Yes Dad.

“I know I haven’t been the best father all the time,” he says. His voice cracks up into a higher pitch as he says it, a perverse inversion of the process he must have gone through some 60 years ago. “But it wasn’t all bad was it? We had some good times?” He reaches a bloated, soft hand to hold mine.

I start to weep openly.

“I remember so much of your childhood," he says. "I remember running you around the leaves in the wheelbarrow. Or the time you were so sick we took you to the hospital. I remember walking in the fields.”

I nod, because the moment’s not about me. “Yes Dad,” I say. “There were a lot of good times.”

No, there weren't. Which is why we both escaped: He into the bottle; I into the nerd.

He’s here to continue a process he started about two years ago -- a process of saying goodbye. As a 25 year veteran of Alcoholics Anonymous, he’s long since been through the motions of apologizing to me for all the things he thinks he did wrong. But now, his health failing, he’s trying a different approach. He's trying to rewrite the plotline of his life to be less tragic and more misunderstood. Heroic even.

I said my goodbyes to him a long time ago. At 15 really, when, after one-too-many screaming matches, I packed a backpack and walked out of the house in a blizzard and hiked 6 miles to a friends house. I never spent another night with the man. When he cleaned up, years later, he was already an old man. Sober, and thus a complete stranger.

I let him continue this red-pen journey through his fading memories.

“I remember when we moved into the house on the farm. You were 3. You loved running around the yard so much, and we planted the garden together. You were such a good kid,” he imagines.

“Yes, Dad."

We moved into the house on the farm when I was 6. I was an early reader. I hated the outdoors, and resented the move. But the store in town sold comic books. 1973 was a year of Spirit reprints and Shazam and Conan and Tarzan. I spent what little money I had on them, and shoplifted the ones I couldn’t afford.

“And then you met Paul, next door. I remember him being around all the time. It’s great you had such good friends around,” he says.

“Yes, Dad.”

Paul was indeed a great friend. In reality, he was my only friend for most of my childhood, put together mostly by the convenience of being next door than any innate connection. He came over to my house exactly once. Because I was so mortally ashamed of my house, my family, my life. Paul’s house was a paradise by comparison: plenty of food, enough money, no drunks. To my pre-teen mind, it was familial bliss.

When I turned 10, two things happened that changed my life. The first was Paul getting an Atari 2600. The second was seeing Star Wars for the first time, alone with Paul, because my Dad didn't want to see it. He was a pacifist, and it had "war" in the title. From that point on, I was as nerd as nerd could be.

“So, I’ve got all this stuff I just don’t know what to do with.” He pauses for breath. He has congestive heart failure and a dozen other issues that make it very hard for him to focus for more than a few minutes. It hurts to see him struggling. I well up again. “I have some great horns. I have one of your grandfather’s horns, he bought it when he was a kid. It’s so good. I hate to sell it.”

“I’d love to take it, Dad. I’m sure Peter will want it as he grows up. He seems drawn to music.”

We’ve been making these exchanges for the past two years. He shows up with something “he’d hate to sell” and I dutifully put it in the basement. He walks away feeling like a patriarch, instead of the odd, strange man he’s become.

“I remember you weren’t really much into music growing up,” he forgets.

I was desperate for music. True, I never wanted to learn to play jazz trumpet, his chosen avocation, but by the time I left the house, I had an enormous record collection, and had spent my puberty building heathkit audiogear in the basement with a soldering iron while he slept off his afternoon drunk each day after school. I played drums. I played guitar.

I never worried about waking him up.

“I don’t suppose you want any of my electronics stuff, or my computer or anything. I can’t really type anymore.”

At this I start crying in earnest. If there’s one thing I can trace through my bloodline it’s writing. My grandfather was a newspaperman, my father was an English teacher, and I, well, I guess I write too these days. My daughter’s hard at work on NaNoWriMo. It’s in the genes.

“No Dad, I’m pretty set on computers. Have been since before I left the house.”

He looks blankly at me. “Really? You had a computer back then?”

The first real money I ever had came from my grandmother in the form of a birthday check for an extravagant amount of money - $1,500 if I recall - in 1980. And I knew there was only one thing I wanted in the world for that much money, an Apple. The Apple II Plus got me through the next 5 years of my life, well into college, when I moved “up” to an Atari ST.

I want to tell him. I want to talk to him about how my entire world exploded in 1980. How armed with my Apple and my 1200 baud modem, I discovered — or perhaps invented — myself. I learned how to hack the phone system to log in to bulletin boards all the way across the country in California, where people played games, shared software, and posted grainy pictures of naked women.

I want to tell him about the first time I read The Lord of the Rings, and how much more that meant to me than any book he ever had in his alcohol-fumed office.

I want to tell him about the first time I kissed a girl, late at night on New Years Eve, after we’d played an epic evening of Atari in Paul’s attic.

I want to tell him that the only time I was ever grateful that he was my Dad was when he would drop me off at the arcade with a $5 bill and leave me alone.

I want to tell him all the true things.

But instead, I say, “I love you dad.”

Comments

It scares me to realize that despite knowing the things my dad could have done better and that I will do better, I will nevertheless screw up in ways I can't imagine right now. The relationships between fathers and sons may not be more complex than any other, but I do think they are seldom talked about as openly, as honestly, or as viscerally as you have done here. I am curious; what of him do you see in yourself now, for better or worse?

There are times I wonder if any son has a good relationship with his Father. For my son's sake I hope that isnt the case.

I remember confronting my father a few years back and wanting to clear the air before he passed. Like you we had a similar history and ending although thankfully for me at an older age. I dont think there is really a way to correct 35 years of wrongs in an afternoon. Nor is there a way to make right what was done (or not done) in the past. You want to, you want to somehow salvage something of that connection. That moment when you realize that he is never going to understand you, that he is never going to be able to actually love you is a hard one for a child. I will never forget when I was a teen and I finally understood who my dad really was.

The part of your story that really struck home for me was wanting to tell your dad about the key parts of your life. The moments that helped define you as who you are. That inability for him to truly know who you are is to me one of the most damming things that can be said about a father. I remember one of the last times I spoke to my father explaining to him he had no idea who I was or really anything of any importance about me. He stood there trying to gather his thoughts to counter me and then it hit him he really didnt know anything.

Thank you for sharing your story. It really hit me today...

*cough* Its dusty in here.

So often I find it just baffling how I reached my 30s and still really don't know my parents as people, rather than authority figures and providers, then reaching teens and thinking of them as obstacles (and then moving all the way across the world to get away from them).
Mostly now my thoughts of them still drift towards 'Look what you did to me, I'm so messed up now because of all the things you did' but the realization has yet to really hit home that one day they just wont be here anymore...
If I had the energy to really pursue it I would start recording all my skype conversations with my Dad when we talk and try and get him to relate some of his stories to get to know him as a real person...

You know, perhaps I will do this.

More substantial reply:

I've worked with my parents for the last decade or so of my life. It's been a real revelation to see their warts and strengths as an adult, rather than as a child. Neither one is a perfect person, and I still find myself wanting to respond like a child, but as they age, I find our roles changing. They're not at the diapers and baby food stage, but we're at a teetering point in terms of seeing ourselves as equals. I'm even more grateful to have this opportunity to get to know them after reading your piece, Julian.

Beautiful writing, Julian.

Thank you.

It makes me think about how I will regularly fail as a father and nudges me to do what I can to be better for my son.

/me sends rabbit a hug.

This was a powerful reminder to me of how lucky I was in who I was raised by.

And a reminder of why I would still be here, even if I never touched a game again.

Amazing. Thank you Julian.

The connections between this and my childhood are so strong that I had to chime in and say that I appreciate the work, and personal connection, that you put into this. It's oftentimes difficult to understand that lifestyle, until you've been on the receiving end. I hope that at some point I'm able to at least make peace with my father and his decisions, as you have with yours.

Re-read the article again today and it brought something new to mind:

During a recent visit, my dad and I got to talkin' on the back porch. There's something about that porch that makes for honest talk, I tell you. My folks said they were down to spend some time with us, but most conversations revolved around my daughter, so I suspect I know their true intentions. I'm paraphrasing, but essentially my father said, "When you're raising her...think back on the things that I did that seemed to work for you...and do those. The other stuff? Don't do that."

He didn't have to tell me that. It's what I've been doing all along. I may throw in some stuff I learned from watching other fathers and reading a handful of books, but he's still my primary source. Julian's article and many of the comments about it, remind me to be thankful. Sure there are things that will go into that "other stuff" category, but they are in the minority. Even when our relationship was at its worst, it was mostly indifferent, and not actually bad.

With my dad's retirement and my own fatherhood coinciding, we've both been doing a lot of reflecting. Even with a good relationship, I think there's a lot of the re-imagining of the past that Julian wrote about. We apologize to each other for some things, choose to ignore other things, and we try not to dwell too long on what's gone by. He lives several hours away now, and we don't get to hang out often. But after reading Julian's article again, I am looking forward to the next talk on the back porch.

Thanks, Julian.

I grew up through my folks divorcing, and years of a rocky and sometimes fearful relationship with my own dad. It never quite reached this place, but there are always things which I'm sure he wishes we could change as much as I do. Likewise, as far as I understand it, my father's relationship to HIS father was even more thorny.

These cycles cross generations. Kudos to you -- and that's an understatement -- for finding compassion and breaking the cycle.

My father died in april (he was 72) it was sudden and unexpected. My son was born several weeks later so he didnt get chance to meet him. I think I understand why you are doing what you are doing with your father but I dont claim to have any insight into what you went though during your childhood as mine was (thankfully) more pleasant. You are a brave man to walk the road you do as anger and rejection would be easier I think. I have heard it said that as you get older, there is a point when the parents become the children in terms of responsibilty - Sadly yours may have come when you where very much younger than it should have.

Next year I am moving back to the village where I grew up to raise my family in the house my father lived in. I hope to make it as happy a place for my son as it was for me.

My respect goes out to you sir.

Valmorian wrote:

The best fathers always seem to come from homes with difficulties. My own father had to deal with a difficult childhood as well, and I worry I can never live up to him with my own children. This is the first article on GWJ that moved me to tears.. bravo rabbit, bravo!

^ THIS ^

Sadly, my father became a "How not to" book for my life on how to treat women and how to raise a child. Loved my Dad, and still do have some fond memories of him. But I'm a better husband and father in spite of many of his actions, not because of them.

FPP on MetaFilter.

Beware, the usual misanthropic bitchiness is in full bloom, per usual at MeFi.

Double post for extra bitchiness!

This is very touching, and painfully true for so many. I also thought for years that if I had kids that I would screw them up as my dad did with me. But I stopped the cycle. I have a great relationship with my child and am on the way to fixing my relationship with my father. It only took 25 years to do, and I'm not saying that it's fixed yet. But we are trying and I would like to think that there is hope. For myself and hope for others that had it hard growing up. Ours was a physical problem, he'd get drunk, and beat the crap out of me. Till I stopped that by becoming a better fighter then him. My kid and I have, as I said and great relationship, and my dad and I are fixing ours. So as I said there is always hope. At least I hope there is. Thank you.

lostlobster wrote:

FPP on MetaFilter.

Beware, the usual misanthropic bitchiness is in full bloom, per usual at MeFi.

I thought that was my bias. I had my MeFi account disabled for a few years on account of the hipster-BS tone, and figured that the problem was with my reading, rather than all these otherwise intelligent folks on the web.

Seeing how Julian was being villified by the misery cabal, I came close to nixing that account once more -- usually something I reserve for the misandry threads. The difference in comments between there and here is astounding; even when arguments crop up, I never think of fellow Goodjers as being fundamentally mean-spirited.

I hadn't been exposed to MeFi prior to that link. I rather wish I still hadn't. I never fail to be amazed and impressed by the GWJ community, but never more so than when I read other forums.

Coldstream wrote:

I hadn't been exposed to MeFi prior to that link. I rather wish I still hadn't. I never fail to be amazed and impressed by the GWJ community, but never more so than when I read other forums.

There are parts of MeFi which are still worthwhile, but over the years, it's become large enough to construct its own microenvironments, the largest of them viscous about anything that runs contrary to the Accepted Wisdom. Combine that with extensive moderation and comment deletion by the mods, and you have...something other than GWJ.

In its defense, the Blue (the main page) is quite different from the Green (Ask MeFi). I primarily read it for the latter. I'm saddened by how eagerly Julian was cast as some kind of villain for writing a thoughtful piece about coming to grips with and acting compassionately towards his dad.

Yeah, this rather insane story of how a bunch of folks managed to save two Russian girls from likely sex slavery shows the "green" side of MeFi, but it's still true that most people on the internet act like huge c*cks.

Also, great piece, Julian. Read it the day it was posted but didn't really have anything to add. But thanks.

Minarchist wrote:

Yeah, this rather insane story of how a bunch of folks managed to save two Russian girls from likely sex slavery shows the "green" side of MeFi, but it's still true that most people on the internet act like huge c*cks.

Also, great piece, Julian. Read it the day it was posted but didn't really have anything to add. But thanks.

Newsweek covered that story well: http://www.thedailybeast.com/newswee...

End derail. Apologies, Julian.

+1 to saying thanks for writing this...

My relationship with my own dad had been distant and filled with mutual misunderstanding. Since he retired, I can tell he's been working to improve things, and I'm glad for it (my sister, I think, is not).

Rabbit, your article here helps to put things in perspective: I'm grateful to have the opportunity to get to know my dad. Although it's 25 years later than I would have hoped, that's a lot better than it could be.

PS - want to add, having seen Julian with his family on a few occasions - the dude is a rocking' dad and I hope to grow up to be like him.

I admire you for being able to sit and talk with your dad like that, despite the history. Thanks very much for sharing.

So I'm gone from the website for a year or so due to a case of "the PhDs" and first thing I read makes me cry.
Thanks a lot, Julian.
(seriously.)

Ralten wrote:

So I'm gone from the website for a year or so due to a case of "the PhDs" and first thing I read makes me cry.
Thanks a lot, Julian.
(seriously.)

Welcome home!

Beautiful post Julian. I had a somewhat complicated relationship with my dad too, although he was able to kick his drinking habit when I was about 12. We have been very close since high school. Now that I'm a dad, I have cut my dad a lot more slack for some of his failings. I've also volunteered with wounded Iraq War vets and have realized that my dad's drinking had a lot to do with Vietnam.

I can also say as someone who has also dealt with his own addictions that getting and staying sober is incredibly hard. You don't get any kudos for doing what's expected of you, even though in your mind you're making Herculean efforts to lead a normal life. Not trying to be an apologist for crappy addict parents, but at least your dad did make the effort later in life to get his act together. You're doing the right thing to try and love and accept your dad.

daringone wrote:
Valmorian wrote:

The best fathers always seem to come from homes with difficulties. My own father had to deal with a difficult childhood as well, and I worry I can never live up to him with my own children. This is the first article on GWJ that moved me to tears.. bravo rabbit, bravo!

^ THIS ^

Sadly, my father became a "How not to" book for my life on how to treat women and how to raise a child. Loved my Dad, and still do have some fond memories of him. But I'm a better husband and father in spite of many of his actions, not because of them.

My father also came from a brutal home and while he improved his life in certain ways, he remained a terrible person, an abusive father and a cheating, murderous husband. The guy can die in a fire, and I wish I could push him into it. Not joking here.

I thought VERY long and hard about whether to have kids. My wife and I discussed it at great length. Luckily, I am not my father, and I don't mind bragging that I have turned out to be a pretty awesome dad with endless love for my kids.

Some people can escape the pitfalls that plagued their parents. Almost universally it requires help, sometimes in the form of medication. Some people never escape. I was lucky, and determined and had a lot of great friends, and an AMAZING wife.

HedgeWizard wrote:

PS - want to add, having seen Julian with his family on a few occasions - the dude is a rocking' dad and I hope to grow up to be like him.

I admire you for being able to sit and talk with your dad like that, despite the history. Thanks very much for sharing.

+1

Beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

Sorry about that mate, but you aren't the only one. Thanks for sharing, sometimes it helps