Pictures of you, Pictures of me

I recently came across a manila envelope full of old photographs that a family member sent me shortly after my father died. At the time, I took a cursory look and closed the envelope to examine later when it hurt less.

I'm not sure how to explain my grief at the loss of my father when our relationship was so conflicted. All I know for sure is that he was the center of my life for as long as I'd been alive and then suddenly he was gone and I came undone.

Until the day he died, my life was focused on trying to win his approval, be a good daughter. I worked in his insurance agency for a long time. My husband and I managed my parent's property for them, doing home repairs, keeping up their five acres. When he had a minor heart attack, mom moved in with us and we fed her, changed her, and kept her for quite some time. It was something we did frequently anyway (My mom had multiple sclerosis and was completely dependent). He would show up at 5:00am, wheel mom into the house and bellow, "Are you STILL sleeping, kid?" in a tone of disapproval and incredulity, and then he'd be off again, without explanation, and mom was ours until he came back again, sometimes hours later and other times not for days.

My husband and I were happy to help because we loved and respected my dad. But he was so cuttingly critical, so impossible to please, that I found myself finally pulling away. I remember the day we told him we were moving to Papua New Guinea and he said, "You'll never do it. You're too weak." I was struck to the core by the obvious fact that my father couldn't or wouldn't see the truth of me, that I was anything but weak.

We went and it floored him. I saw it on his face when we said goodbye at the airport. My mom was crying and I hugged her hard, thinking it was quite possible we would lose her while we were gone. It never occurred to me that we might lose my father, but it wasn't mom who died while we were gone, it was him.

Anyway, I recently found those photos and I opened them again. There were pictures of me when I was very little, pictures of me with my dad. In one, I was standing on his hands and he was lying on the floor, bench-pressing me. In another, he was carrying me across a creek, walking on a fallen log. I was in a yellow sundress. He looked rugged, young, and strong. There were pictures of me and dad side-by-side in the sand, on a boat, on a motorcycle. I didn't remember any of that.

I now know there was a time when he loved me. The pictures tell that story. I think that maybe he always did. Something happened when mom got sick. He turned against me, could not tolerate me. There's really no point in my guessing why.

Recently, my oldest daughter was talking about childhood memories, and I was struck by her perception of things. My first reaction was one of hurt. She's hard on me. Then I remembered something I said to my dad shortly before we left for PNG. He snapped, "Why do you always act like you're being attacked?" I answered honestly, "Because I've learned to expect it, Dad. You attack me so frequently, without provocation, that I brace myself for it." I remember seeing a flash of recognition in his eyes. He dropped it immediately because it was true and any conversation would require that he own it, which was something he either could not or would not do.

So, when my daughter looked at me with accusation in her eyes, I let it pierce right through me, allowed myself to feel the painful truth that I was often unfair to her. There were times when I showed shades of my father in parenting her. I was demanding, critical, and unfair. It sucks. I'd like to say that she's wrong. To paint her in shades of disturbed, as my dad did to me, like my brother still does. But I can't do it. I own what I own and the truth is that I was not fair to her. We adopted her when she was four and she came with a plethora of behavior problems, disorders, blah blah blah... But the fact that she was an extraordinarily difficult child does not excuse my unfairness to her.

And yet I loved her. I love her still. We are complex creatures and all too often don't understand ourselves.

She may never forgive me for my shortcomings and failings as a parent, but I know that she loves me. Perhaps it's because she also remembers the good times, how desperately hard I fought to get her the help she needed, how tirelessly I advocated for her. I won't dismiss the wrong I did by saying something stupid like I'm only human or nobody's perfect. That's so weak. We should take responsibility for our actions. My dad taught me that when he utterly failed to take responsibility for his. Had he acknowledged what he'd done, apologized. It would have meant a lot. So, I struggle to do better than that. I am my father's daughter, yes, but I am more than that.

What's the point of all this? I suppose my point is that we hurt the people we love. We all do. And while it IS a part of being human, we should not shrug it off. I believe in kindness, I do. I believe in forgiveness too.

Some day I will die and my children will have their pictures and memories of me. I don't expect them to put me on a pedestal. I don't belong there. I just hope that they'll be able to look back and see that I loved them, that they were everything to me. I hope they remember the good and the bad and the times I said, I was sorry. I hope they take the best of me, learn from the worst of me, and that they don't waste one moment of their lives worrying that my parental failings were somehow their fault, because they were not, no more so than my father's failings were my responsibility. In the end, we do the best that we can and hopefully move forward and continue to love however imperfectly.


©Just Kate, April 2010

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    About Me

    I love laughter, wickedness, fearlessness, irreverence, and kindness. I love road trips where I can prop my bare feet up on the dashboard. I love the feel of sunshine warm against my bare skin, the smell of the mountains and the roar of the ocean. I love to read. I love to challenge conventional thinking. I'm a huge fan of spirituality but have little tolerance for religion. I love to talk faith and philosophy. I love children. I get bored far too easily. I love debate and people who don't try too hard. I love it when people aren't afraid to disagree with me and know why they believe what they believe.

    Music

    Things that sound like music to me: rain on a tin roof, the trill of birds first thing in the morning, the coo and gurgle of happy babies, the beat of African drums, the roar of the ocean as the tide ebbs and flows, the sound of a rushing river, unrestrained laughter, the wind moving through leaves, the tick-tock of my grandma's old clock, the crash of thunder, a quiet whisper in my ear, the contented purr of a cat, the musical ting ting of wind chimes, children laughing, the sizzle sizzle sound of something yummy cooking, and the rustle of dry leaves under my feet.

    I also enjoy many musicians and bands including: Ray LaMontagne, Jason Mraz, The Black Eyed Peas, John Mayer, James Carrington, CCR, REM. My favorite genre is acoustic folk/rock.

    Favorite Quotes

    "We are what we repeatedly do; excellence, then, is not an act but a habit." —Aristotle

    "The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering." - Ben Okri

    "What we think, or what we know, or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence. The only consequence is what we do."—John Ruskin