Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Card for my Dad

One of the last times I saw my dad. From left: My neice Claire, Stella (around 8 mos), 
me, Dad, my brother Jason.

This morning, in between making biscuits and gravy for Father's Day breakfast and refereeing a sibling fight over a balloon and trying to keep the household volume to a level low enough to allow Dave to sleep in, I scoured through Facebook on my phone. Picture after beautiful picture of my friends with their dads, most of them at their weddings. Their dads were stout and thin, bearded and clean shaven, dressed to the nines and in t-shirts and jeans. They all held their kids and sometimes their grandkids close. They smiled. They emanated love.

I "liked" every one of these pictures. Even though my heart stung with jealousy. Even though tears welled up in my eyes. I "liked" them because I do like them. Because I want the world to have good  fathers.

But my heart hurts today. My sister and I used to joke about how hard it was to find a Father's Day card for Dad. He didn't play golf. He didn't do yard work. He didn't have a workshop where he made things out of wood. He didn't wear a tie. He didn't fix the toilet. He wasn't always there for us. He wasn't our best friend. We weren't "Daddy's Little Girl."

There were no cards that said, "Thank you for not killing Mom the last time you beat her up." Or, "We kind of missed you when you were in jail." Or, "I guess the abuse you heaped on me could have been much worse."

Sorry. We tend to have a dark sense of humor in my family.

My dad wasn't at my wedding. We were estranged at that time. There was an awkward moment when I tried to figure out what it should say on the wedding invitation. Just listing my mom's name made it seem like my dad was dead; putting his name on there would make people wonder where he was when the big day arrived. I was disappointed that printing companies didn't offer an invitation that said, "Estranged Father Mr. William Randall Skaggs and Actively Involved Mother Mrs. Judy Miles Skaggs request the pleasure of your" bla bla bla.

My "father-daughter" dance was with my mom. It was kind of strange, but I didn't want to omit it altogether, and my mom certainly fulfilled many of the duties that *should* have fallen on my dad. But if I'm going to tell the truth, I wanted a father-daughter dance with a father. It's just that my father wasn't the right man for the job.

Mother-Daughter Dance

I tried to reconcile with my dad years later. He'd softened. He was no longer terrifying. He'd lost a lot of weight and had health problems and seemed feeble. I was shocked and a bit confused by how badly I wanted this to work. I wanted my daddy. He'd done some heinous things to me in my life, but I was ready to forgive. I was ready to give my kids a grandfather.

But it was too hard. Dad never apologized for sexually abusing me, for physically abusing my mom, for abusing my siblings in multiple ways, for psychologically controlling and terrorizing us our whole lives. It sounds simplistic, but had he just owned it, had he told me he'd been mentally sick and he was sorry, I would have melted. I wanted my daddy. I was ready to love him whole-heartedly.

But that's not what happened. He bought me stuff. A $3,000 Chanel purse (for the crunchy mom who doesn't care for labels). He treated me, Dave, and Stella to airline tickets to see him in Vegas and fancy dinners and expensive shows. He flaunted me in front of his professional gambling pals, bragging about my talent and gumption and generosity.

He was trying, I know. But it hurt too much. I found myself melting down over nothing weeks before and after our visits and phone calls. I'd hold it in around him, but if one thing went wrong away from him, I was filled with rage or despair, screaming and/or crying over every little thing. I was triggered. I kept having flashbacks and nightmares. I was scared to be alone with him.

So I cut it off again. He called me, he sent me a couple of cards, he complained to my brothers about me being ungrateful. I felt guilty. I felt like a terrible person. But I started to get better, little by little, especially when I went to therapy to confront what he'd done to me and how I could heal.

And by the time I was ready to reach out again, to frankly confront him about our past in the hopes that we could move on, he passed away. And I had to figure out how to mourn a father who'd hurt me so much.

Dave is an incredible father. He's emotionally available, compassionate, hilarious, warm. This morning, he played his guitar and sang songs while Sam danced like crazy. He snuggles up to Stella and reads her books. He wakes up with the kids to let me sleep in, he gets up in the middle of the night to rock Sam. He asks Stella about her day at school or camp, and really listens to her responses. He lies in bed next to me and worries out loud about our lack of college funds and why Stella's best friend is not talking to her and if Sam is thriving at daycare or not. He loves those kids more than anything in the world and always will. He'll never hurt them. He'll always be there for them.

Dave took Stella to the Girl Scouts Father Daughter Dance this year.

I used to say that this made up for my lack of a good relationship with my dad. That was a nice thought. It is healing to see how a truly involved and mentally healthy father interacts with his kids. And I'm so grateful that I never have to worry that my kids are getting anything less than they deserve. And it does make me love Dave more than ever to see him fulfill his role so perfectly.

But it doesn't replace the hole in my heart. Father's Day will always be a conflicted day for me. So much joy for my own kids, so much sadness for myself.

As I've gotten better, I've begun to realize there were some good things about my dad. He had a love for travel and new experiences that he passed down to me. While some of my friends in our tiny rural town never left the state, we'd frequently travel across the country or down into the Bahamas during the years when his illegal bookie exploits yielded actual profits. He ate escargots at the French restaurant in Disney World and dared me to do the same. He pushed me to learn to swim and drive a car, even though my fear of getting hurt was crippling.

And he told stories. Hilarious stories, captivating stories. Stories filled with voice and suspense. Stories that inspire me today to walk up on a stage and tell my own.

So Hallmark will never make a card that I could get for my late father. But if they did, maybe it would say something like this:

Happy Fathers Day, Dad. Thank you for motivating me to be a world traveler and a constant seeker of new experiences. Thank you for inspiring me to tell stories, and for giving me enough kooky and intense experiences to serve as endless fodder for those stories. Thank you for trying to reach out to me, even though it ultimately couldn't work. I'm sorry we didn't dance at my wedding, and I'm sorry you were too sick to see how much you hurt us all. You'll always be my dad, and I'll always love you.

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