Maybe it was the workshop that set things in motion.
Last weekend, I facilitated a workshop that examined the relationship between daughters and their fathers. During a break, one of the participants asked if I would share my story. For me, sharing my story is a fine line. While my experiences gave birth to my workshops, revisiting them too often feels dangerous, like deliberately re-infecting me with a childhood disease. Voicing the past gives power to it and I can easily become lost—for a minute or for days—in all of that pain.
But, I’ve been working with this circle for a year and a half. I trust them and I’ve learned to trust myself as a facilitator, so when the time was appropriate, I did feel comfortable sharing. One of the questions I ask in this workshop is, “Did the way your father treat women influence your own interactions with women?”
I then clarified. “For example,” I said, “My father had an affair with my mother’s friend. He divorced my mother and married the friend. But, together, they also deliberately set out to destroy my mother.” I said all of this without emotion. Nonchalant. I allowed myself even a moment of pride: look how far I’ve come! I continued, “Because of this, I never trusted other women. If I had women friends, it was never for very long and it wasn’t until I was almost 30 that I had girlfriends. Sometimes, still, I don’t quite trust couples that my husband and I hang out with. So, this is the kind of thing I mean by this question.”
That’s all I shared about my father. I didn’t carry it home with me. I’d like to say I was even able to release it. And I may have done save for the fact that this past weekend I attended a memorial for my great-aunt.
During my parents’ divorce and the years of craziness and heartache to follow, my father’s great-aunt and uncle and their kids were the only members of my paternal family to remain in my life. My paternal family thought my great-aunt and uncle chose my mother’s side over my father’s. They didn’t. They chose a 12-year old girl and her 10-year old sister because we were family, we were hurting and they were the kind of people who could never turn off their hearts. They paid for this choice: like me, they, too, lost an entire side of their family. My great-uncle lost his big brother—my grandfather. All of it has been senseless. Ego and pride and misunderstanding that tore through the family like lightning 30 years ago.
Still, there was some communication between my great-aunt and uncle and a few members of my paternal family. I knew this. So, when my great-aunt passed away, I was prepared to see a long-lost aunt or cousin at her memorial. I allowed myself to really examine my feelings: would I be okay if this happened? Yes. Simply, yes. A lifetime had passed; I was no longer a little girl. While I could easily access my old hurts or sense of victimization if I wanted to go there, I didn’t. I knew if I did see my family again, it would only be with hard-earned grace rather than old fear.
I can honestly say, however, that I did not expect to see my father.
He sat with my grandfather, my two aunts and their families at a table across the aisle. Only a few feet and a mountain of years separated us. I felt torn, in a way. I was here to honor my great-aunt. Yet, right here, right now, was a man I thought if I ever saw again, it would be in a coffin. Curious. Why did he come? To make amends to his great-aunt who he never treated well? To catch a glimpse of his daughters? For the free food? I don’t know. I was simply curious. No nervousness. No sweaty armpits. No anger. Just curious. More curious still as a wave of compassion and forgiveness covered me.
But then, he was gone. He got up from his chair and left. He doesn’t know this, but I followed him. He walked quickly through the foyer and out the main doors into the parking lot. There, I stopped. I decided I was not going to chase him down; that seemed familiar and detrimental. I did wait for a minute or two but he didn’t return.
I walked back into the banquet room directly toward my aunt. I said hello. I think I even occupied the chair my father had been in. I talked to both of my aunts, my uncles, a cousin. Despite the years and gray hair and lines, I recognized my memories in their faces. Without knowing them, I still knew them. I looked at photos of first and second cousins, all beautiful girls and young women, strangers who shared my blood. We distilled our lifetimes into a few minutes. Defensiveness held in the air from some, wistfulness from others. I realized then: it would be so easy to paint them as ogres and me as the victim, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. They, too, had been affected by this split. They, too, had lost. I could not know what burdens they had carried all these years. This family was in pain. I can’t close my heart to that.
Even as I reconnected, I waited. I waited for my father to return to the table. I waited for him…until it was time to return to my table and listen to the eulogies honoring my great-aunt.
Then, it was over. I looked for him again but my father was gone. It was over. Again.
I said good-bye to one of my aunts and gave her my phone number. She and my uncle gave me a hug. We moved back into our lives.
I returned to my great-aunt’s family. I finally broke down. For my great-aunt. For my own sense of guilt: I thought I would have more time with her. I think, though, my great-uncle and cousins thought my tears were for my father. In their grief, with their big hearts, they actually apologized to me; they hadn’t expected him. I was not a little girl anymore; that day, my tears were purely for my aunt. For this loss which had begun years before she died as we all grew up and moved away. I cried for her.
The next day, however, I did cry, on-and-off for my father.
But not in the way one would think. I didn’t miss my father. I didn’t fear him. I didn’t hold any anger even. I didn’t want to insinuate myself into his life. I simply wanted to give my father a hug and I cried for the missed opportunity.
Because in my father, I saw a man older than he should be. All those years of unkindness, especially toward himself, hung heavy like dusty, gray curtains in an abandoned house. My heart wanted to give him a moment’s peace.
I wanted to hug my father. And tell him that I love him. That I always have. I wanted to tell him I am grateful: if he had not stepped away, I would never have become the woman I am. I am stronger than I ever thought I could be because of him. I have come through it all not only with my heart intact but full of grace and magnificence. I wanted my father to know that it’s okay. It had to happen this way.
Maybe that’s why the memorial happened the way it did. Maybe that’s why we were only a few feet apart and yet never connected. Maybe I needed to see him again just to reaffirm who I am: a woman who has lost a tremendous amount and yet, has blessedly, wholeheartedly, truly learned a kind of forgiveness that cannot be explained or justified to those who aren’t there yet. It had to happen this way.
This is my new story about my father.