My Father’s Birthday: Reconciling What Never Was And What Never May Be

I mailed my dad’s birthday card last week, because he is in Nebraska, I’m in Colorado and the mail takes a few days to reach its destination. His birthday was last Saturday.

Something occurred to me when I bought his birthday card. And when I wrote a message in it. And again when I sent it. On his birthday, and again now. I’m a better child than he is a father. I think it is hard to measure how good a person is or isn’t… at least on a level playing field. But birthdays is one such playing field where it is… clear. He doesn’t always remember my birthday and he never sends a card (I’m not exaggerating with the ‘never’). But I always do.

On a subjective playing field that is much less level – my father has traded the roles of ‘sperm donor’ and ‘abusive asshat’ back and forth for more than two decades. But the last two years I have tried to have some sort of something with him. Between my two parents he is the sane one (as in not criminally psychotic). While he was abusive and has never apologized or ‘made good’ on any of that – I have to believe that he was oblivious and stupid rather than being deliberately hurtful. Which is funny, because between my two parents, he certainly did more sustainable damage.

When I was a kid I knew my mother was crazy, her kind of crazy is easily identifiable. But my father was a high-functioning adult so what he said or how he treated me was harder to write off. My dad’s abuse was purely emotional and verbal with some neglect sprinkled in for effect. He was the one that would tell me, “You’re incredibly difficult to love,” and “you just bring out violence in others.” They were things he said again and again, after every one of my mother’s rages he drilled into me that it was my fault. He would always put me down, call me names, claim I was doing something or not doing something to spite him and just talk to me in a way that is hard to describe and yet when any of my friends would hear it they would get this horrified look on their faces.

Come Christmas or birthdays, I was the only one of his children who received little to no acknowledgment. It started when I was around twelve and continues to this day. One of my siblings who is also an adult (he is 25 now) receives gifts and a card, but I never do. I may get a text or a phone call every few years, but otherwise it is either forgotten or ignored, and I never receive anything. Christmas as a kid was worse. I might get a few pairs of socks while all of my brothers would receive new laptops, video game systems and cash (as in all three, the same year – my father is very ‘comfortable’ when it comes to money). These are not exaggerations, but actual instances.

For the last two years there has been a cease fire of sorts. I allow him to be in my life as much as he wants, which means he may contact me once or twice a year to make sure I’m still breathing. It is never long and always stiff or uncomfortable. I send him birthday, Father’s Day and Christmas cards because I feel that not doing something can be as big of a statement as doing something, and I don’t want to make the wrong statement. Still, I always look for cards that are not ‘too deep’ and cards that don’t say “thank you” or talk about how he is such a wonderful father, because he never has been before, and being honest about that is important to me for some reason. I go out and visit him once every other year, but just like him never sending or giving me a birthday card, he has never made the trip out to visit us, even though he has had an open invitation reinforced every time we do exchange any kind of communication.

I told him in February of last year that at some point we need to have a conversation… about everything.

He knew what I meant, and his response was, “You can’t live in the past.”

“I’m not living in the past, I want to move on from it. But not being able to acknowledge it is a problem. I don’t need an apology, but I do need you to acknowledge our past, your part in it, and know that you really do understand it. Not for forgiveness, but so I know we won’t fall into old patterns and then we really can move on from it.”

For me this conversation is essential and necessary. I need to know that he understands and acknowledges what he did, and that it won’t happen again. But as for forgiveness, I have already done that as much as one can – not for him, but for myself.

For now we continue to have this superficial ‘open communication and technical cease fire’ which really is almost no contact. Every time I talk to him part of me feels like that vulnerable child, desperate for a parent, and I really, REALLY hate that part of me. It makes me uncomfortable. I know right now our ‘relationship’ which I really avoid calling it, because it doesn’t feel real or serious enough to qualify for that word, is one-sided or at least it appears to be. But I continue to hope that one day he will be the kind of dad that he is to all of my brothers, but if it happens then it happens, and if it doesn’t, I’ll know that I tried and that is all that I can do.

-DMW

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