Adventure Girl learns the hard way that some things never change
‘I didn’t break contact because of the way he treated my mother in the divorce; I used the divorce as an opportunity to break contact. His behaviour at that time merely affirmed my decision.’
So I did it again. I saw my father. I’m not entirely sure why. I guess part of me never stops hoping it will be different. It never is.
The last time I saw him he was in hospital recovering from a mild heart attack. I wrestled with the notion of doing what was right, visiting him out of a sense of duty, and feeling like a hypocrite. In the end I went. I worried I would feel terrible if anything happened to him and I had chosen otherwise. It was a brief encounter. Typically he asked nothing of me; I was the audience to his ailment as he lapped up the drama of the blippy heart monitor, IV tubes, and hospital gown. He was in his element.
On this occasion, he contacted me. A cancer diagnosis will do that. My mum had offered to tell him so that I didn’t have to. Shortly after, I received a phone call. I answered, only because I was in the habit of picking up calls from unrecognised numbers, expecting various medical staff. Instead I heard an acerbic, ‘Hello. It’s me, your father.’ He wanted to know about the diagnosis. I told him what I could.
Before long the conversation was back on to him, his move to a bigger town to be closer to a hospital, his recent fall, his ‘death-sentence’ diabetes. Luckily my friend arrived, and I wiggled out of the conversation, but a couple of weeks later, he called again. This time he said he wanted me to visit him. I was in the car at the time, hurrying to get to an appointment, so I was unprepared and unable to push back. He made me promise to see him. ‘Let’s not leave it too long, say in the next couple of weeks.’ I didn’t want to, but I agreed. In the back of my mind I was wondering, why the insistence, the urgency? What if he was really sick? (That and my inability to say ‘no’ when put on the spot – something I still need to work on.)
‘What does one wear to meet one’s semi-estranged father?’ I asked the folks on Twitter. ‘A nametag,’ one person replied. This was more poignant than the author could know, my father having once declared me and my sisters ‘interchangeable’.
When I’ve met with my father before, I have been gripped with anxiety and fear, and afterwards, left choking on disappointment. Having begun radiation therapy, I had the perfect excuse to get out of the visit, but I didn’t use it. I didn’t even insist on going alone as I once would have, back when I still needed to prove to myself that I could.
Instead, my boyfriend joined me, and I realised I wasn’t frightened anymore – I was curious. I wanted to see how he would behave. Could he bring himself to care for someone other than himself, or would my diagnosis be one more drama for him to act out?
I also wanted to have my boyfriend’s observations, independent of a fraught history, to see if they aligned with mine. Sure enough, they did.
On the morning of the visit I was surprisingly calm. I realise now it’s because I was no longer hopeful, and therefore fearful of disappointment and rejection.
Before, I craved his love and wanted to be liked for who I am, to be seen and known. I yearned for acceptance, needing his validation, his affirmation. But a person can only give you what they are capable of, and I had to accept that it isn’t that he won’t see me for who I really am: not an object, but a person, it’s that he can’t. I had to accept that I would never get acceptance from him.
Only that didn’t stop the fear and the disappointment. Knowing that I would never find love, I wanted acknowledgement. Let him see that his lack of love had hurt me. Let him own that hurt. But when someone paints themselves as the eternal victim, and this is part of their identity, expecting them to acknowledge that they have hurt someone else is impossible. Too often I had watched him re-frame and re-frame everything I presented in terms of his core belief: that he was not responsible. He isn’t capable of empathy, so in the end I had to own the hurt myself and acknowledge that he would never see it.
To him our relationship is a game, but he refuses to play by the rules. Worse: he flouts them and prides himself on doing so. If he manages to shift reality and put you off-guard, he has won. You can’t reason with someone whose sense of reality continually shifts, and who disregards logic. And there are only so many times a person can put themselves out there before the hurt and disappointment become too much. I had to learn that there is only so much fight in me. I no longer had the energy or desire to keep on struggling. I had to accept that my only option was to disengage.
This time when I saw him, I was an observer, understanding he will never provide the things I once felt entitled to expect from a father. I re-set my expectations, expecting nothing, and giving nothing away.
But still, I am not immune. I observed signs of humanity, of the loving father I would have liked to have. I saw some affection, some acknowledgement of stories from my past, signs that he at least took notice, but it was all bound up in theatrics. He took the opportunity of my going to the bathroom to show my boyfriend his ‘softer’ side, to play Concerned Parent, and hint at the causes of our rift – all my mother’s fault, and my wilful misunderstanding, of course. When I heard that he had asked after me, I was touched. But then remembered he had an audience. ‘That’s my girl,’ he had said, a delicate budding tear in his eye. I recalled that while he showed us his life, he asked nothing about mine. I doubt he knows what I do for a living, where I live, what I like. I wasn’t there out of his genuine concern for me; I was there so that he could show me his new life before it was ‘too late’, and so that he could have an audience for his play: ‘Father traumatised by absent daughter’s illness’.
As I drove the long way home, I reflected that I while I could have worn a nametag, he should have worn a costume and read from a script.
If nothing else I learned that I could engage and feel bemused, rather than hurt and disappointed. Having shifted my expectations I could play a role to match his, and use him the way he uses me: as fodder, if not in life, in writing.
Cheers to you, Dad, and another lesson learned.