Fatherhood: It’s Complicated and Transformative
Who has the perfect parent? Not me.
My father was a workaholic and an addict, but he functioned so well, we did not want to admit it. If I wanted to spend time with him, I would follow him around the rehab facility where he worked. As he tended to people and paperwork, I would read in a nearby chair.
He was beloved at work, a “Patch Adams” before that was in vogue. In late October, I recall his voice booming over the intercom with the announcement “Good evening! The rehab team meeting vill be convening in ze conference room immeeeeediately,” in a near perfect imitation of Vincent Price.
The residents adored him and his antics.
The administration not so much.
Home Life was Far from Ideal
No one outside of immediate family knew about the tumult inside our four walls.
There were arguments and he left. Sundays and holidays were the worst. My mother was either quiet and withdrawn or screaming.
Dinners were a time to be seen and only heard if you could offer something witty or entertaining.
There was no room for transparency or feelings.
I spent a lot of time alone in the woods.
After I left home, things came to a head and my mother told him to move out.
He moved into a hotel by himself. To hear my dad tell it now, he says he knew getting back to my mother was the only way he would ever have a family.
It reminds me that he came from a “broken” home; his parents divorced when he was an infant, which was nearly unheard of for Catholics in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s. He was shuttled between two houses that remained contentious throughout his life.
My mother gave him an ultimatum. He could come back if he got into therapy and a recovery program for the rest of his life.
A wise man, he chose to follow her advice, which changed our lives.
He Made Amends
I distinctly recall him telling me he was sorry that he had not taken me to see the Lippizaners when I was a child, but he could as an adult. We drove to Philadelphia to see the horse ballet when I was in my 20’s.
I didn’t know what to think.
Once he retired, he entered into a period of activism, protesting war and advocating for refugees.
I was visiting my mother when he called from a Palestinian refugee camp in Gaza. He was crying, “It’s terrible. They took away a house from a family who owned it for generations,” he sobbed.
“Don’t tell your mother, but can you put her on the phone?” He was in his 70’s and sleeping on the ground with a church group throughout the Palestinian sections of Israel.
My mother did not need me to tell her.
She told him that no group needed to worry about an old man while they traveled. That was his final trip, but not an end to his activism.
He wrote letters to every newspaper, including the New York Times, which printed them. He spoke to groups everywhere about his trips and what he witnessed.
As my mother’s mental health slowly deteriorates, my father announces, “I vacuumed today!” with pride.
“Not only that, I attached the hose correctly and it didn’t blow dirt out like the first time.”
We both laugh.
Now in his 80’s, this is huge.
He has taken over the cooking, once something only performed by my mother.
“I cook every meal for us! Everyday. It really gets to be a lot, ” he declares.
“As mom has for 60 years,” I point out.
We laugh, again.
Love Changes Us
Fatherhood and marriage has changed him — for the better. We call, visit and help as best we can, but he has borne the brunt of my mother’s declining health.
This man I barely knew and felt only disappointment towards as a child, has become a better father and a truly admirable husband. I know now that he was doing the best he could at the time.
I never thought I would say that.
He is not perfect. Neither am I.
He manages to make suggestions that hurt, “Maybe if you colored your hair, men would find you attractive,” was one of his latest, but I think he is still doing the best he can at this time and he worries for me, not certain how a woman can do it alone in the world.
He has had the advantage of good and loving companionship. A companionship that has resulted in transformation.
His decisions to change have been gifts to us all.
I wonder if I am allowing love to change me as he has. I see this as the only true way to live a full life.
I am so grateful for his example.
For his very life.
Thank you, Dad. Choosing to change is hard, but ultimately it is the only way to do better.
Huge credit to the way both your father and mother responded to that difficult situation. Life sure is a twisty path, but what a blessing to be able to see the positives now that you couldn’t as a child. I think all of us have that “hidden life” that happens (or happened) behind closed doors. Progress is so encouraging!!
Yes, we are only as sick as our worst secret. Speaking the truth diminishes the power.