Dead dad 1

by Martin Wolterding

I have carried a deep pool of anger and resentment against my father for half a century. Only now am I beginning to understand that this burden has coloured my reactions to all men, those in authority and my self image as well. In the last few years, since I became a father myself, Iíve begun to confront this emotional burden.

The feeling began when, as a child, I began to feel cheated. The 1950ís was a time when seemingly every other boy had a father who taught him to fish and play ball. For me, physically and emotionally, my father simply wasnít there. I desperately sought something I could do, some action that would cause his inattentiveness to vanish, replaced overnight with the idealised fathering behaviour I craved.

This craving was "Father-hunger" - the deep biological needs in a young boy, for strong, humorous, hairy, wild, tender, sweaty, caring, intelligent interaction with an older man. "Coming to terms with your father" has become one of the rites of passage we men must go through to become healthy, happy men and fathers ourselves. An often difficult process, made more so for me as my father died forty years ago having lived his life on the other side of the globe. Since I am the oldest surviving member of my family, thereís no one I can ask about him. To come to terms with my father there is literally nowhere I can go, save inward. Being an adult now and having passed many of the same milestones he did, I feel able to begin the process of understanding him. Intuitively I sense that if I can relate to and respect my fatherís decisions, actions and reactions, this anger I carry towards him will fade.

I suspect that my father as a young man was a naive and lonely person. His great love for classical music set him apart from his working class peers. At 21 he married the first young woman he met who shared his passion. It probably wasnít long after the first flushes of romantic love began to wear off that he began to realise his mistake. While his wife knew who Brahms was, in the day to day interactions of family life she was more a gladiatrix than a help-mate. Their time together was, from the perspective of hindsight, an almost continuous battle for dominance. My father, self-taught but under-schooled, suffered from an overweening desire to be considered cultured and intellectual. Suddenly he found himself married to a woman who more often than not was a source of embarrassment and conflict. The gap between his dream woman and his reality must have loomed wide.

Within a year of my parent's wedding, a daughter was born. What father doesnít go off into cloud-cuckoo- land, dreaming of the wonderful things their child might be. He dreamed his daughter would grow into a beautiful, cultured, talented woman. One who would accomplish the things he couldnít. It was his fate and that of his daughter, and mine as well, that by all external appearances, the girl/woman of his fantasies was becoming reality. The baby grew into a beautiful girl who sang like a bird and whose body performed the graceful but killingly painful movements of classical ballet. When the girl grew into a beautiful young woman whose primary desire was to please her father, who knows what dark, fleeting images scampered across the recesses of his dreams. However, societyís steel hard incest taboo could never be rationalised away; on the conscious level at least. So his love, being the amorphous chimera that love is, took on the shape and hue appropriate to the emotional jungle in which it lived. He channelled the vast bulk of his affection to his daughter leaving little for his wife or two sons.

Born three years after my sister, I soon realised that my father had little time or emotional energy for me. To give him credit, he went through the motions of an attempt. However for me, a four day trip to the nationís capital did not, in isolation, make up for the years of neglect. In the day to day interactions of life, my dad was not there for me. He was elsewhere when I desperately needed the tough/tender masculine support, understanding and guidance only he was able to provide.

Our society goes to enormous lengths to isolate us from the reality of death. Movies and books provide just about the only examples of how others deal with the loss of a close friend or relative. Unfortunately many of these examples are unrealistic or damaging. On the morning my father died, when I was 10, I vividly remember a close adult friend placing his arm around me and saying ĎMartin, you are the man of the family nowí. Itís a good line. Itís weighty with undertones of the brotherhood - a sort of verbal initiation ceremony - the passing of the torch of manhood from one generation to the next. Under scrutiny however itís an empty, destructive phrase. Our society does not recognise a child as capable of exercising real authority. Being completely vulnerable at that moment, this lie pierced to the core of my self-image. Despite having little preparation and no subsequent masculine support, I spent years trying to live up to and assert the mantle of manhood crudely thrown upon my shoulders. It was the source of countless conflicts and deep frustrations I had with other members of my family and those in authority. No child should ever have the responsibility of adulthood thrust upon them unless there are adults willing to spend years providing the support and guidance required.

Every child at one time or another wishes that his or her parents were dead - a scream in the night of deep inner pain that something is drastically wrong. Once uttered, the thought is usually forgotten or overlooked. I remember as a child wishing that my non-fathering father be gone from my life. When my father sickened and died of cancer, my childís mind decided it was I who killed him.

It has taken me an additional forty years of introspection and reflection to realize that when I accepted the blame for my fatherís death I changed forever. For ever since, I have also taken on the responsibility for every unhappy event that was to occur to me. For forty years I believed that every harsh word or rejection or relationship breakup was due to some fundamental flaw in my being.

Now, I have begun to ease the steel bands that bind my heart. As I understand my father and why he acted as he did, I understand why I reacted as I did. As this knowledge grows, it brings with it a soothing forgiveness. As I forgive my father his deficiencies and lapses, Iím able to forgive myself for my own. And the pain is less - much less.

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