Renee LaVallee McKenna,MA
What Remains On Father's Day
This morning my husband asked how I felt about Father’s Day. We have a reservation for brunch at a favorite place on the beach and my kids helped pick out some fun gifts. I feel good about it, right? Then he talked about his own father and step father and I thought about Father’s Day as a daughter. Ugh.
Generally, I love tradition and holidays. Christmas, New Year, Valentine’s Day, Fourth of July. But historically I have avoided these days dedicated to relationships, specifically Mother’s and Father’s Day. I used to cynically call them “Hallmark Holidays.” Until I had my own family, they were excruciating for me because they shined a light on the quiet emptiness of my relationship with my own parents. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day likely contributed to my becoming a therapist because of all the unhealed stuff they brought up year after year.
I tend to think that I have more acceptance and forgiveness than I actually do with my father. He’s been dead twelve years this month. I didn’t go to his funeral. I bought the plane ticket and really planned to go back east for the service, but in the days coming up to the wake and funeral, I started to panic. How would I stand in the receiving line for a man I hadn’t spoken to in seven years? He didn’t know my children or my husband. How could I stand next to his new wife and her children and pretend I was a grieving daughter? I cancelled the flight and spent the day in my favorite church meditating and journalling instead. It felt more honest.
It was a wonder I even found out he passed because my father had remarried our relationship slowly ended. I happened to look at my junk email one night and there was a message marked urgent from a step brother I only knew by name. It was the only contact info the family had for me. Stab.
His death was a relief to me. It actually cleared the other, more general holidays of the shadow that always came with the absence of contact with Arthur. I didn’t need to struggle over whether I would send I Christmas card or gift knowing there would be nothing in return. Should I send photos of the kid’s birthdays? Do I send the invite to my graduation from grad school? Sometimes I had sent him things, sometimes not. I had decided to only send cards or announcements when I could do it with no expectation, knowing I would be unacknowledged.
In America we love happy endings. I didn’t get one with my Dad. We were super close when I was young. In fact, on a deep level, he was the only person I really believed loved me. The gift of the betrayal that I felt when he cut ties with me, is that I was forced to choose between bitterness and forgiveness. It wasn’t an easy choice. I took the bitter road for quite a while, but it closed off my heart to the love that was reaching out to me from many other sources.
I was leading a retreat the week after he died. It was in the Sonoma hills and there was a wonderful labyrinth on the property. I walked the circles of the labyrinth meditating upon Arthur’s life. Each step I considered another year of his experience. It was very healing for me. I had compassion for him. I could understand his fear and insecurity, his weakness and his motivations. Even though I raged at him on one level, I got it on another.
My son is a lot like my Dad. Ravenous reader, encyclopedia of knowledge, funny, sweet. They would have been fast friends. I tell my kids about Arthur a lot. He was an interesting guy. But I don’t often think about what remains unhealed between us.
I believe in the continuity of the soul. I have felt my father’s remorse and my own unwillingness to forgive completely. I’ll have to do some more work on that before next June.