On Sunday, June 3rd, 2012, my 88 year-old father took his last breath. I saw him a few days before, and his last words to me were: “Scott, I had a wonderful life.” It fills me with comfort to know that he framed his life journey that way as he made his transition. I want to share with you the chapter in my book about the healing I had with my father.
Anybody you know have some unfinished business with Dad that comes up around Father’s Day? Please send them this. It will touch them.
Finding My Father
“As long as there is room in your heart for one enemy, your heart is not a safe place for a friend.”
“Good work, Scott. Now it’s time to find your father.” When I participated in the retreat with my mother, those were the last words the facilitator spoke to me. Find my father? What did he mean by that? My father lived in Brooklyn- that was where to find him! At that time the gulf between my Dad and I seemed insurmountable. My feeling of being rejected by him was possibly my deepest wound, and I had covered it all up with a liberal coating of pride.
Find my father. What did that mean?
In his early adulthood my father fought in World War II, survived that, went to medical school, survived that, married my mother, survived until they separated in 2004, and was a great, caring family doctor for fifty years. He always went the extra mile with his patients. He was even doing house calls for his elderly patients until he retired at age 82.
My parents started a family in Brooklyn, where they had both been born and raised. The first two children were girls, and then I, the final one, plopped out.
I can imagine my father’s excitement about having a son, someone to guide from boyhood to manhood, to continue the family name, someone to be proud of, perhaps even someone to follow in his footsteps.
I didn’t have issues with my Dad as a boy. In fact I was crazy about him. I was the apple of his eye, and he was my knight in shining armor. We played sports and games, ping pong, pool and chess, and went fishing together.
As I approached age 14, however, it became abundantly clear that my feet were hell bent on following another path, any path but his!
In school I was having behavioral problems. I was feeling all kinds of difficult feelings about myself and my life, feelings that I needed help sorting out and understanding. I expressed my inner angst by becoming a class clown, defying any and all rules. To my credit, I was very creative and original in my acts of rebellion. I also displayed signs of brilliance in the subjects I was interested in.
But when report card time rolled around, I was filled with dread. Having my parents read those things was a very traumatic experience for me. Whatever pain I was expressing through my actions was driven deep inside of me. I got more upset each time my parents’ disapproving and punitive magnifying glass was focused on my poor grades and attention getting schemes. I responded by doing more things that would bring me disapproval and punishment.
Eventually, I learned that I would be treated less harshly if I punished myself, so my inner critic was born. My parents saw me being hard on myself, and figured I was doing an adequate job. Self-reproach is a great protection plan, and being skilled in self-criticism was a large part of the shadow side of our family tradition.
My Dad had no idea how to deal with me. My mother expressed her feelings of anger and disappointment, but my father grew silent and distant, and acted like he didn’t care anymore. He just gave up on me. That was even more painful than my mother’s voiced disapproval. I hated him for that, and expressed my anger just as covertly, by also pretending that I didn’t want anything to do with him.
We lived under the same roof, but we were a thousand miles away from each other.
I continued to have trouble with school until the time I chose to drop out and pursue my interests. I became totally focused on my spiritual growth, the quest for enlightenment, and God, a word that sent shivers through my father’s Atheist mind. My father had given birth to a son who was thumbing his nose at scientific and intellectual matters and doing the God thing.
While I don’t believe my spiritual searching was simply an expression of a power struggle with my father, he sure took it that way. There were many hard feelings between us, feelings that hardened into cement as time went by.
For much of my young adulthood, I went about my business without much of a relationship with my dad. We had stopped trying to change each other, but the walls of apathy remained, thick and cold between us. We had both written each other off, pronouncing the relationship deceased, no heartbeat to revive.
But that wasn’t the case. After a painful, life-changing break-up with a woman, I humbled myself to reach out to him.
I wrote him a heartfelt letter and he wrote one back. Many more letters followed. Two human beings with a history of separateness began to cross old, outdated borders and to get to know each other. I would like to share our first exchange of letters:
I have been thinking a lot about you these days, and I want you to know my thoughts. It seems to me that in my pain, confusion and my struggle to define myself as someone separate from you, I rejected you entirely, along with everything you stood for. Lately I’ve been seeing that in my rebellion, I have set aside a part of myself that has not been allowed to develop and that can make me a more whole person inside. I have come to regret that rebellious side of my personality and I am setting out to make changes.
You tried to teach me, by your example, how to be a disciplined, reliable provider for oneself and for a family. You showed me how to live safely in the world, with a sense of security and structure. You modeled success in ways that I did my best not to emulate. And I am feeling very sorry about that. It was as if I turned away from your most powerful way of showing me that you loved me: the way you lived your life.
Dad, I can sense that my work in the world, my relationships with women and my sense of self-esteem are all affected by this stance. I am working diligently in my life to develop within myself the qualities you tried to pass one to me. Ouch! It’s hard for a sufferer of Peter Pan Syndrome to grow into an adult. But my happiness does depend on it.
Dad, you are a part of me, and it’s time I stopped resisting that and started accepting and working with the gifts you have given me. You have passed on to me a legacy of character traits that are my missing link in my development as a person.
I love you, Dad. I don’t want to wait until you are on your deathbed, or until you are gone, to feel and to express that. You have given me so much by the way you work, play and live. I want you to know, as late as it may be, that I am beginning to receive and to learn from you and your life. Growing up is a scary thing, but I’m getting there!
Sending the letter felt like a huge, but necessary risk. How would he respond to such a bearing of my soul? I waited for his reply, nervously opening up the mail each day. Each time the phone rang, I imagined it was him. What would he say to me? What would I say to him? Would my letter make a difference, or would I end up regretting that I ever reached out? Ten days after I sent my letter, I got his response. I opened it up and started crying after the first sentence, right there in the Postal Annex.
Your letter has touched me deeper than I can ever convey to you in words. I cried like a baby during and after reading it! You have come a long way, farther than you realize!
Scott, don’t berate yourself for rejecting me and my values and my world. It was I who rejected you when you didn’t conform to what I wanted for you. Rejection is something you learned from me! I blame myself; don’t forget, I was supposedly the adult and you were the child! I should have handled things wiser and more maturely.
Scott, listen to me very carefully. Let’s not dwell on the past, except if it can help us understand the present and prevent us from making the same mistakes over again. As I said before, you have come a long way and I have reacted to your changes very positively! You say growing up is scary and difficult. Please remember, I am still trying to grow up! Let’s help each other.
Scott, I love you very much. I always have! I hope any scars are temporary and reversible.
I read the letter again and again. Who was this wise, tender, approachable man? Was this my father? I felt waves of gratitude and celebration as I pondered his letter. Nervously, I called him up. “Dad, I got your letter.” “And I, yours, Scott.” We both fumbled for words, but couldn’t find any. Finally, my father said, “Scott, I’m all choked up right now. I can’t seem to talk.” “I feel the same, Dad.” Another clumsy, but heart -filled silence. We both managed to say “I love you”, and then had to get off the phone. The feelings were too rich for words, but a new beginning was acknowledged.
I visited my family soon after that. My time with my father was sweet and meaningful. I found myself genuinely interested in him, his past, his dreams, his regrets. I asked him questions as if I we were just starting out. We had some significant catching up to do.
We spoke often on the phone those days. It was not easy to talk to him. I questioned at times how much to reveal, and what to talk about. Sometimes it flowed, and sometimes it was awkward. We were profoundly different in our beliefs, our lifestyles and our frames of reference.
But we were two men, one young, one old, relating to each other in the present, not burdened by the past, expressing our caring and support. For my father and I, both expertly trained in the self-defense of hiding our hearts to cover up our hurt, our relationship makeover was somewhat of a miracle.
We found out together that love is stronger than steel, and that the pain of the past can be put behind us.
For men in this culture to be more interested in being close than in being right is indeed something to treasure!
“The holiest place on earth is where an ancient hatred has become a present love.” –A Course in Miracles
This is an excerpt from my book, Teach Me How to Love. It can be ordered on Amazon as a paperback or an ebook