It’s my father’s birthday today. Or rather, it’s the day recorded as his birth. October 1st. His parents didn’t really know when he was born, so that’s the date they picked to put on his records. I had forgotten about it until approximately ten minutes ago, and then I thought about what to do. Normally, I send an e-card and am done with it. One year when I first started grappling with the molestation issues (over ten years ago), I didn’t send him anything. I heard from my mom that he was ‘so hurt’ by that, even though my brother sends them nothing. Ever.
This year, I was flummoxed as to what to do. I decided to send a card, but what would it say? I looked at different cards, and they were all too sappy for me. I mean, I am not a sappy person anyway, and most certainly not when it comes to my father. I found a simple one and wrote something like, “Happy Birthday, Dad. May your year be filled with peace, happiness, and love. Love, Minna.”
That’s all I could muster. And, strangely enough, I meant most of it.
You see, in my last therapy session, I talked a bit more about my father’s lack of enjoyment for life. As I’ve said, he’s traveled around the world, eats the finest food, and doesn’t care for any of it. He can be excused for his lack of enthusiasm for the countries themselves because he’s mostly in conferences while he’s there, but he gets treated to the best food each country has to offer, and he appreciates none of it.
It got me thinking about what he does enjoy. He likes watching war movies. He liked playing tennis (though I think it was more the social aspect than anything else). Other than that, nothing. His life is pretty joyless. Even his affairs were more about validation than for actual enjoyment. As I have also documented, he doesn’t have much use for women.
The more I talked about him, the more I felt a…stirring of…sympathy for him. But I will get to that in a minute.
On a wildly different track that isn’t different at all (bear with me), my aunt died a few months ago. This is my father’s sister, a woman who had nothing but contempt and disdain for me for not speaking Chinese/Taiwanese (but, not for my brother. Double standards runs in that family, I see). When my mom emailed me to tell me the news, I felt nothing. A few days ago, Kiki emailed me to tell me that someone with whom we had both worked many many years ago had died recently. I had had a crush on him when we worked together, and he had been kind to and admiring of me as well. I haven’t seen him in 16 years. Kiki saw him a couple years ago, and she told me then that he had asked about me. Just a few weeks ago, we were wondering what had happened to him. I Googled him, but I found nothing, and believe me, that’s very unusual in this day and age.
I was shocked as hell when she emailed me. He was only fifteen years older than I (roughly), which means he was in his mid-fifties when he died. That’s so young. And, I had just been talking about him so recently. How the hell could he be dead? I felt something else, too–grief. Grief for a man I hadn’t seen in 16 years and had thought of not more than a dozen times in the same time period. WTF? I saw my aunt in December, and she’s family, and yet, nothing when she dies. I know intellectually that there is a good reason for this dichotomy, but I still felt guilty about it.
Then, I thought about it some more. It’s the whole blood is thicker than water maxim at work here. I mean, I have met this aunt something like three times in my life. Each time, she has been disapproving of me. We didn’t speak the same language, and we are of different generations/cultures. With my coworker, we were from the same culture; we were of a similar generation; we had mutual respect for each other. We got along pretty well. In other words, we were friends at the time.
This relates to how I’m slowly coming to view family in general. Here’s the other thing I talked about in therapy–the things my father said to me during his last visit. Bear with me as I rehash. The first was his comment that I was not a woman because I didn’t fit his preconceived notion about how a woman should be. The second was, well, this one I haven’t discussed yet. As we sat in the car, I struggled to tell him how I felt about my childhood. I wasn’t very smooth or articulate about it, but I really tried to be honest. When I was done, he said, “So, I shouldn’t worry about you at all? I should just live my life in Taiwan and not think about you at all?” The third was the last thing he said while he was here, “Why should I care about you?”
Here’s the thing. As much as those statements/questions hurt at the time (and believe me, they hurt a hell of a lot), it was actually a relief to hear them because they were the underlying principle of the family dynamics all my fucking life. You see, in my family, love was bartered. You didn’t get to be loved just because you existed. Oh, no. You had to give something in return. Take my father asking me about my feelings for the family and the house. He kept demanding that I love the house (and the family)–which would mean by extension that I loved him. Hell, I didn’t even have to mean it if I could simply say the words he wanted to hear.
Once I realized that, I could also see that my father believed he was loved based on what he could provide. So, the fact that I didn’t love the family or the house or whatever he gave me meant I didn’t love him. That led me to muse more about him and his joyless life. Yes, he has fame (in Taiwan), power, and money. He is a well-known and respected man in Taiwan. He is an economic advisor to the vice president (whom he knew personally before the man became VP). That’s not small potatoes, by any mean, but think about what that is in comparison to being loved for who you are?
My therapist said that my father’s calling me demonstrated that he is trying to do something different. It’s feeble and vague because he can barely fathom that there’s something other than what he’s done and known all his life. She commented that he had something missing inside him, and he doesn’t even know it. It’s true. There is a component absent from him that makes us human. I am not exactly sure what it is, but it’s sad.
I look at him and his joyless life, and I feel that stirring of sympathy again. I think about my lost fifteen years which were really my dead years as well. I felt very little joy during those years as I sealed myself up in a hermetic vacuum to try to avoid the crushing pain.
As I am now remembering, if i don’t feel the pain, the sorrow, and the grief, I cannot feel the love, the joy, the peace, and the happiness, either. It’s a package deal. I feel it all, or I feel nothing.
In the past few months, I have realized that I don’t want to be dead inside any more. The shit I’m working on is painful and I’m in mourning and sometimes, the pain makes me want to die. However, there are also moments of pure joy that make me want to weep because of the sheer beauty I am experiencing. I have a cadre of fierce friends who will defend me to the death–even from myself if need be. I have a brother who I trust implicitly to be there if I need him. I have two cats who bring me more joy than I ever thought possible. I have my talents that have sustained me even through the toughest times. I have love. I have pleasure. I have joy. I have moments of peace. None of this would have happened if I didn’t start dismantling the family mythos bit by bit.
I won’t lie to you. It’s not easy. There are times when I think the grief is going to break me. This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life. And yet, I really have no choice. I refuse to go back to the walking-dead state I existed in for so long. Right now, I choose life. That’s enough for now.