I think I was probably about fifteen years old when I found myself standing alone in the kitchen with my father, one afternoon. As usual, he was angry at me and yelling about something, and I, in turn, was yelling back at him. In the midst of our argument, he turned to glare at me with narrowed eyes, and, perhaps in a moment of exasperation, said in a very matter-of-fact tone, “Why don’t you just run away? I wish that you would run away.”
My mother and brother were not home at the time, and even though my father and I fought then too, he always seemed to save these ugliest bits of himself for when we were alone. As a result, later, when I tried to tell my mother about what he said, she seemed hesitant to believe me. How could a father say something so terrible to his own daughter? Surely, I must have been exaggerating.
As time went on and my memory of this exchange began to grow fuzzy around the edges, I too started to question my recollection of the event. Maybe it hadn’t happened the way that I remembered it. Maybe he hadn’t said those exact words to me. Maybe, somehow, I had misunderstood.
Concurrent to this natural process of forgetting, I also found myself in active pursuit of a new kind of relationship with my parents. Beginning around the time that I returned to Arizona from Guam, as a stripper, something started to change between me and them—with my father in particular. Perhaps it was their divorce or his recognition that at some point he just had to let go and love me as his daughter, but whatever the motivation was, beginning around my twentieth birthday our relationship started getting better.
In an effort to encourage this improvement and move past the dark waters of my childhood, for the most part I simply chose to ignore our rocky past. The truth was that I had always wanted to have a relationship with him, and so I did everything I could to ensure that this new normal would continue. Every weekend, I would call and talk to him on the phone about whatever was happening in my life, and I would also listen eagerly to him as he spoke to me about his own.
Sure, there was a part of me that began this weekend practice in hopes of making him feel just a little bit guilty. I thought that if I could show him what a good daughter I was, then maybe he would realize what a mistake he had been making all those years. However, as time went on, our relationship improved, and I got to know and appreciate him more as a complex human being.
In this way, my father and I became closer. I started listing his contact information as my “in case of emergency,” and reaching out to him on those occasions when I needed help or support. In 2009, we went on our first vacation together as adults, and since then, much to my surprise, he has become one of my best and most agreeable travel companions. Don’t get me wrong, I still usually end up wanting to kill him a little bit by the end of the trip, but these minor frustrations and annoyances are welcome changes to the toxic relationship of our past.
Despite my eagerness to put this past behind us, however, at times I have found myself pining for a bit of acknowledgement and closure. Once when traveling through Europe together I attempted to broach the subject after an afternoon of wine tasting, but when I finally worked up the courage to say to him, “You know, you hurt my feelings a lot growing up,” his response was simply “Yeah, well, you hurt my feelings a lot, too.” In that moment, I realized that even though we had gotten closer, there were certain things he would never be able to give me, and it was up to me to decide whether or not to accept it. So, I chose to accept it.
About two years ago, I went back to Wisconsin to cat-sit for my father, so that he could escape the winter chill for a month and I could work on my dissertation at his new place in peace and quite. While he was gone, I was supposed to feed and look after his two cats, Mo and Betta, the former of whom he loved very much and the latter whom he bemoaned regularly. The morning before he was to leave we were standing in the kitchen together as he was giving me instructions, when he interrupted himself to point out what a pain-in-the-butt she was. Then, offhandedly, he remarked, “I wish that she would just run away.”
In that moment, with those eight words, everything came rushing back to me. We were in a different kitchen now and enjoyed a different relationship with each other (thank goodness!), but somewhere deep inside of him, those same ugly bits remained. How could I begin to reconcile the man I had gotten to know, and even love, these last several years, with the one who had cut me so deeply and so often all that time ago?
On the one hand, it was a huge relief to get this validation of my childhood and experiences. I didn’t imagine our exchange that afternoon, he did say those exact words to me, and I didn’t misunderstand him. It was exonerating to find that I had been right after so many uncertain years. But, on the other hand, this realization also meant that at last, I now had to acknowledge the contradictions and messiness of the man who stood before me.
Not surprisingly, this multifaceted realization has opened my eyes up to yet another area of my life that seems destined to be lived out in the in-between. My father, just like all other human beings on the planet, will forever be imperfect. I am grateful for all of the time that I have gotten to spend with him in recent years, and celebrate the fact that there are now so many things about him that I have learned to love and appreciate. However, these last seventeen years have not erased the twenty that came before them, no matter how much I (or he) might wish they had. Whereas, at first, I thought it impossible to have a good relationship with him while still acknowledging the existence of our troubled past, I now realize that a real relationship is only possible if I learn to sit with this incongruity.