My older sister bought my dad a cannon for his seventy-fifth birthday. And, true to form, he immediately took it out to the airport so that Jon could play with it. And then proceeded to give it to Jon.
That’s right. He took his seventy-fifth birthday present from his oldest daughter and promptly gave it away to his favorite “adopted” son.
It’s these kinds of actions that make my relationship with my father, who I love to the point of tears, tense. He just… doesn’t think about other people’s feelings.
As Jon puts it, “He can be pretty fucking insensitive.”
Later that evening, I called my other sister to tell her the news.
“HE DID WHAT?!?!?” Katie roared. Her temper is as hot as my father’s. Being with them in a room together is really unpleasant because they fight so much. And, like I said, he can be pretty insensitive. Like, really insensitive. For example, he constantly tells my other sisters that I’m his favorite daughter. He once told Katie that I was a lot like her except, “more pleasant.” But when he’s with me, he’s constantly on my ass about getting my life together. And no, my recent Master’s degree doesn’t count. Because what am I going to do with it? He’s also a huge, heavy drinker, and that’s hard and awful in so many respects that I can’t bear to write more about it.
Regardless, I love him and strive for a zen approach with him, which basically means to ask for nothing and expect nothing. I don’t always maintain this balance, but most of the time it gets me through the holidays, etc. And I’ve completely stopped giving him gifts and cards for Christmas and birthdays because, well, he just doesn’t appreciate it.
Jon is just about the best person in the world cut out for helping me navigate through my relationship with my dad because he gets my dad and loves the shit out of him, too. They worked together for years and years, which is how I met Jon in the first place. That’s a whole other story, though.
But Jon has his own blindness to our problems, because he’s never personally experienced a truly tumultuous relationship with his parents. When he sits down to talk to his mother, they hold hands. She calls him “darling baby boy” and “precious” without a trace of irony. So even though he knows and loves my dad, and knows and loves me, and even though he can witness this all unfold, he doesn’t actually get it, and that’s a lonely place for me to stand.
I’ve been thinking about this stuff a lot lately because I just watched the Girls Season 2 episode where Hannah goes upstate to visit Jessa’s father, who sucks at being a parent. Not because he’s a bad person, but just because he’s not cut out for the job. And there’s this really sad, poignant moment late in the episode when Hannah tries to compare her parent’s shortcomings to Jessa’s dad and Jessa interrupts her to say, “Please don’t talk about our parents like they’re the same kind of parents.”
My dad adopted me when he was fifty and I was a baby. His second wife had just left him and stolen all of his money, and he’d used what little he had left to buy a sailboat and travel the Pacific. He says he walked into my shack in the Philippines and saw me, wobbly toddler, sitting in a small red chair and knew he had to have me. I think he saw me as his chance for redemption, a way to reverse all that had gone wrong in his life. In the months that followed, I became an American, lifted out of the Manila slums.
Throughout my childhood, he told me that I had saved his life.
The truth, of course, is that he saved mine.
It’s a beautiful story, one of chance intersections and happy accidents and instant, all-consuming parental love. It’s the story of my life.
But he is not perfect, and I am not perfect, and we constantly teeter together, and often on opposite ends, of a loaded cannon.
Whining about our upbringings is self-absorbed and boring and so 1990s, and the nagging guilt-centric part of my brain tells me I should probably just shut up about my daddy problems. Everyone is flawed, and everyone has problems with their parents.
By the way, my mother was a paranoid schizophrenic who beat me with electrical cords and wire hangars until I was black and blue. We don’t talk anymore.
No, though, no. I know a lot of flawed people who do not have daddy or mommy problems. So talk I do, because the whole point of living a conscious life just that: to be conscious. To ask questions. And to tell our stories. To evolve by each retelling. To understand what our stories mean.
The story of my father is unfinished. But I am finished with trying to “fix” it. I don’t give presents. I don’t expect perfection. Half the time I don’t even expect proof of love. He’s not the perfect father and I’m not the perfect daughter and we don’t always love each other right way.
But we keep trying to love each other, and that’s got to be good enough.
Because what other options are there?
“Grow him a tomato,” Jon told me early in the summer. That’s his advice. At least it’s concrete.
So I do. Thank God for gardens.