The Interwebs were dripping with it Sunday, oozing love for fathers everywhere. Sentiments like “I love you, dad,” and “To the best dad ever!” were plastered everywhere. Normally, I’d be in that camp too, but that wasn’t always the case.
It happened on Thanksgiving day a few years ago, a day for giving and remembering all that means so much. My parents hosted, and with my sister’s family, my husband, children, and mother-in-law, we totaled twelve. The day started out well. When we arrived the house smelled heavenly. As per usual, we gravitated toward the kitchen where we helped my mother with the final touches and set out our contributions. Someone started the gravy, someone stirred the potatoes, someone lit the candles. We happily visited before, during, and after the meal.
But, I digress. Let me back up a bit.
Several years prior to this particular day, dad had been diagnosed with diabetes. Eventually he required insulin, and while he tested his blood sugars daily, most days he lived a normal life. What the rest of us probably didn’t realize was the severity of the side effects of diabetes, all of the side effects. A typical conversation with dad went like this:
Me: “How are you?” I’d ask. Dad: “Fine. How are the kids?”
Dad never complained; likely thinking this was a gift to his children by not wanting to be a burden, it became just that. Sometimes we were completely in the dark about his condition, its severity and prognosis. At one point dad excluded mom from the conversation during doctor visits, kept her out of the room. Only later when his troubles escalated did he allow me to accompany them to his visits and let me (and mom) in the room. On one particular visit, after the Nephrologist finished explaining dad’s kidney function, he asked dad if he’d understood. The reply was a frank, “No.”
While dad looked completely normal on the outside, he was far from normal on the inside. His body chemistry was completely out of whack, his kidneys were failing, it became harder to control his blood sugars. He had little patience and tired very easily. He’d lost much of the feeling in his feet (diabetic neuropathy) and when he stood, was wobbly. Maintaining the checkbook became an ordeal. Dad had been a voracious reader, but that, too, became a challenge. Dad’s memory wasn’t affected, nor was his sense of humor (thankfully, as dad was one of the funniest people I ever met). It popped through one day when describing reading, “If I stay away from the big words I’m fine.”
We’d finished our meal and as usual, gathered in the kitchen for clean up and nibbling, the best part of the day. Dad, for some reason, began washing dishes at the sink, not a typical occurrence; rather, I think, done to help mom.
As long as I can remember, our traditional after meal powwow occurred in this kitchen as well as kitchens in other households, my sister’s, my grandparents’, my great aunt’s…all of them, every single year. We hung out in the kitchen and munched while we cleaned. Which is why what happened next is, to this day, beyond comprehension.
Someone reached for a piece of turkey with their fingers and plopped it in their mouth, something we’d all done, dad included. All hell broke loose, dad started name calling, said he’d never seen such a sight. There were words, an argument ensued, and little did I know, that was the last time I would see my father for two + years.
As much as I want to, I cannot blame this on diabetes alone. Yes, he was tired. Yes, he should have excused himself and gone to lie down for a bit. Yes, he should have taken advantage of the children and grandchildren already cleaning the kitchen. There was no reason dad needed to stand on those achy feet to wash dishes.
And, in that one horrific moment, I wish I’d known.
One has to understand the cloth dad was cut from, about his grandma Orah, the woman who raised dad. I gave my series about her the title The Malevolent Matriarch for a reason. While I have learned to accept who she was, and have felt a sense of connection to her through her letters, she was one nasty woman. Orah spoke and wrote with a malevolent tongue which she kept as sharp as her pencils. She had a profound influence on the man my father became (and he, for the most part, was one fine man).
And, there it is. Dad was raised in a household where strong women with strong voices ruled. They fought and argued, went months sometimes without speaking. What he learned to overcome was something he didn’t discuss. Until I read Orah’s letters and dad’s memoir, I did not know she whipped dad, that he ran from and taunted her from afar. He used any means of escape he could find. I came to believe she was jealous of dad, that my grandma Lalla’s attention toward her own son was a painful source of jealousy for Orah. She often wrote how much she hated dad, that she wished him harm, or worse. She called her daughter names, said she was greedy. She resented dad’s presence in his own home; Orah lived with Lalla and dad when dad was growing up. He came to believe that they really did love each other but were simply at Cross Purposes. I can’t tell you how much that breaks my heart.
Dad fought demons I never knew existed, not until ten years after he passed. I can’t help but think that while his behavior caused our family unnecessary hurt and estrangement, had I known, I may have been able to see him in a different light, may not have let two years go by before we spoke again. Granted, he could have approached me, but that didn’t happen. Mom later said she thought dad didn’t know what to do or how to begin.
Imagine reading letters about your childhood. Imagine reading that someone you loved hated and wished you dead. Imagine the author was your grandmother. Dad placed a tiny check mark on the envelope when a letter had been read. I have every letter Orah wrote; a good portion have no mark. Dad had stopped reading. (Not surprising, Orah was an insulin dependent diabetic.)
I loved my dad with all my heart and my relationship with him was very good. I would never wish those painful two years on anyone; yet, after experiencing this and other events, I’ve come to believe that it’s the living beyond being knocked down, it’s what happens in the aftermath, if and how we get back up, that generates growth and new perspective. Is that not what we all want? To be understood?
My memories of that day are bittersweet. I won’t judge dad based on one event, nor do I excuse poor behavior, but I can accept it with clarity and new understanding (and am thankful someone saved Orah’s letters; otherwise, we may never have known). The good far outweighs any bad I experienced as his daughter. I am grateful I understand, and can give him that now. That day has become a day for giving.
While the Interwebs dribbled syrup all over the fabulous fathers out there, for many people Sunday was a difficult day.
My sincere hope is that clarity finds those for whom it is possible.
“The test of a man or woman’s breeding is how they behave in a quarrel.”
~George Bernard Shaw