About a year after I moved back to the forks of the Antlered River, I decided to reconnect with my father. It had been quite some time since I last spoke with him (it’s a long story), but I emailed him and he agreed to meet me at the local Village Pub. I was unsure as to how I might react to seeing him. Having sometimes deeply regretted that I never fought back, I thought about punching him. I also thought about hugging him. Sitting on the pub’s patio, having a beer while I waited for him to arrive, I figured things would sort themselves out one way or another.
When he arrived, he saw me on the patio and instantly began to cry. He opened his arms for a hug and I hugged him. He spoke with a stutter. This was new. Apparently, it was a tic he now experienced when feeling stressed or anxious. We spoke awhile, ate a meal, and then went for a short walk around the neighbourhood. On our walk, he pointed out a house where a friend of his had lived (and died) and he burst into tears again. When my mother finally left my father—after thirty-three years of abuse, terror, and enforced isolation—this friend, a former pastor and Old Testament scholar (specializing in, of all things, the justice-oriented texts in the prophetic literature), was the only friend to support my father (and, amongst other things, to urge my mother to return to my father). Saddened by the death of his friend, saddened by the loss of loved ones in his life, saddened by the absence of those who could say they understood and who could offer him comfort, my father covered his face with his hands and cried.
I felt annoyed and kind of done with the whole thing.
In roughly chronological order (with the exception of my brother who runs as a constant thread throughout) these are the good men who helped to nurture, care for, love, and guide me along the way:
I can’t say I’ve known a lot of men who were and are good men—men who exemplify ways of being in the world as men that counter, resist, and offer so much more that is life-affirming and life-giving than the toxic masculinity that dominates our culture—but at every stage of my life, I have known at least one. In this regard, I believe that I am very lucky.
I viewed these older men as teachers and mentors, but I don’t think I ever viewed these men as father figures (although Daniel Imburgia, for the first time with anyone in my life, made me wish he was my father). I didn’t have much faith in fathers and I didn’t feel much need for one. In fact, when I was younger, I tended to look down on people who wanted adults to be substitute parents for them. I mean, sure, it was lovely to be connected to older people who cared about me and who taught me another way of being in the world, but why overcode that with the name of the father? Patriarchal religions have been doing that with god for centuries and I think we’ve all seen the harm that it does. Fuck that.
It was roughly five years ago when I saw my father burst into tears in front of his dead friend’s house. Of all my memories of him, I’ve been trying to think about why that one keeps coming to mind and why it annoyed me the way that it did (not only when it happened but when I thought about it afterwards as well). I mean, sure, there was the usual self-aggrandizing, narcissism that is so central to my father—it exemplifies his ability to endlessly sympathize with himself while acting ruthlessly towards others and never being able to acknowledge the extent of the harm that he did, while also reminding me of the ways in which he used his tears to manipulate us into thinking he was a good dad when we were kids—but I felt there was more to my response than this and I couldn’t quite figure it out.
Things started to fall into place for me once I started thinking about this event in relation to the ways in which my father responded to my tears when I was a child. My father would not permit me to cry. I simply did not have the right to cry. It’s not a thing that boys or men do. So, he would beat me if I cried. But, even knowing this, I still cried—I couldn’t stop myself—and so he beat me often (I suspect he beat my brothers just as often, I’m sure he had not shortage of reasons for beating all of us). He loathed me for crying. He was disgusted by my crying. I think he wished I was dead when I cried.
And how did I feel, all those years later, when I saw him cry? Like he didn’t have the right to cry about what he was crying about. Like he looked pathetic. Like there was something disgusting about that.
Shit, shit, shit.
I had a dream last week that I was visiting with my father (whom I have, yet again, not spoken with in years, either in the waking world or in my dreams). I tried to explain to him that the best way I knew how to love him was by not being in his life. I wanted him to understand that, just because I couldn’t speak with him or be around him, it didn’t mean that I harboured ill feelings against him. I used the example of a tree that tries to grow up in parched soil that bakes and cracks and hardens. Such soil cannot sustain life. The tree must be transplanted if it is to grow and flourish. And I have been transplanted and I have grown and flourished and put down roots and, regardless of what he or I might wish, I cannot go back to trying to grow in the devastated land that surrounds him. Tearing me up now, and trying to plant me in that parched earth, would kill me. In my dream, we both understood this and we walked and talked with my arm over his shoulders and his arm over mine. In my dream, this felt okay. Because in my dream, I was whole and unscarred and it wasn’t as though he never hit me or touched me but I was full of a love so great that those things didn’t linger, they didn’t matter to the same degree that they do in the waking world. And maybe, perhaps, I don’t know, maybe he was whole, too, as if his mother never hit him or touched him, as if he, too, was full of a love that outshines even the deepest, most hidden recesses of darkness.
I then went on a tangent about trees, as I am wont to do these days (sometimes I wonder if I incline so strongly towards trees because of the massive amounts of tree growth hormones I absorbed while planting willow cuttings as a part of a mine reclamation project in the northern mountains, but that’s probably a story for another day).
And so I realized that the reason why my memory of my father’s tears stuck so vividly with me was because I was responding to him in the way that he responded to me when I was a child. But, look, I might say to myself, I actually have really, really legitimate ways to feel the way I did. The point, however, is that he probably did, too. Meaning that my really, really legitimate reasons are probably just as full of shit as his were. All who are brokenhearted, even the most self-absorbed, even the most persistently abusive, need someone who will acknowledge their pain, their sorrow, their loneliness, and their despair. All who are brokenhearted, need someone who will comfort them, who will be a balm to their wounds, who will open up spaces for them to feel vulnerable more and more often, instead of pushing them deeper and deeper into a state of anger, hopelessness, and isolation.
It’s just that, when it comes to my dad, the person doing the acknowledging, listening, and comforting, can’t be me. Or my brothers. Or my mom. It’s not the job of victims to heal the broken hearts of their abusers. That job belongs to somebody else. Victims should look after themselves (as best they know how, as best they can) and get whatever kind of distance they need from those who broke their hearts and other body parts.
And that’s what I’m doing.
Later in my dream, I asked my father what he had done in his life that he was most proud of. Without missing a beat, he said that he was most proud of being the kind of dad he was to his new wife’s adult daughter. I laughed so hard and unexpectedly—because this response so perfectly captured so much about my father—that I woke myself up.
And so, Pa, today is father’s day and this is the best gift, the only gift, I know how to give you. If you read this one day, know that I am saying the following to myself over and over again until I actually believe it:
You loved us the best you could for as long as you could. Thank you for that.