Thursday, September 2, 2010

On Being Estranged

When I was little, my father would come to pick me up every Sunday at 10 AM. He would pull up to my grandparents' big house in a black Cadillac and his brown leather jacket. We would go to a big pond in the middle of town to feed ducks before walking through the old revolutionary war cemetery behind it. We would spend hours winding through the headstones and he would teach me history. Our history is important. Hours would pass and we would cautiously wind down the hill by the old red farmhouse to get back to the car. When we got home, I would scurry up the big hill in front of my grandmother's house while my father waited on the sidewalk below. I would bend my knees and spring, fluttering downward toward his arms and he would catch me. After a few jumps, he would say he had to go. I didn't want him to. I'd have to stall.

"One more time and last more time!" I'd say. Climb, jump, catch. Climb, jump, catch. And then I would kiss my father on the cheek and go inside.

I am 21 now and I haven't spoken to my father in three years. This was my choice.

Growing up is hard because you begin to see things with adult eyes. I began to see a father who didn't pay my child support despite the fact my mother and I were poor and living with my grandmother to avoid being homeless, who constantly insulted my mother in an attempt to turn me against her, who was selfish, who was emotionally frigid, who did unexplainably perverse things around a young daughter, who forgot my birthday, who was bigoted and close-minded. I began to see a man who helped create my life but was someone I no longer wanted in it. As I grew older, I avoided him. I made excuses for our visits to be shorter and more infrequent. I couldn't wait until the day came, inevitably, when I would have the courage to sever our ties.

The catalyst was an incident I've talked about before but will recap: his reaction to my boyfriend. My boyfriend is biracial, half Black and half White. I had a feeling that when I told my father, who claims to be very progressive but isn't, that our relationship would go from bad to worse. I was right.

"He's half Jamaican," I said.

"Does he look like a Negro?" he asked. I think he thought this was funny. I didn't.

Weeks later, my mother let slip that my father had said he didn't approve of me dating a Black person. I flew into a rage. I rarely initiated phone calls, but this time I did. I told him I knew what he said. I demanded that he be a man and defend it to me personally.

"I'm enough of an adult to have a relationship, so I'm enough of an adult for you to talk to me about it," I said.

He claimed that, yes, he said it, but he was okay with me dating someone of a different race but not marrying someone like that. He said he didn't like the idea of "cultures" mixing. He said that the whole issue should be dropped because my mother shouldn't have said anything. That didn't matter, I said, because I already knew and that trying to keep it from me was hugely disrespectful. He always used to say, even when I was quite young, that his favorite thing about me was how I was more of an adult than a child and that he could always speak to me as such. Apparently I wasn't an adult this time.

That was the beginning of the end. This incident was the very last straw, but not my main motivation for becoming estranged. I didn't need his negativity and lack of support-- emotionally and finanically-- in my life. I stopped taking calls. When my mother told me he was pestering her about it, I told her I refused to speak to him. Tell him to stop calling, I said. He didn't. He called and called and called until one day he sent a letter.

The letter said he believed the sole reason I wasn't speaking to him was his comments about interracial relationships. He wasn't racist, he claimed-- he just wanted his daughter to marry someone of her own culture. He had plenty of Black friends, he said, but he wouldn't want them to date his White daughter. But he wasn't racist, of course. My Jewish grandmother didn't want my mother to date him because he was Italian-- that wasn't racist, was it? He ended the letter saying that my mother was a disrespectful bitch for not keeping what he said between them as parents. He then said, ironically, that if I wanted he could tell me bad things that she had said about my boyfriend. "Tell me if you want to know," he said.

I wrote him back that he didn't get it. I told him I didn't want him to be a hypocrite and tell me what my mom had said (I had a hunch I knew what it was anyway). I told him that not only did his letter actually make me feel as if he was more racist than I did before (and, yes, my grandmother's actions were racist-- a culture's customs can be racist), but it told me that he totally missed the point. I told him I've been to therapy for my anxiety. I told him that the lack of a supportive, loving father in my life-- a dad-- had created a huge hole in my self-esteem and disfunctions in the way I'd related to men in the past. He was a father, not a dad. I told him that I hated him for not even helping my mother pay for my college. "I know you don't have the money," I said, "but neither do we and we're doing it anyway." I told him I hated him for not participating in my life after those days feeding ducks when I was very small. I told him everything. I spilled my heart-- and it was difficult. As much as I hated him, it hurt. But I told him everything. Everything. Including "I don't want you in my life anymore."

He wrote me back. I hoped, briefly, as I opened the letter that it would show remorse. I hoped he would say he understood now and didn't want to lose me and that he would try to fix it and that he was sorry.

He told me I was wrong. According to him, all these hurt feelings were my own hypersensitive delusions. He said it wasn't his fault, that he'd done nothing wrong. He said he didn't know how I could feel that way. Obviously he loved me. Obviously. He said that he was a dad, not just a father. I was being stupid. The only thing he admitted to was not helping us financially. Enclosed was a check for $1000. He said he'd give it to me if it mattered so much.

The letter I sent back was written hastily on a Post-It note.

"Thanks for the money-- I appreciate it. But your letter just shows you just don't get it and you never will. Do not call. Do not write. I'm done."

That was the last time I corresponded with him. He hasn't called or written since.

This has been like a break-up that was a long time coming. It was painful for sure, but inevitable. And in the end, it's left me open to direct my love and energy to better things. To me, that is invaluable.

I am content, truly, with being estranged. I needed it, wanted it. I write this post not to justify it to myself but to assure anyone else who has been through this or would want to sever ties with a family member that it's not a crime-- it's okay. It doesn't make you bad. I sleep better at night without his negativity in my life. I know a choice like mine isn't for everyone. I get questions about it when I finally have to explain the situation to my friends.

People often say to me "oh, you'll come around. You won't want this forever."

While I believe in forgiveness, I believe you can forgive while still admitting to yourself that someone isn't healthy to have in your life, even if that person is a parent. If the same person were an abusive, neglectful ex-boyfriend or girlfriend, no one would tell you you need to have them back in your life. I don't believe in keeping toxic relationships just because that person is supposed to be important to you. He is important because I am here. He is important because our past, as deeply as it has wounded me, has shaped me into an incredibly strong, independent woman. I don't know if I would have turned out better if he had known how to be a dad. Maybe. But all I know is I am proud of who I am today. Our relationship has made me strong.

I told my boyfriend recently that when my father dies someday, I think that I'll be sad, but not for the reasons most people would be.

"I won't be sad for him," I said. "I'll be sad for me." I don't miss him now. I won't miss him then. What I'll miss-- what I'll always miss and have been missing-- is the idea of him, of him being the kind of dad he was when I was very small. I'll miss the fact that my father was never my dad and that his passing will be final death-knell of a relationship that never really was. I've never had a dad, because a dad is more than what my father was to me. Sometimes I think I won't be sad at all because I've already had time to mourn a dad; I've had 21 years to cope with not having one already.

When I was little, I jumped off the big hill out front and into my father's arms. I didn't imagine I would ever feel like this about him. "One more time and last more time," I would beg, hoping he would never leave me. I am 21 now and I have left him. And it is one of the best things I've ever done.


marzipan said...

Vanessa, this post is so amazing. Your emotional process is so mature and stable, and you writing so very, very articulate. (Truthfully, this is my favorite kind of writing - and typically not witnessed on blogs.) I almost didn't even know what to say.. but I wanted to say something after you made yourself so vulnerable so you knew that here were people out there dealing with similar issues and understanding. xxoxo.

Nicole said...

My mother is black and my father is white. My father's family was not supportive of his choice to marry a black woman.

People will say he's your father so you shouldn't cut him from your life. I don't agree. I fully support your decision and commend you for removing a toxic presence from your life. Family or not.

Horrible people have families. But that doesn't mean you have to tolerate bad treatment just because they're family. Life is too short. If someone is deeply and genuinely having a negative impact on your life, it's totally okay to remove yourself from that situation.

Also, thank you for sharing your story. I would say stay strong but you're obviously already a strong person.

Anonymous said...

My maternal grandparents didn't want my mother to marry my father because he was Jewish. They still regard us as the half breed non Christian children. We are clearly the least liked members of the family.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this, I found someone else who GETS IT. I haven't spoken to my Dad in 10 years now, since the night I found the courage to call the police on him for beating my Mum (again). That paragraph about mourning a relationship that never was is so so right.

Leah Felicity said...

This is an extremely powerful post, and must have been difficult yet cathartic to write. My grandmother didn't want her daughter to marry my father because he was Jewish. She'd do things like put bacon in his salads and tell him about it after he'd eaten it, and she got drunk at the wedding and said they wouldn't last a year. It's so disappointing when parents -- or people in general -- put their hatred of others in front of their love of you. It really shows where their priorities are.

Kelly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Miss Peregrin said...

You are amazing. Don't ever let anyone tell you that you should have continued the relationship because "he's your dad". We don't stand for that treatment from friends, so why should we from family? This post was such a great read, and I hope it inspires others to not take horrible treatment from family. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm certainly not estranged from my dad, I still love him and he still loves me, but I definitely resonated with the part of this post about how the way you see your parents can TOTALLY change when you're not a child anymore.

My dad is an alcoholic, and a workaholic who was hardly home because he was a doctor at a hospital to boot; I think many of the times he stayed at work late though was to drink. You can think of him kind of like Hugh Laurie in "House". I didn't understand his substance abuse for the vast majority of my life. I was just happy when I did get to see him. All the times he barely made it to my orchestra concerts, or couldn't pick me up from places, didn't really make sense. I idolized him.

Last year, after a painful operation, he overdosed when he mixed his painkillers and alcohol, which I was not awake to stop. I didn't sleep for four solid days while I cleaned up the various bodily fluids that were everywhere, hydrated him, brought him down off the oxycodone, kept him away from any and all substances in the house, and eventually force fed him. Days later, when his pupils were no longer needlepoint, he asked me what day it was and what had happened over the last week.

Because of this episode, I was in therapy for post traumatic stress disorder for months. Neither of my parents knew I was in therapy at university. Every day I woke up sobbing in fear that I had fallen asleep during my four day watch and had allowed Dad to get a hold of something. I had flashbacks where I was unable to rid myself of the smell of vomit.

While I was in therapy, all the anger about the time he didn't spend with me as a child came out. Living in the same house as your dad ISN'T the same thing as spending time with him. I know that addiction is a disease, but I am still dealing with the hurt that he often chose substances over me. His overdose after the operation, and the responsibility for his life that he left me with caused emotional wounds that I haven't been able to heal with any amount of therapy.

I love my dad very much, but the way I see him has done a total 180 since I was a kid. Sometimes I wish I could go back.

Mandy said...

Thanks so much for your honesty in going through this process. I myself have recently cut ties with my father and it's been very difficult. Reading your experience (while for different reasons) was very helpful for me.

Wishing you all the best,

~ M

Zmaga said...

I am so glad to have found your blog. Even though I have not had the same experiences, I am amazed to have been able to read about yours. You are so brave. Each one of your posts is a lesson to me to be a better person, a thoughtful, clever and bold girl who is not afraid to stand up for herself and her beliefs. You are my hero in a way.

Anonymous said...

I came to a similar conclusion about my father 12 years ago, after another missed birthday (this time, my 16th, while I was abroad and horribly homesick). It was not a sudden decision, but one that pivoted on that missed event. I made it through the rest of high school, college, and medical school without his help. I have seen him once since, at my grandmother's funeral 8 years ago. I have no regrets, although I am not so naive to think I never will. I too believe that we get to decide with whom we share our lives. For me, my dad is not one of those people.

Laells said...

You're an amazing, beautiful, and talented young lady.

I'm so insanely glad for this blog and your writing. You're full of all sorts of inspiration. <3

Vanessa said...

This is one of those posts where I'm afraid to look at the comments. After I write something that comes from a very personal place it can take awhile before I bring myself to see what people have to say about it.

So to all of you, thanks so much for opening up about your experiences and for being so incredibly supportive.

Anonymous said...

this was need to be said. this was need to be read. thank you for sharing a spirit which is definite, but difficult to illuminate.

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