Curt. Abrasive. Short. That is how I answer my father’s questions.
I’m fine. Yeah, things are good. Nothing new to report, I say.
I hang up the phone after five minutes of conversation. I don’t talk to him again for another month. Sometimes two.
I try my best to forget that he exists in the time between phone calls. I take jobs across the country and overseas, putting miles and oceans between myself and him — job-related distance a perfect excuse for my absence at family gatherings.
But I am never able to forget him.
It is the eve of Father’s Day, a fight that I’ve been anticipating for a year precipitates my abrupt departure from Mobile, but I’ve already promised to see him. I stop by his house. Only one hour, I whisper aloud as I climb the steps to his front door. I follow the slow thud of his rubber-tipped cane, marvel at the fast progression of scoliosis along his spine as I follow him to the living room. We sit at angles in large wing-backed arm chairs in his living room.
I answer his questions. Curt. Abrasive. Short. I take the exact opposite opinion of anything that he says. I aggressively argue positions that I care nothing about. I cut him off when he speaks: The Bible doesn’t say that, I sigh loudly, you can’t just take your own life and spirtualize it as some sort of moral example you know, I scold. I roll my eyes. I disdain *so* well.
I am college-educated. The third daughter of a man with no college education and I wield that education like a weapon from the middle ages. I set the chain of the flail a-spinning so that it whirls over both of our heads, despising the man whose mind –whose magnificent autodidacticism- is my very inheritance. I am not you. I am nothing like you. I will *never* be like you. All subtext. The words under the words of the hatred that masks a 20-year-old wound that spews out of my mouth.
I am everything like my father.
It takes at least one full hour in my father’s presence before all of that bitterness, all of that quick bubbling rage, that long-stoked resentment dissipates enough to give me space to think. Breathing room to come back to myself, divining room to see the white-bearded, wizened man in front of me. He is just a man after all. Not a monster or a shape shifter. Neither a shadow nor figment of my imagination. Just flesh and blood who bears my hooked nose and dark brown skin-tone.
Rarely do we allow our fathers to be just men. They are heroes and saviors and everything that we long for– green screens for our expectations and desires. My father is a conversation across the dining room table that happened when I was 16. A conversation he doesn’t even recall but resounds whenever he speaks. My father is a scene that I have reenacted in every dating relationship that I have ever had. A scenario that my siblings and I routinely play out in our silences and abruptly ending phone conversations.
Blood is thicker than water. He has reminded me of this my entire life. The Twin repeats this to me after she calls me a frigid bitch. I echo the same refrain to the stormy, unspeaking, figure of my older sister who sits in my passenger seat and refuses to respond or look in my direction. This blood — this family marker– is poisoned. Not by alcoholism or drug addiction. No sex abuse or bitter poverty. No absentee parents or precarious living situations. The toxicity of our blood isn’t caused by anything overly egregious, only a small confusion of control with love.
There is no manual for parenting, my father reminds me. He is right of course. He, an orphan, had no teacher, no father of his own, yet managed to raise five functioning and successful adult children.He is a good man, dedicated and hard-working. I would not be who I am without my father. I know this, yet I don’t know how to let go of this hurt that lingers so– this hurt that has molded me in very real and tangible ways.
How do we forgive our fathers? How do we forgive anybody really? What does that process even look like?
I thought about this yesterday — Father’s Day– during the I-65 leg of my trip home. How Do We Forgive Our Fathers was the title of the Dear Sugar podcast (with Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond) that I listened to as I drove and it affected me deeply. They brought the author Sherman Alexie on towards the end and in his voice, I heard freedom. He sounded like someone who had reckoned with the complicated legacy of hurt and brokenness entangled with love, left by a father and had found peace. There was no war in his voice when he spoke of his father — no bitterness or resentment. And I remember thinking for the first time that maybe forgiveness is truly possible.
They read this adapted poem from Alexie’s movie, Smoke Signals, at the end and I sobbed.
How do we forgive our Fathers?
Maybe in a dream
Do we forgive our Fathers for leaving us too often or forever
when we were little?
Maybe for scaring us with unexpected rage
or making us nervous
because there never seemed to be any rage there at all.
Do we forgive our Fathers for marrying or not marrying our Mothers?
For Divorcing or not divorcing our Mothers?
And shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth or coldness?
Shall we forgive them for pushing or leaning
for shutting doors
for speaking through walls
or never speaking
or never being silent?
Do we forgive our Fathers in our age or in theirs
or in their deaths
saying it to them or not saying it?
If we forgive our Fathers what is left?
* This poem is read during the last scene in Smoke Signals. It was
originally published in a longer version titled “Forgiving Our
Fathers” in a book of poems titled Ghost Radio published by Hanging
Loose Press in 1998
Maybe forgiveness starts, like everything else, by speaking the truth about our experience. By voicing our hurts and fears. By not covering everything under the but-we’re-a-family banner and recognizing that how we treat people, both inside and outside of families, has lingering consequences. By recognizing that shared DNA doesn’t always lead to better understanding or even deep friendship. Maybe we learn to forgive our fathers when we decouple them from our expectations of fatherhood. Maybe when we make space for them to be human, when we see them as men, flawed, sinful human beings like ourselves.
Perhaps forgiveness comes when I recognize that I am very much my father’s daughter and I am also very much my own.