Monday, July 16, 2007

A Letter From My Father

I heard last week through the grapevine, or the family tree, or something, about a letter from my father, who wants to have a get-together. With his first sons, my two elder brothers and myself. One of them isn't interested. One, ever yearning for reconciliation, wants it. I am hostile to the idea, but I'd go.

I try to stay out of discussions on the topic of my father, but my mother needs to vent sometimes, and I am a good listener. They divorced when I was in high school, and they did not communicate for 25 years. Then the weight of his isolation bore too heavily upon him, and my father contacted her. She is a softy, so they have occasional telephone or email contact. She always regrets it. He says things like, "Do not contact me ever again with your insane nagging and constant negativity and rage" -- then in a few weeks he writes again, without apology. It teaches her a kind of wisdom, though. What not to be like. How not to get sucked into madness. How to not feel insulted. How to let go.

We all feel pity for him. Not that it does any good. Terms like "idiot", "fool", "crazy" do get tossed around a fair bit when the topic of X comes up. (Yes, X. The final of his several name-changes. Well, we're allowed to change our names. I was raised to demonstrate the conventional forms of familial respect -- imagine my dismay when my father instructed me in my mid-teens to stop calling him Dad, and start calling him X. It felt like you'd feel kissing your mom on the lips.) We feel pity, but not one of us wants to be stretched out on that altar.

To those of us whose address he has, he is known to send long rambling confusing irrational letters, bouncing around between self-pity and blame and pleas for forgiveness and blame and rage and self-pity and blame. All in the same sentence. It's a little surprising, how he manages it. Quite a study, actually. In the early nineties when our two respective sons were both ten, I was hoping they could have a cousiny sort of relationship -- my boy and his little half-uncle. X's then-marriage was disintegrating, and he was venting to me about how she was accusing him of having an affair. "I didn't cheat. Why would I cheat? It's nuts. Okay, I did cheat." Just like that. It was breath-taking. But you learn to stop giving advice to someone who's not interested in changing.

My eldest brother has just gotten married. We're all a bit unsure as to the wisdom of the circumstances, but as I have pointed out, he wants to be happy, and to not be lonely. In any case there's nothing anyone could do to alter the situation. So we keep our opinions to ourselves. My father, on the other hand, just sent him this letter, telling him that he's a moron for getting married, especially to this young woman (for such and such many innumerated reasons), and anyway all marriages fail. I heard this, and just shook my head. What an idiot. Mind, this was in a letter designed to inspire a get-together. Hey, son, sorry to hear about your ill-conceived and doomed marriage. You're a hopeless fool and will always be miserable. And you're a failure, and ugly. Hey, while we're on the subject, what say you get your brothers together and meet me here for a great time!

He has a profound disrespect for my other brother. Years ago X was bad-mouthing him, and I broke my habitual non-assenting silence by saying, "Look, he owns his own home, and has his own business, and he has a stable marriage and kids who are decent and normal. I'd call that pretty respectable." That shut him up for a moment, and then he said, "I'm glad to hear you stick up for your brother." "It's only the truth." I did not add that I shouldn't have had to defend my brother against ugly attacks by his father. I didn't add it -- it would have served no good purpose. This brother apparently asked X for a loan a few years ago. In his latest letter, X says he doesn't want to see this son alone. "Every time he sees me, he asks for five thousand dollars." Once. Once. One time, years ago. It's a minor thing. But imagine every request, every vulnerability remembered and exaggerated and distorted and used against you, forever.

Well, maybe that's what I'm doing. How would you know?

Does he talk about me? Of course he does. They just don't tell me about it. He has said that he understands I was a good father. Someone must have been talking about my wonderful son. "But I was a good father too," he added. And we had to laugh at that. What a thing to say, on so many levels.

Of everything that I write, it's posts like this that make it impossible for me to let my family see this blog. For them to discover something of the full degree of disrespect in which they are held by X -- it could only cause pain. Details hurt. That's why I don't write many like this, and those few have focused on me rather than my brothers or my mother. There's a lot that I know that I will never say. It would just cause them pain, and it couldn't serve any good purpose. This is too much as it is, and it's truly nothing.

I've said all this because it brings out such a clear lesson. In old age, what remains? What does my father wish for now? He chased after women, and as I have cause to know, got them. He chased after fame, and failed. His focus was always on himself. As a father, he wanted his sons to be strong men. But he tried to teach us strength through domination and suppression. Now in old age, when his beauty and strength have failed, and the pleasures that such things brought him are irrecoverable memories, and he sits in the empty rooms of his large silent house tormented by the impenetrable isolation that is the outworking of his betrayals and his abandonments, what remains to him? He craves what he has scorned. It is the only comfort he could have, and it eludes him.

That's why I wish I'd had more children. But I cannot sufficiently express my thankfulness for the son that I have, and the gratitude that I feel for having been a father good enough to be respected by his son fills me with joy. Where did I find the wisdom, as a young man, to understand how important it is to respect those who are vulnerable? Well, I found it from my own father, as a negative example. There is no failure more bitter than that of a failed parent. I can imagine no greater success than being honored by your children.


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