The last time I spoke to my father, he was dead. The OPPORTUNITY changed my life.
It’s been six years, now, since I last spoke to my father. Mid-summer, July 15th, 2014. It was in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and he was lying on a gurney at a funeral home — dead as a doornail. To hide the incisions of his autopsy, the back of his head and throat were carefully wrapped over with portions of the white sheet that bundled the rest of his body. He was propped up at an angle, his face available for viewing and the area where the sheet was raised over his arm, exposed the solid, stubborn fingers on his right hand.
On the flight from San Francisco that morning, the thought beckoned to call the funeral home. I understood the value of an open wake for those who needed to witness the actuality of a death, but it wasn’t evidence I was needing. I had been grieving the loss of my father for years. In fact, as I sat on the plane with my laptop in front of me, I wondered if I even had the words for a eulogy. As the flight made its way across the plains, I sputtered on the keyboard with sentences, written, deleted and written again, yet as I wrestled with the words, the need to see him steadily rose to a certainty. I couldn’t explain why, just that I needed this opportunity to say goodbye.
There are as many types of fathers and daughters as there are fathers and daughters. Each daughter, though, only has one father to claim, one story to tell about the father she got. It’s each daughter’s prerogative whether she needs that story to develop over the course of her life, whether she wants to make sense of the way her father filled his role, who this man was, and who he was to her.
In my case, by the time I was in my mid 20s, I realized if I didn’t begin writing my own story about my father, he might write my story for me. For this daughter, then, authorship — making sense of my father and finding that story myself – came to feel like a matter of survival.
What helps this makes sense, perhaps, is knowing that through my eyes as a child my father was… well… mythic. This condition — his being “mythic” — was also conditional to our relationship; that’s how it works with the narcissistically afflicted. By way of this arrangement, it follows that my father was an exceptional man, a professor, a world-renowned scientist, an inventor, a researcher, and probably close-to, if not certifiably, a genius. He was handsome, charismatic, British-ly witty and revered by all who knew and surrounded him. If I didn’t know this from the comfortable distance I became accustomed to living from him, I knew it from his colleagues and students who’d whisper it in my ear at university gatherings. “You’re so lucky to have such an intelligent, interesting father,” they would tell me.
Of course, this conditional relationship with my father was aided by instincts. Daughters come into the world pre-wired to adore their fathers, (for better or worse), and I adored mine. I learned well, and early, how to recount the story of his rise to success and international acclaim from a childhood of near poverty in post-war London and then rural England.
Over time, the story became familiar enough to me, and foundational enough to our relationship, that it started to feel like mystory. I WAS the daughter of this remarkable man. “Let me tell you all about him!”
And this is how that story went:
My father, Peter Roland Swann, singlehandedly, (always a suspect claim), rose from abject poverty in post-WWII England, through class ranks in a country where class parallels the debilitating racial barriers we know in the US. Gaining scholarships to one exceptional school after another, in spite of his humble origins, he received his degree from Cambridge University, becoming a respected researcher and teacher at the Royal School of Mines in London, England. In 1977, he moved to the United States where he started a small garage operation with his brother selling components for electron microscopes. The business grew into a multi-million-dollar success, designing, and manufacturing component that would later be used to develop the iPhone. Dubbed the “Steve Jobs” of electron microscopy by his admiring colleagues, my father’s was a modern Horatio Alger’s story, and what could one possibly do but admire such an accomplished and brilliant man?
What we know about myths, of course, is that they are larger than life, but also, that they are just that… myths. This, after all, was the ‘above the water line’ story, the one that bound me to my father in this first chapter of being his daughter. But it was a story that cast a shadow, and as the years past with my growing up in that shadow, I began to see the contours of a different father.
That father was rarely, if ever, home, a father who lived through, and in, his professional reputation, a father who adopted a younger, research assistant, (maybe two?), to tend to his manly needs, one who left the care of his children to his wife and mother, one who commanded attention while he was vexingly unable to offer his own, and who, when asked for anything more than what he didn’t give, left the house, slamming the front door behind him with righteous indignation — no words.
After the plane landed in Pittsburgh, my husband and I took a taxi to my father’s apartment where he lived with his wife, my step-mother. The apartment was perched in a high-rise above Pittsburgh on Mt. Washington. With tall, wrap around windows it looked out over the famed three rivers and the city’s post-industrial skyline. It was one of those apartments where the elevator opens up right into the living quarters, plush and spacious, decorated in a way that makes it hard to find a chair that could foster a relaxing exhale.
It had actually only been a week since I’d last walked off that very elevator into that same apartment. I’d flown to Pittsburgh with my husband and children after hearing enough details about my father’s condition for me to realize this might be the last time I could see him alive. It was a short visit, only three days, coast-to-coast and back again. So short, in fact, that I’d barely had time to digest the visit before returning. Still available to my body was the memory of how my father had greeted me when I stepped off the elevator that week before. I walked over to give him a customary hug and found myself held solid and tight by fatherly arms that were wrapped around me with an immediacy that felt wholly unfamiliar. With a different father, something might have been said after that embrace. Maybe a few tears would have been shed or questions asked in transition to conversation. But the space of closeness in that moment was so unfamiliar I don’t believe either of us knew what to do with it. Touched, yet wisened to protocol, I stepped back in silence. It seemed that both of us knew what this visit portended.
The rest of that short trip more closely resembled what I’d come to know in my father over the years. Out of the spotlight, he was often grumpy, distracted, obsessive and self-absorbed. He didn’t listen when I talked and didn’t respond when I asked questions.
He was anxious about his health and his finances, mumbling about how hard he’d worked his whole life to make money only to find himself so preoccupied with how to hold onto it. Yet on this visit, he seemed especially irritable and elusive, and to any one paying attention, he was clearly in very poor health.
Given the few details he shared about his symptoms, he clearly needed more medical attention. “Shouldn’t you call the cardiologist to get rechecked, dad?” I asked. He muttered something in response and his tone, the precise degree of withdrawal, the edge of disdain, all of that and more, I processed as data in a painfully familiar formula for when to stay quiet. Another word and I would risk admonishment — sharp and derisive — “Karin! Don’t tell me what to do!”
That evening, after the children had been tucked into their sleeping backs, I walked to the living room, leaning against the door jamb to watch my father and stepmother on the couch before I approached. I was quite deliberate — this would be my last moment, the one I would want to look back on and remember.
I had tried to love my father for so much of my life, tried to please him, help fill him up with my interest in his work, propping up his mythic status. Always the hope was there that one day he might notice, he might see how hard I’d been working to paper over the cracks for him, to validate his greatness, shower him with my adoring, daughterly care. Beneath that, of course, was the ultimate longing for him to see that I existed in my own right, separate from him, a girl, then a young woman, someone for a father to discover, encourage, enjoy, cherish and admire.
But over the years, I’d been forced to accept that a thousand daughters couldn’t have filled him up or taught him to see beyond his need to see himself.
So, now that I was sitting there beside the two of them on the couch, my father fiddling with the remote, my step-mother, also fragile and in ill-health, sitting, vacuously, beside him, I simply felt my body sinking into the couch next to theirs.
The exchange was wordless. I opened my heart to both of them, opening that same heart in that same moment to the recognition that my father was on something I could only describe as a suicide mission. There was nothing I could do to help. It was a sour truth experienced in what was also, strangely, a sweet moment. A moment of surrender it had taken my life, up until then, to find. With this man, in particular, I knew I had no power to create change, let alone the power to create in him the will to live.
As I stepped out of the elevator a short five days after that visit, the scene in the apartment was measurably different. People, some I knew, some I didn’t, were floating around the apartment, awkwardly arranged, drifting in and out of the openly flowing modern space. It was a strained gathering of friends of my step-mother’s, siblings, step-siblings, and their spouses. Those notably absent added to the tension. The feeling in my body, tight and constricted, betrayed the open architecture, plus, my stepmother’s fragility took the form of several dozen egg-shells invisibly strewn throughout the apartment. Everyone seemed to be trying to avoid stepping on them. People talked, but the conversation was thin, the space between most of the relationships could have been cut with a knife, eyes darting, accompanying anxious offers for “how can I help?” On top of this, the fact that my brother and I were staying at a hotel downtown while step-siblings slept in my father’s home added to the strain, foreshadowing what was later revealed in the contents of his Will. Among other things, then, it was that kind of tension.
Families that don’t tell their own stories have this kind of awkwardness of course, and ours was one of them. British and narcissistically afflicted, the shortage of communication was a harbinger for a shortage of storytelling.
After all, for a family to tell stories there needs to be love, attention paid to one another, a fondness for each other’s quirks, there must be plot lines with conflict and resolution, humor, humility, and, essentially, time together, in one another’s company. In fact, the story of this family, my family, might be that it suffered from the affliction of rarely telling stories about itself.
By contrast, in that apartment on that day, there were so many conflicts that were unacknowledged. The affair my stepmother and father had, my mother, discovering them at the airport, the shadow cast by my mythic father, evident in my stepmother’s appearance a vast number of years older than her age. There was also the tangible awkwardness between the step-siblings, themselves, who had entered my life in high-school, but whom I barely knew, and there was the money my father had given and then taken from his own children over the years in such different amounts, and in such random ways, never saying why and barking at anyone seeking explanation. No doubt this was the cause of the cold, measured distance between my siblings and me. All these conversations were lined up in queue, the discussions, the arguments, the come-to-Jesuses that should have happened years ago were pushed back into the overhead compartment and snapped shut, creating a field of tense cordiality barely concealing a measured, magnetic repulsion. It was a family absent the feel of family. The anti-family, anti-story family.
Had I not largely exiled myself from all these relationships about ten years earlier, I might have lost myself entirely in the compulsive effort to create something normal out of all this awkwardness. But the time away and the years of therapy accompanying them had afforded me an inner compass. So, amidst all the superficiality and anxious chatter, the needle turned back to the decision I’d made on the plane.
“Really?” she said. My stepmother was mystified, her thin arms propped on the kitchen’s white, chorion countertop. “You want to see him?” I had asked her, first, how she was doing, and she’d responded, clearly disoriented and in shock, recounting the moment she’d found him lying on the floor by the TV in the living room. It was early in the morning, and she hadn’t expected him there. CNN’s headlines quietly droned in the background when she saw him collapsed on the floor in a puddle of his own defecation.
“It was disgusting,” she said, looking at me searchingly, her eyes half devastated, half repulsed. It was her trauma to recount, I told myself, however she needed to, but I couldn’t help but wonder about the disgust. People do that when they die, yet she seemed to be looking at me with the hope that I might clean that part up for her as if the gap between who she saw this man as in life and who he was on the floor in his own feces was too hard to reconcile.
It was also likely this orientation that led her to wonder why I would think to visit a father who’d been carved up and stored in a freezer for two days. But when she clearly saw I wasn’t going to give up on the idea, she gave me the number for the funeral home, asking me again, “Really?”
I found the powder room by the entrance elevator and dialed the number on my phone. The man answered with a Pittsburgh accent, his tone polite, measured and respectful, appropriate to someone in the business of dying. He hesitated after I submitted my request. “You understand he’s had an autopsy?” “I do,” I said. “Is there any way to wrap him so I can see him?” There was a pause on the phone. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Perhaps they didn’t want the extra work, perhaps there would be a fee and he was wondering how to address that, or perhaps there was a question about whether it would even be possible. My intent was clear, though, and while I was anxious in the pause, whatever sense of entitlement I had was going to be exercised in the service of this request. After putting me on hold for a few minutes, the man returned to the line: “Yes,” he said in cordial-funeral-home-Pittsburgh-ese. “You can come in. He’ll be ready for your visit by 2.”
By the age of 25, I had a storage container full of thwarted efforts to draw my father down from Mt. Olympus into the every-day life of being a father. Years of waiting for him to look up and say hello when he was buried behind his computer, years of wanting a question from him about my life, anything. Who my friends were or whether I’d done anything I’d enjoyed lately. The years of neglect and oversight took their toll; when your father is a God who doesn’t notice you, you start wondering if you’re worthy of your own existence.
I began to know the grey, sodden flavor of depression that sets in after too many years going by when your self-esteem feeds on self-doubt. I learned to be small, to see others as the perennial authority, to default to the belief that something was just wrong and broken with me.
But the neglect, itself, the accumulated moments of unmet need for things only a father can give weren’t the worst of it. There were the darker memories that few, if anyone, knew about. Moments I later came to understand as abuse, something which you just don’t see that way at first, because it’s your parent after all. It’s the water you swim in.
The axe came down at the most unlikely moments. The only predictable thing, it seemed, was that no one would be around. His (my father’s) select words packed more than a punch. Appearing non-violent, they were measured and “reasonable,” but they landed like bullets and bites, skewers and sledgehammers.
That’s why it was confusing for decades to see it as abuse. There were no visible scars or bruises, no alcohol or drugs involved, no sexual violation. Quite the opposite. My father was such a successful, cultured and accomplished man after all. In time, I’ve learned that the insidiousness of the narcissists hand is that it doesn’t always land on the skin; it lands in the victim’s heart where, invisibly, it can teach you to devour your own soul.
How I wished he had done something child protective services or any rule of law would have recognized as a crime.
There are many stories that could chronicle the details. My reluctance to tell them belies the family affliction, stories that don’t want to make it to the page because they hurt too much. But I will say that the worst times were usually when I approached him with some need for support, when my underbelly, my insecurity must have triggered a fear in him about his own, unthinkable, vulnerability. Perhaps it was times when he was feeling deflated when the slightest crack in the mythic contours of his ego became evident to him, and he felt the sudden (though unconscious) urgency to put the crack somewhere else, anywhere else, anywhere he wouldn’t have to feel it. It was in those moments with my father, when he told me I was a “human tragedy,” an “embarrassment,” a “worthless little shit,” and if I dared cry, I was a “sniveling female.” I “should wear tighter fitting clothes,” I dressed “like a box,” my interests were “worthless” and, in spite of the series of graduate degrees I accumulated, there was “nothing” he could possibly see that I could “teach him.” When I was selected to give the valedictory speech at my university graduation, he arrived late, bemoaned my speech saying, “isn’t anyone here a Republican?” then pulled me aside to remind me “not to let it go to my head.”
These blows were far worse than the slow, groaning sadness that grows from neglect. They threw me off balance and when I stumbled to find the words to say something back, my father would calmly admonish me: “Why are you being so defensive, Karin? I’m just trying to help you. Don’t you want my feedback?”
“You bastard,” I thought under my breath, when any semblance of clarity returned. But hovering, quietly and cautiously inside me, those words, and others like them, found no place to land. They sunk down to my heart and found a hole at the bottom where everything drained out. Trickling into no more than a puddle on the floor, it’s a wonder I walked away at all.
I rarely spoke to others about these incidents, or the overall air of contempt my father projected when I was around, or how I internalized him until he was there, all the time, in my own mind scouring for my insufficiencies. I was ashamed of it, afraid it might make others uncomfortable if they didn’t understand. On the few occasions when I told my mother, she responded with the solution she must have assumed with her own imperious, Austrian father: “Walk tall,” she said, “don’t let him get to you,” “rise above it.”
And that’s how I did it, drawing myself up each time from the puddle. “I’ll do it on my own.” Head cocked, arms and chest pulled in firm, buttocks cranked up for the walking “tall.” Never, NEVER again ask for help. And that’s also how “you bastard” found its way back up, into my muscles, my spine, stretching my short, 5ft frame surely up an inch, or so. Rising above the rabble (isn’t that how the men do it?), above the crowds of weaker ones who didn’t know, like I knew now, how to withstand the blows.
Years later, I learned about projective identification, a defense of choice for malignant narcissists, more popularly understood as gaslighting. It happens when the narcissist projects some part of themselves they can’t tolerate or acknowledge (their vulnerability, immorality, or select emotions) onto another. They vilify that quality in their victim and, confused and devastated, the attack is taken in, believed, leaving the victim turned inside out, self-immolating while the narcissist is successfully resurrected, moving on his or her merry way.
This is how by the age of 25, my father lived in me with such a monstrous presence that with any new person I met I found myself wanting to shake their hand and say: “Hi. I’m Karin. My father’s an asshole.” It’s absurd, really, to have felt that the biggest, most important thing I could say about myself was that my father was an asshole. But that’s how I eventually began to realize that if I didn’t start authoring a different story, my father would write me out of my own life.
To author another story, one which would give meaning rather than erase it, the proverbial curtain would need to be pulled back. Because of the family affliction, however, there isn’t much I know about my father’s childhood, not much about what it was really like. But I do know in his early years his father was overseas, stationed as a cook during the second world war. He was largely raised by his mother in a small village in Somerset, England. One of several children of a local pig farmer, his mother, my grandmother, was a tough and bawdy woman, proud of the pennies she’d saved, the rations she’d managed to provide for her sons during the war years. Her father had returned from the Great War a victim of shell-shock and mustard gas; he spent most of the years after his return lying in an upstairs bedroom, incapacitated. The morning he died, my father and his younger brother learned the news as they witnessed their uncles carrying the old, war-broken man down the stairs, heavy, rigid and awkward. No one spoke of it then, nor after that day. Not a word.
A fastidious housecleaner, my grandmother was the definition of godliness next to cleanliness. She apparently once sent my father and uncle outside to cut their small patch of grass with two pairs of scissors, one of them, nail scissors, (they clearly owned no lawnmower). When my grandfather returned to the family after the second world war, it was long after my father had learned to live with his absence and after his mother had donned him the seat as the eldest male in the house. In spite of the war, my grandfather had managed to maintain his charm as an affable, romantic fellow who, in between short stints of work, lived largely “on the dole.”
He started his ruddy-cheeked day with a shot of whiskey in his tea, (poured behind his wife’s back), and, after billiards at the pub in the evening, he returned home prone to outbreaks of drunken violence. His older son, my father, was the preferred recipient of this kind of attention. If he was caught out with the girls or didn’t finish his school work — impeccably — he would feel it in a less than forgiving assault on the all-too-human flesh of his body.
And the rest we know. Perhaps with greater understanding now. The scholarships to exceptional schools, the prized child of a proud mother, the poor boy, gifted in math, who found security in all the “right answers” of material science, the impressive career teaching, researching and designing in the meticulous field of electron microscopy. With these few touchstones as contours to the story, it all starts to make a little more sense.
My husband, Jon, and I arrived at the funeral home shortly after 2 o’clock. We were mostly silent during the drive there through the winding roads enveloped by the tall, lush green trees that gave Pennsylvania her name. The car bumped in and out of potholes on the road, a tribute to Pittsburgh’s icy cold winters, unknown to us in California. My eyes followed the details of the landscape familiar to my childhood and the memories that had been forged there years before. We arrived at the funeral parlor and pulled into the parking lot, entering by the side of the building. My chest was jittery under the shirt I was wearing and I reached over for my husband’s hand. We found the front desk and Jon kindly asked for the person we needed to talk to in order to see my father.
I don’t remember many details about the funeral home, itself. I remember feeling the stir of uprightness and entitlement that helped me make it past my stepmother’s discouragements and the hesitancy of the man on the phone. I remember the shaking in my rig cage, in and around my knees — a nervousness that was coupled, nevertheless, with a confidence — a clarity of purpose.
The man whom I’d spoken to earlier on the phone met us with the same somber, politeness confirming my father was ready for viewing. I couldn’t help but feel a strange intimacy with this man as he walked us down the hall towards the room; he had granted me something I’d never been given before in my own family — the opportunity I now had to state my case. Together, the three of us stood outside the room. There, at the double, French doors covered with a ruffled, white, nylon curtain, I hesitated. “Can I go in on my own?” I asked. “I’m afraid not, ma’am”, the funeral man answered awkwardly, “I’ll need to be in there with you.” Disappointed, and suddenly struck, myself, by the awkwardness of having him in there, I entered the room.
I haven’t been in the company of many dead bodies, but with all that I have, the first encounter has been strikingly other than what our death-fearing culture would predict. As I approached my father, I felt an arresting peacefulness and settling. The room was still, the air somehow cleared and purified by the presence of death. There was a couch to the left of the gurney against the wall at a right angle; I searched for a chair so I could sit up close beside my father. Jon, seeing my need, brought one over. With kind encouragement, he left to find a seat on the couch behind me.
It took a moment to find my seat, to feel my feet resting on the ground while the eyes in my heart found focus on the details of my father’s skin, the surprising ruddiness on his cheeks. Unlike the translucent, pale skin I had seen in other dead bodies, I marveled at how surprisingly alive he looked. I traced the salt and pepper stubble of his morning beard, the mussy, ruffle of hair curling up over his forehead, his handsome, well-proportioned nose that transitioned down to the thin, soft lips of his mouth, slightly opened. I leaned in a bit closer to look at the expression on his face. Under the dark, small mounds of his eyebrows, I thought I could see the shape of a certain fear in one of his closed eyes and a restful, resignation in the other. I drank in the details that seemed so familiar but somehow more available to me in that moment than they had ever been when my father was alive.
The distinctiveness of the details announced this as the body of one man and no other. I saw the scar on his hand where it had been punctured when, as a young boy, he had jumped to rescue a ball on top of a metal spiked fence. A disturbing image, to be sure, but one that lived now, innocently, in the raised, white line on the flesh between his thumb and forefinger. Back towards his face, my eyes registered the bump on his forehead, an innocuous small lump of fatty tissue that could be seen at a certain angle and which my father used to joke was an outgrowth of his great intelligence. And there, also, of course, were the other parts of his body, unseen to me and others, which, from his childhood, had carried the tension and knowing throughout his life of his father’s drunken undoings.
These details had such a particularity, so painfully and preciously belonging to this lifetime, this man, and to the only father I ever knew. Awash in tenderness, I took him in, the man who, at birth, I was destined to adore.
And that is how I felt in those first few minutes being with him that evening. The utter immediacy of his body lent an air of unspeakable vulnerability, in him and in me. Tears, which warmed my eyelids, slowly filled and crossed the thresh-hold, rolling down my cheeks and cooling as they reached my chin. I knew this as the same body that hugged me that morning as I stepped off the elevator. Itself innocent, as innocent as the day he was born, undefended. And in those precious moments, he was powerless to reject my love, my tears, all my own feminine vulnerability on tender display beside him.
I realized then that it wasn’t just my anger that had been silenced over the years, but also my love. It had been too real, to immediate, too tender to take in for a man who somehow, in the deeper contours of himself, must have himself doubted whether he was worthy of it. And it was from this foundation of openness, that my conversation with my father began. Not with anger and hatred, but with love.
“Dad,” I said, “I want to tell you how…” I stopped. My voice cracked into the silence. The words seemed unsure of themselves. How awkward was this, after all? I suddenly became aware of the man standing at the door behind me and the strangeness of talking to a dead man who’d had the back of his skull taken off and put back on again. Gathering my attention back towards the inner compass that had brought me there, I rallied forward. No matter how awkward, I needed to get where I needed to go.
“Dad,” I started again, “I hated you for most of my life. You were really an ass hole.”
No eloquence, no poetics, just raw declaration.
“I’ve come here to tell you how much you hurt me, to tell you how wrong you were. You treated me and my brothers like shit.”
The words had found a channel now and came forward more easily.
I didn’t know how to protect myself from you. You were the one who was supposed to protect me in the world. But no one protected me. I couldn’t protect my brothers either, or my mother.
The “walk tall” inside me, the way it lived in my muscles, tightening my frame in self-reliance, started to yield to the original “you bastard,” the anger taking active shape again, filling up and spilling over.
“And you weren’t there for-fuck’s-sake… It felt like you were never there, and on the few occasions when you were, you acted like you owned us, like we had no purpose other than to treat us like shit so you could prop yourself up as perfect.”
I could feel the words embodied and the effect of speaking them on my body, the layers slowly peeling away making room for something in me to begin to soften and expand.
“I loved you,” I continued, “You have no idea how much I loved and adored you. But you turned those who were closest to you, those who loved and depended on you, into the dark and broken sickness you couldn’t accept in yourself.”
It was down to the basics now, to saying what needed to be said and just as importantly, hearing myself say it.
“I hated you for all you did and for all you didn’t do. That’s it, I hated you. I fucking hated you.”
With each word spoken that left my lips, it was like my nervous system was watching on in awe. This father’s rocket launch defensiveness was ineluctably missing.
Unable to lift a finger and arrested by his own death from speaking one measured or bitter word, he lay astoundingly there, his body more still and available in my presence than it had ever been.
He couldn’t tell me I was being defensive, he couldn’t walk out of the room or slam the door, he couldn’t give me a look of indignation, or threaten me, or ignore me. He had no choice but to “listen.”
I will say, it was nothing short of heavenly to finally speak those words, unspoken and lying in wait as they had been for decades. Heaven to be exactly who I was in that moment, no judgment, no cost. As more words came forward, I spoke out, pausing in between to take in my father’s body, my love, my hatred. The tears flowed as I spoke, as did the current of resolve and strength I had brought to the encounter, the grief and the fortitude, side by side. In the softness and strength of my body, a sense of power grew, fueled by the love. Love for me, for him, for the humanity that had been reduced to shreds in both of us. “It’s just you and me,” I said at one point, stating the obvious so I could hear myself say it, “and this time, you can’t fight back. You can’t fight back.”
It was really the first time I’d ever been myself in his presence, but this time, for the first time, it happened with my words. It was my story.
I wasn’t sure if I was done, or what else might need to be said, but at one point, struck with momentary self-consciousness, I remembered the man from the funeral home was standing behind me by the door. I must have surprised him there when I turned around to look and registered, in that brief moment, that tears that had gathered in his eyes as he witnessed the lifetime of hurt and reconciliation before him. Turning back towards my father, I saw my husband, whose abiding support spoke to the possibility of a different kind of man. Feeling his encouragement, I turned again to my father, registering the value of these moments of honesty. I reached out to touch his hand, wary at first of that touch on a cold body. Unmistakably lacking the feeling of life, his plump hand was nonetheless his, and my fingers savored the touch, welcoming the opportunity now to love the man I had finally been able to defy. That shell of constraint that contained me for much of my life, that had kept me walking tall, my words contained, had slowly started a process of release.
In the space it created, I could feel the fullness in me take shape, the red, fleshy, human parts, the soft feminine forms that had been hardened into self-reliance. A tenderness took over, one I could feel towards myself, towards my father, towards the man at the door at the funeral home, and my husband, and the whole sorry mess in the apartment on Mt. Washington. And in that field, I began to feel the flavor of forgiveness. My head bent down towards his hand. Compelled by the softness, my lips landed on its cool, rounded flesh. I kissed him, holding my cheek against the coolness, knowing all the history that lay at that edge where my skin ended and his began.
It wasn’t a collapse into forgiveness in the way I had so often collapsed in my father’s presence, not an “everything’s all right now, I forgive you.” It was a collapse into my own expansion, into that warm, soft truth of everything I had to say, a collapse into the full size of me without negating the full size of him.
After all, this wasn’t just the last time I talked to my father, it was the most intimate conversation I’d ever had with him. In sharing all the anger and hate that had been bottled up for a lifetime, I found my love, for myself and for him. On that midsummer evening, beside the gurney this father’s body lay on, a daughter surrendered. Surrendered to the woman I was now able to become.
The iCal function for birthday notifications just pinged up on my screen reminding me it’s my father’s birthday. February 4th. He would have been 84 years old. Here, in Berkeley, California, 6 years after his death, I am recording these final words. But why has the story come to be written now?
Perhaps it took this long to find my footing given all that happened after my father’s death. It was never really clear from the autopsy what he died from. It had to do with his heart, and maybe that’s all that matters. As the weeks passed, a complex and painful drama unfolded revealing decisions he had made with his estate. Promises to his children were broken, step-siblings became millionaires and disappeared without a trace, my own siblings and I were broken even further apart as my father’s legacy lived on in randomly distributed dollars and cents. It was money that meant nothing compared to what we had needed from a father. I tried to build a bridge to my brothers — with laboriously written letters, edited and re-edited, and reviewed, painstakingly with a therapist. But the language for resolving conflict just wasn’t there. My father’s weapon of choice was words and there was little confidence, it seemed, that more words could lead to anything but more hurt and pain. So, in all these years, the memory of my last conversation with my father has lived in the background, the story untold, until now.
Then, at the expense of sounding, well, obvious… something happened. Donald Trump was elected. This was bad news for many Americans, but given the father I had, the morning after, I sat in the chilling familiarity I had with Trump’s narcissism, and with a foreboding sense of what was to come.
In the past two years, the chorus of voices from women speaking up in #MeToo, in women’s marches and on the front lines of political campaigns have highlighted, as nothing else has, how my story is no anomaly — it has been experienced in different ways by women around the world and throughout history. It’s the story of learning from a man that you are worthless, unworthy of protection, unworthy of time and respect, a target for aggression — the story of learning so many of us go through that we are better served by our own self-doubt than by a voice, claimed with an anger that has metabolized into strength, and that is spoken in the service of our value.
On the plane flying across the country to visit my father after his death, I knew something unfinished needed to happen. It’s something that’s happening now with an urgency, clarity and fortitude across our country. And as I finish the words of this story, I can now see that it isn’t the story I may once have thought I would be.
It isn’t a story about narcissism, or about overcoming the influence of an abusive parent, it isn’t a story about families without stories, or about how you find the words to free yourself from them. It includes all these elements, but it’s a story about what happens to our humanity when we systematically avoid the harder truths about ourselves or when we fail to hold others accountable for theirs. In making sense of both my father’s inhumanity and humanity, I’ve learned that beyond the threshold of shame, the vulnerable, feminine, innocent parts of us as girls and boys, as women and men, are waiting to be reclaimed. Our bodies, our closest allies, which carry us through life, bear the burden of the loss and only in returning to these all-too-human bodies can we return to ourselves.
In stepping closer into those truths, I discovered the emptiness that tragically hides in the hearts of so many of our “successful” men, men like Donald Trump, and the many men who voted for him who were raised to “succeed” in a culture where so many have been fated to fail.
Today, in this America, I can see my father’s need to call me a “human tragedy” was really his need to put a crack in me that lived, well guarded from shame, deeply inside himself. His life, his childhood, the expectations on his boyhood, all robbed him of the possibility of being more completely, ordinarily, and imperfectly human.
Joining other women today in this golden era of our uprising, my own courage has grown and from this foundation, I can now see so many men around me who live with a self-doubt that, inexplicable to themselves, leaves them several short steps away from ever really knowing who they are. Here, the masculine parallel of Betty Friedan’s “problem without a name” surfaces: the “man-shaped hole” unmistakably evident in today’s America. It has taken me many years and a confrontation with my father, afforded only by his death, to find the words to write my own story. But where, now, does the real story begin… for men?