At first I was not going to write about Father’s Day, feeling again that my story was just sad and depressing, and who wants to hear it. Sound familiar?
This is what I hear from my students all the time, especially when they’re writing a story that just doesn’t get better. The truth of our dark stories remains the truth—there’s no way to gloss it over.
Yesterday, teaching a class to a group of people who might want to write if they could give themselves permission, I felt the energy of hope and fear in the room about writing revealing dark stories—the push-pull of writing which can swirl you into the labyrinth of sorrow or anger with a couple of key strokes on the computer, or a few flourishes of your pen.
Yet, as I encouraged the group to write, to express, to take 10 minutes to capture a story, I saw their faces change—from frowning concern about writing to fleeting smiles. Even though some people had a few tears as they wrote, they were encouraged about having the freedom to write their truths.
In my work as a writing coach, I read so many stories with dark, painful moments. Some people have to grapple with such deeply dark stories, they’re afraid to put them on paper—partly out of self protection, but also because they don’t want to inflict their pain on other people.
I have felt that way often, and feel that way today. It goes like this: who wants to hear about my father, who left before I was a year old, who visited me for two days once a year for a few years, but whom I didn’t see for three years at a time as I grew older. It’s embarrassing to share that I had idealized this father for decades, so grateful for those brief visits. I also had my secrets. I put into a separate compartment the fact that he acted sexual with me on one of those visits—leaving it up to me, a virginal and protected fifteen year old girl, to realize what he was up to, and stop him from going further, which he hinted he wanted to do. In the early sixties, girls didn’t have information the way they do now, so his behavior stunned me. In shock that day, I tried to reconcile the Daddy I’d looked up to and waited for, the Daddy I’d tried to defend with my grandmother, who hated him but I never knew quite why, a Daddy whose hands roamed over me. I never told anyone until it was wrenched from me in therapy.
In my work as a therapist, I’ve helped women who also have had two versions of their abusers: the “good” one, who did offer some kind of love or connection, and the “bad” one, who was destructive to their sense of self. The bad one who had to be protected—because if and when we come to terms with that “bad” parent, we lose them forever. They are not the admired, respected parent we wanted. They are something else, shameful, to be silent about. We have to hide this from others so they won’t be wounded by the truth too.
So as I think of my father, I’m holding the two parts, and when I watch movies like “The Descendants,” about a father who learns how to be more connected to his daughters, and who trust him enough to tell him truths he doesn’t want to know, I also finally accept that my father was a biological gift, and that the missing father is a huge part of me that I’ve had to heal in other ways—by finding a fatherly therapist, and by enjoying the way my son-in-law, Frank, fathers his children, playing with them, teaching them. As I watch him hug my grand-daughter Zoe, seeing how safe she feels, seeing her full trust in him, a part of me is healed. As he teaches my grandson how to ride his bike, or when he helps him create claymation movies on the computer, I’m settled in myself in a new way, my spirit soothed to see the children blessed with a real father.
It’s easier to forgive my father for his shortcomings as I’m healed. Whatever led him to his missteps, I’ll never know for sure, but I can see now that he was simply human and flawed. It took years to stop grieving for what we never had, for his death in my twenties just as I’d started to find a voice with which to speak more honestly to him.
Today, I can celebrate fathers with a fuller heart, and some forgiveness. To remember that they were shaped by forces we may never understand. It’s a long journey to get there, but when we do, it’s a blessing.