"Your grief lasted so long...
healing is here.
Your door was locked.
Look, here is the key."
I am estranged from my father. My approach is to be matter-of-fact about it if I’m ever asked a direct question about the state of our relationship, but most of the time I’m able to sidestep the issue entirely without much trouble. This is especially true in situations that require some level of small talk - a baby shower, a Christmas party. After “Where are you from?”, the person I’ve just met might ask “Where do your parents live?” My automatic response is, “My mom is in Alexandria,” and hardly anyone expresses further interest in the geographic whereabouts of other family members. The nice thing about my mom’s Alexandria zip code is that it provides an easy segway into a conversation about Old Town and the DC area. “Having access to so many museums is great,” I’ll say, “And I love visiting in the fall when the leaves are changing color.” Just like that, the discussion is steered away from anything having to do with my father, and I’m off the hook.
On the rare occasion I decide to be transparent about it - in a more intimate conversation, of the telling-your-whole-life-story variety - the immediate reaction is always the same, where the words come out easily enough but then hang between us like a soggy towel with all the messy backstories threatening to drip uncontrollably and make a mess of the entire conversation. Reactions tend to fall in the same general category - an understanding look of mild sympathy or a neutral, “That’s too bad.” Only once did anyone respond with actual horror - an incredulous “Oh that’s awful” - and I felt unexpectedly relieved that someone was finally willing to look beyond my terse explanation of things and see that, deep down, I found the entire situation heartbreaking.
Why we became estranged is, of course, a long story. It isn’t terribly unusual and it isn’t exceptionally horrific. More than anything it is just, well, sad. It is a circumstance I came to terms with long ago, but the emotional fallout of our break is never far from my awareness. Reminders of our disconnect float around our household like dust bunnies. I can try sweeping as many of them as possible under a rug, but as soon as I turn around there’s another one tucked behind a chair. You see, I am married to a man who is wholly, wildly, unequivocally devoted to his kids, so I have no hope of trying to hide from the truth of my relationship with my father. And what is that truth, exactly? The antithesis of what I see in my husband. The undeniable, plain-as-day polar opposite.
Father’s Day, therefore, is always an especially delicate day. I have to be cognizant of the emotions it stirs up - not only to take care of myself, but to steer clear of projecting those feelings onto anyone in my family and pulling them down into my own emotional sinkhole. Some years I’m able to pull it off pretty gracefully, other years I’ve fallen on my face. When my stepdaughter cancelled plans with her dad on Father’s Day a number of years ago because she got into a fight with her boyfriend, I took my disbelief and hauled it into our bathroom, where my husband found me sitting on the floor sobbing uncontrollably. I was devastated not merely because the estrangement was still a reality I was getting used to, but because I knew the circumstances of that day wouldn’t make a lick of difference as far as the way my husband loved his daughter. He would keep loving her, supporting her, forgiving her and adoring her. No matter what.
It is, in fact, that particular facet of my life with this family that I’ve had to work the hardest to come to terms with - even harder than finding my way to a peaceful acceptance of the estrangement with my father. Bearing witness to the way my husband loves and takes care of his son and daughter - who are both grown and married - has been the single most transformative, upsetting, disconcerting and redemptive experience I have been given. Learning how to not take things personally - their deep-rooted dynamics with each other don’t actually have much to do with me, and it isn’t as if they are trying to shove anything in my face - is a quest that will never be fully realized. I will always be on this path; I will forever be called to take the fraying threads of my sadness and transform them into glittering threads of light that keep me connected to the people I love most in the world - my family. Of all the work I have done in this world - as an artist, writer, teacher and mentor - it is the efforts I’ve made within the walls of my own home that I consider to be the most important work of my life.
On this Father’s Day, I am grateful for the peaceful, joyful moments I did manage to share with my father before things fell apart. We had them, and I cherish them. And I am letting loose a thousand butterflies to anyone out there who might need a little extra kindness for whatever reason on this day. These holidays - Mother’s Day, Father’s Day - have wonderful intentions behind them, and they can also feel like a minefield. To those of you who feel like you’re in the trenches, step carefully, hold your heart close, and know that no matter what your story - with your father or otherwise - you are good and brave and extraordinary. You are exactly where you belong.
Happy Father’s Day.