ON MISSING MY FATHER
Via TV osmosis, I am at the Women’s Snowboard competition in Turino during the 2006 Winter Olympics. I watch, one of millions, stunned, as twenty year old Lindsey Jacobellis gives away her gold medal in the final moments of her sure win.
A little unnecessary move, some call it gratuitous grandstanding, I don’t know enough about snowboarding to know. I do know it looked like a little extra something added, perhaps because she was so far ahead, “Hey World, look at me!” She went down, as the apparent silver medalist, Tanja Frieden, turned to gold flying by her.
It wrenches my heart to see her naked anguish. Thoughts of “It’s just a sport,” couldn’t be further from the truth. At that moment, it is life itself, with all its promiscuous promise and disappointment.
The sports-casters are busy eating her broken heart, repeatedly replaying her fall from grace. The camera focuses on her parents, first her mother, then a quick cut to her father, where the camera stays. It is a mask of tragedy. His pain is eloquent as he looks across the immeasurable space to his daughter.
A tragedy is unfolding. As the new gold medalist fills the screen with her elation and surprise, no one moves toward Lindsey. I, and I imagine millions with me, feel caught in her senseless dream. How could this possibly be happening? Everything slows down, the sound is muffled around her. There is a collision of two realities, the utter devastation of Lindsey’s loss colliding with Tanja’s surprising triumph.
No one knows what to do for Lindsey, with Lindsey. It seems she has become a ghost, flesh and bones disappeared by her epic loss. The first person I see touch her is her father. I feel myself breathe a sigh of relief; she’s not alone anymore. I watch him wrap himself around his much smaller daughter, trying to breathe in what she had done to herself. Take it in, feel it, change how it feels to her. Breathe in her loss, exhale his comfort.
I also exhaled, relieved; she felt real to me again, painfully real.
I missed my father, again, in that moment. Not the father I had, the father I didn’t have. The father who might have embraced my failures, and successes, and made them all better.
My father was absent for me from early in my life. Physically present until my 40th birthday, but emotionally missing; alcohol, progressive depression and parenting lapses all took their toll. The “presence of his absence” is in my heart and my life.
There is another degree of “what’s missing.” What was missing for my father about me. I was supposed to be his son. Before their marriage, my parents decided to have three children, I was the third, with two older non-brothers. Here I was, my mother’s last chance to give her husband what he dearly wanted, a son, and my father’s last chance to create what he wanted, a son. I knew the way infants and children know, I was a disappointment to both of them from the first. I was not my father’s son.
By the time I was three I was asking my father if he were mad at me for not being a boy. Both my parents denied what I knew to be true; they were not mean people, and they did love me.
By the time I was four, I was hounding my mother to have another child. I’m sure like just about everything, that was multi-determined; one of the determinants was, “try again, give him his son, then he won’t/you won’t be so disappointed (with me).”
His emotional absence and my sense of being a disappointment wound through me as I grew up, creating empty spaces inside, empty spaces that I filled with different things, longing, primarily. I longed for I knew not what. I didn’t know I longed for a father, because it seemed like I had one. I saw him every day. I filled the empty father space inside me with work, with achievements, with keeping busy. I filled the space up with being away from home, and finding people to whom I wasn’t a disappointment.
I learned to be terrified of disappointing anybody, because it hit this desert place where I felt like such a big disappointment to both parents. No amount of achievements distracted me enough from the next disappointment I might turn out to be for the next person.
One would think I might have wished I were a boy. If that is true, it is still not something I’m aware of. I don’t think I wished I had been a boy, so my father could have the son he wanted. I really liked, like, being a girl, a woman. I don’t think my life would be better if I were a boy, a man. What I wished for was that my father could have his son, and that he wouldn’t want it to be me.
But before I reached that level of awareness, I did take a few passes at being my father’s son. Remembering this phase, sports images, baseball and golf, flood my memory screen. My father, behind the first base line, in his recently retired orange golf pants, golf hat pulled low on his brow, coaching my softball team. I’m the pitcher (after all, I’m the coach’s daughter). In spite of being the coach’s daughter, I am not a very good pitcher. I am secretly afraid of the ball, especially if someone hits it toward me. This was my primary motivation for practicing pitching; to strike out more little girls so they wouldn’t hit that nasty ball at me. I remember actually nothing of my father’s quality as a coach; I think perhaps it matched my ability as a pitcher. That wasn’t important.
What was important, is he was there, on Thursday nights, from April through August, for four years between my fourth and seventh grades. And he never once complained about it. At least, not to me.
Golf was a more intricate affair, with emphasis on affair. Golf was one of my father’s passions. He played scratch golf (zero handicap), with a minimum of three days on the course weekly. As my baseball days ended, he began to teach me golf. I actually was quite good, “for a girl,” as they said in those days. He taught me for three or four years, and because he was so good, and because I was his daughter, we competed in the Father-Son Golf tournament at his country club. We won, and that began a struggle with my father, over golf. Or, at least, at that time, it appeared it was over golf. It was actually about my needing to be his daughter, and not his son. With the perspective that analysis and years provide, I think the response I would have preferred would have him using his considerable political clout to start a Father-Daughter Golf Tournament. Who knew? In those days, I certainly didn’t know what I wanted from him; I couldn’t ask. I just knew I wasn’t getting it.
And speaking of others things I didn’t know, I didn’t know how much he was giving me I would later cherish. Like a spiritual compass that in a particular way, never left me. My father was Irish-Catholic, all one word, as in neither part, negotiable. For him or for me. That, of course would have been enough, in itself, to set me awandering from Catholicism. And I did wander, from about 18 to my mid-50’s.
But I actually think that particular wandering, which he understandably interpreted as my rejection of him, and his Catholicism, was trumped by the impact his praying on his knees, every night, to his God, had on my life. That memory, of my father on his knees, magnetized more of me than any other spiritual experiences I had in the thirty year walk-about from Catholicism. I’m so grateful to him for that simple nightly self-expression of faith and trust. It is to that simple faith and trust I was drawn back, to my father’s spirituality, his relationship with his God. It was my father’s spirituality, and not the Catholic religion, that was the faith of my childhood. When I was able to return to that spirituality, to “know it for the first time,” I knew I had my father to thank.
Except, I didn’t have my father to thank. He died, when I was 40. I just turned 59, and the past 19 years have included an analysis, and a second marriage, both making essential contributions to my understanding of how much I had missed having a father like Lindsey’s father, and how much I had missed the father I had.
My analysis has been many things to me, but in relationship to my father, I believe it is in getting, in my analyst, so close an approximation to the father I wished I had, that I was helped to know how much I, and my father, had missed, in so completely missing each other. After many years of analysis, more often than not, I have an internal experience of a father who can wrap himself around my grief the way Lindsey’s father did. If he looks a little like both my father, and my analyst, I’ll forgive, and thank, them both for that.
Another image comes to mind, my father’s memorial service. I see younger men my father worked with, stand, full of grief and gratitude, acknowledging my father for his generosity of spirit toward them; they grieved their loss of him as a valued mentor and guide. I felt both sad, and a little stupid. How could I have experienced him only the way I did, when others had clearly gotten so much from him? I felt like they were talking about a stranger, someone if I met on the street, I wouldn’t recognize. And certainly someone I wouldn’t, and didn’t, recognize across the breakfast table.
So I had missed him in another way. I just didn’t see who he was, as a person, as a man. Until my analysis, and beginning to write about him, he remained only the father who wasn’t the father I wanted. Now, thinking of my father these nineteen years after his burial, I fill up with things I wish I could have thanked him for. In person, not in print.
On Missing My Father Susan Fly nn, Ph.D.
It’s a relief to be able to miss my father, after all those other misses. I can see more clearly what he actually did give me, what I actually did take in. He taught me the value of work. Another visual memory comes to mind; me standing in our dining room, in Evergreen Park, Illinois. The year is 1963. I am 16, full of omniscience, and entitlement, as only an adolescent can be, and I am fighting with my father over his proclamation I need to have a summer job, “for money.” I wasn’t simply opposed to working; I had (I thought) a much more sophisticated and morally justifiable complaint. “Dad, we don’t need the money I’ll make at some low-paying summer job a sixteen year old can get. Why not let me go do some good, like volunteering to teach kids in the inner city? The Church (I thought this would get him!) has a summer program where we go and teach underprivileged kids (forgive me, this was the 50’s and I was 16); let me do some good, isn’t that more important than doing some stupid office job? I’ll spend more money on the train getting downtown (Chicago) then I’ll make at the job!”
I remember the sound of Mr. Beyers, our neighbor’s, lawn mower, as my father took another one of those deep parent breaths, and said, “It’s not just what you can earn, I want you to learn about making and managing your own money, and I want you to know how it feels to depend on yourself financially.” We fought bitterly about that, he won, and I’m deeply grateful. That he was willing to fight with me, and that, in spite of myself, I did learn about that particular kind of self-reliance. My parents paid for private education through college, and I then paid for two masters degrees, my Ph.D, and my analytic training, which financially trumps all. I’m proud of having been able to do that, and I never thanked my father for what I learned from him about money and self-reliance, both in what we fought over, but more importantly, in how he lived.
What else did I fight with my father about? Certainly we fought over the men I dated. Again, that’s how it seemed at the time. Now I think we were fighting over the helplessness he felt in watching me make choices that he could see wouldn’t work out (or at least, he prayed they wouldn’t!) I think our fights over the boys, later men, I dated, were generated in equal parts, by his caring, his helplessness, and my refusal to take his counsel. I didn’t disagree with my father, that my choices were not bringing me what I wanted; but that awareness was not enough to change the unconscious forces afoot that birthed those choices. It took an analysis to begin to rewire those inclinations.
On Missing My Father Susan Fly nn, Ph.D.
Another memorable fight took place at St. Norbert College homecoming during my junior year. I announced my desire to leave St. Norbert College after the Fall term to go to the University of Illinois. Besides the mere shock of the pronouncement, my father felt threatened by the drift of my decision. He felt that a small Catholic college was the best place for me to both keep my (actually, at that point, his) faith, and find my husband (remember, it was the 50’s). I did neither, and that wasn’t why I wanted to leave.
I knew there had been ways I had been protected from parts of life that were real and essential; I intuited I needed broader exposure if I were ever to be more than a protected, privileged child. The very things my father so wanted me protected from, were the things I needed to know about, and was completely unprepared for. For a different daughter, St. Norbert’s may have been the perfect place the whole way through. For me his restricted requirements for safety had become stifling.
We again fought bitterly. He interpreted this decision as a rejection of him, and his values. He was right, and wrong, about that. I think this was the beginning of my capacity to understand some of the ways my father and I fundamentally differed. It was in his being so steadfast in his values, and being so committed to passing those values on to me, that I learned where my values diverged from his. I had learned from him the importance of being able to fight for what you believe. And it was this gift that allowed me to stand up, with shaky knees, and quavering voice, and say, “Dad, something else is becoming more important. I’m not even sure I understand this now, but I need to leave here. There are other things I need to learn about life, and myself, that I can’t learn here.” Do I need to say I wasn’t nearly as clear-minded or eloquent? There was a lot of yelling that night, and I knew I had hurt him again, the same way I had hurt him when I stopped playing golf. I didn’t know how to stop hurting him. 11 seemed like who I actually was, and my growing capacity to express myself, just hurt him, in ways I couldn’t understand, or stop.
I worried that my father didn’t like me. I knew he loved me, but liking me, was another thing. You have to love your kids, you don’t have to like them. So with anxieties about the negative impact on my relationship with my father of winning this college battle, I began my winter quarter at University of Illinois. I was completely unprepared for the world outside Irish Catholicism I very quickly collided with. I felt it essential my universe get disturbed, and I certainly did arrange that! I can appreciate, in retrospect, my father fighting with me over what he valued dearly, and wanted me to value. My father and I did not have trivial fights. We fought about what we held most dear.
Other ways my father influenced me: I believe I went into business for myself in part to fulfill an unfulfilled dream of his. My father always had a business scheme or two we’d hear about at the dinner table or in the car. Not much came of them. He worked his whole adult life from college on at the American Can Company; starting as a stock boy after college, working his way up to Industrial Relations Manager. I was aware as he and I both got older, that the more successful he got, the less he enjoyed his job. My father would have loved to be in business for himself, and when I asked him why he didn’t execute any of his schemes, he said he felt he couldn’t afford to risk the financial security of his family.
Later, after a few years of supporting myself, I imagined that had probably been another moment of one of those deep parent breaths, as he might have thought, “Do you have any idea how difficult it is to support you and your two sisters in private schools, and your mother, and the life we have come to lead?” Of course, the answer would, at that point, have been, “No, Dad, I never give it a thought.”
My father also taught me the importance of having an organizing passion. Although I did, growing up, deeply resent, right alongside my mother, stroke for stroke, his many hours on the golf course, I have been very influenced by how much his passion for golf added to his life. My recent passion for writing is reminiscent of his for golf, the way it organizes and magnetizes my energy.
My father, on the golf course, was completely himself. He had given himself to his passion for golf at an early age. By the time I came along, he was in his early 30’s, and he had won many a club championship, and could have “gone pro,” if he were living a different life. My father, in his choosing golf as deeply as he did, had chosen a relationship that had developed him, as a man, in a particular way. It wasn’t the golf lessons with my father I remember.
What I remember, is my father golfing. His beautifully even swing. The way he kept his own counsel, as he missed shots. The way he was always learning, wanting to learn. The way he so much wanted someone to pass his passion on to; how happy he was when his namesake, his first grandson, Bill, took to him, and golf, the way none of his daughters could, or at least, did.
In the end, when I think of my father, I have images. My father golfing, the evenness of his temperament completely mirrored in his golf swing. My father was known for the consistency of his game, on and off the course.
My father, dancing with my mother. I would, and did, stop anything, at any age, to watch those two dance together. Whatever friction, disappointment, struggles they had, evaporated as they became that graceful, effortless, dancing creature I so loved to see.
And the last, and perhaps first, image is my father on his knees, praying to his God, who after all this time, I see, is now, has been, and ever shall be, my God also.