abortions did I finance? Don’t ask.
I held many jobs. Companies couldn’t keep me. I was in such demand - to leave. Should an honest resume include, ‘not a good fit’?
I know. I made poor choices. It’s lame to lay my sorry life at my father’s feet. Can’t it all be blamed on that first toppled domino?
So, here we were. Our last encounter. He couldn’t win this one, regardless. If he couldn’t speak, at last, I would make him listen.
He looked so small in his too big pajamas. Except for his shallow breath beneath the blanket, he might not be there at all.
What could I say, so he knew, after everything, what really mattered to me? Can words unheard, be eloquent? For once I would win the encounter. He could not stop me. He would not top me. I needed this. My moment at last.
I touched his limp hand. He turned his emotionless, bloodshot eyes to me. I couldn’t stop my tears.
I blubbered, “I love you Dad. I forgive you.”
He looked away and closed his eyes. He gave me nothing. But he heard me. I had my say.