14 February 2016, Daybreak
A Letter to my Father, Who is Dead
Nearly three decades have passed since your death. I have lived almost half of my life without you. I am struck by all the things I would like to say to you, nearly 30 years on, about my life with you.
I realize with sadness that I never really knew you beyond your role as my father. I didn’t know Nick – only dad. What you felt, what mattered to you; your fears, aspirations. What kept you awake at night and when you slept your deepest sleeps remain unknown to me. I never even thought to ask…and this seems especially painful to me now. What a missed opportunity!
Dad, I never was able to really speak with you about your service in WWII, or to thank you for what was surely the biggest sacrifice you could have made. I think I felt the brunt of its effect on you, reflected in your cynicism that I mistook for harshness. I remember recoiling at your belief that “the veneer of civilization is very thin”. It took me a lifetime to realize what you discovered probably in one instant in your early 30s as you trudged across the Alaskan tundra or moved from trench to trench across France and Germany. And yet I know this isn’t the only truth.
I wonder if we could talk about things now without coming at each other from our fixed positions like we did back then. Why did your desire to protect me feel so ruthless, so unnecessary then? From here I see it was the way you could express your love, whether it be love of country or love of your daughter. I am sorry I could not appreciate it, understand or express then the gratitude I feel now; but, alas, I could not because I did not understand.
In so many, many ways I had an ideal childhood. I grew up in a progressive place (the Hollywood Hills, in Laurel Canyon, no less), went to an elementary school whose name, “Wonderland Avenue Elementary School”, pretty much says it all. I wanted for little, ate well, was well loved against a backdrop of the Cold War, social upheaval and the palpable threat of mom’s mortality. I was blissfully unaware of all the logistical challenges you faced…my experience was of a continuity of care the makings of which never even occurred to me.
So why is it that until recently, I only seemed to remember the harsh words and the ridicule, especially where you are concerned? Why didn’t I remember the feeling of sitting on your lap and feeling loved as if by God himself? Or playing “bounce the ball” in the garden, on one of the breaks you took from toiling over a back-breaking job in installing a 12 circuit sprinkler system in galvanized iron? Or drinking the last inch of Budweiser from your can of beer, feeling a co-conspirator while your eyes radiated love and pride? And I remember going fishing with you. I didn’t have the stomach to bait the hook or remove the fish from the hook, but still you were so proud when I reeled in the fish. Fishing was a meditation for you…a time to be alone with the elements and yourself. I just realized this now, and see that my visits to the monastery are my version of that same impulse in you.
I have other memories, too. I remember the time you picked me up from a party when I was in high school. The boy I had been madly in love with had just told me that he had been pretending to be with my best friend whenever he was with me. He was in love with her and “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” I was softy crying on the way home and you (gruffly) asked what was wrong. I was often afraid of that gruffness but I told you what had happened. You pulled off to the side of the road and you said “That goddamn son of a bitch. I am going to kill him.” I had never heard such fury or felt so protected by you…but I was scared, too. It felt like you really would do it.
And the winks we exchanged a few moments after I had given birth to my son. I had not had any medication and was feeling elation. You were so proud and it felt like you saw me as an unfathomable mystery.
And I remember how excited I was when we went out to dinner alone when I was in my early 30s. I felt so special to be dining alone with my father. You already had lung cancer by then and after having had a clear bill of health for 5 years, it had resurfaced in your other lung. It was a bittersweet night…but mostly sweet. I felt radiance around the table and can picture us there as I write this letter to you now. I wish we had had more time together.
I would also like to acknowledge the trespasses that were committed, especially during puberty and adolescence. I was often hurt by things you said and did; and, I think that for many years I didn’t like you…for many reasons, probably, but mostly because I didn’t think you liked me or the life I had chosen. But then I was often confused because you seemed to send me mixed messages. For example, I never felt supported by you when it came time to my choosing a professional life or major in college. I didn’t fit society’s mode and perhaps since you were able to conform, you didn’t feel you had any helpful perspective to offer. But this understanding just came to me now. I was very far from these thoughts 40 years ago and all I felt (even though it may not have been true) was criticism, disappointment and chagrin. I could never have spoken like this to you. Wasn’t there a prohibition against expressing our feelings in the household? Looking back from here I wonder if all these reactions in me weren’t object relations…but then, wouldn’t you be one of my original object relations? Too confusing!
I would also like to thank you for your interest in my poetry and for encouraging my love of photography. I won’t ever forget the way I felt when you presented me with a Nikon camera for my 21st birthday. My late teens and early twenties were difficult years for me and if you hadn’t been so positive about my talent in both, I might actually have been in quite a lot of psychological trouble: They both helped me to express myself and process some of what was so challenging about life to me; and, I felt so seen by you.
I feel sometimes that you both you and Mom, though perhaps in different ways, sacrificed your personal lives for both your daughters. Did I ask for nothing shy of this? Was I so Narcissistic as to demand that I be the centers of both of your universes? One or the other of you saw to my every need. I wanted for nothing. I am so grateful for all that you provided economically, physically and socially: Grateful for my education, my travels, my social sensibilities; my hospitable nature; that I have loved and do love with abandon and trust. In this moment I am grateful for these things and for your love to whatever degree you were capable of experiencing it yourselves. I also appreciate having been sheltered in a secure home, with abundant nutrition – including food. Your love gave me the confidence to travel alone and to be unafraid of being a foreigner in a foreign land. This has also served me well on my spiritual path.
Now, from this place, the past is but a memory that doesn’t seem quite so accurate or as potent as it once was. Now what I feel and know to be true is simple love: the love of a daughter for her earthly father and gratitude that you were my father and no other.
Your loving daughter,