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20 October 2006
A man I know died recently. Let me call him "Sam," which is not his name, but it will work for purposes of this entry.
I didn't know Sam well. I met him only a few times. I knew his children and his wife better than I knew him. His children are between myself and my own children in age and I knew his daughter better than his son.
The thing that I want to say about Sam is that he was one of the few fathers I know who made my own father look good in comparison.
I don't think Sam was physically abusive to his kids. I think he thought he was doing his job as patriarch of the family, but he ruled the family with an iron fist. The son was the golden child, the daughter was an "oh--it's you" kind of kid. Nothing she ever did, or could do could possibly match the accomplishments of the golden boy.
The daughter was a grown woman with a family at the time I met her. I liked her instantly. Here was this funny, talented, totally engaging woman that I bonded from the start. We spent the better part of a weekend together when she was visiting California and when she returned to her home, I felt that I had made a new friend.
These were the days before e-mail, and so regular mail and phone calls continued to keep us in close contact.
It was the next time I saw her when I began to see the effect of Sam on her life.
Tragedy the death of a mutual friend brought us together again. Sam knew the deceased as well, and so I was brought together with the whole family and began to see the family dynamic in action as we all gathered for the funeral. It was a time when Sam and I also came into conflict because I was a mere woman, but I stood my ground and he eventually gave in.
The daughter had an advanced degree in a scientific field and was also a very talented photographer who had won awards for her photography; the son had difficulties, hired for a good job, and then unable to keep it. More than once.
I watched the father ignore the daughter, put down her accomplishments as meaningless, ridicule her choices, laugh at her for her ambitions. I watched him praise the son to the skies, despite his failures, and I watched the daughter die a little, bit by bit, piece by piece.
Over the next several years, I spoke frequently with the daughter and there was always that "why doesn't my father like me?" question unasked, but hanging there in everything she said.
She had married a man who was more like her father than she realized and he, too, treated her with indifference. The marriage didn't so much end as it just fizzled out.
Subsequent relationships were with men who treated her badly and made her feel even worse about herself. "Why doesn't he love me?" "What can I do to be good enough so he'll love me?" were the questions she frequently asked, whenever we spoke on the telephone.
She began to have difficulty finding and holding jobs, sometimes taking jobs that didn't use her significant abilities because she thought this might be the job that would finally make her father proud.
The nature of our friendship began to change and over the years we have drifted apart and rarely communicate any more. She sends e-mails, but only those funny or inspirational messages that she sends to everyone in her e-mail address book. Never a personal note (in fact, I learned of her father's death from someone else and she did not respond when I sent her a condolence message). Still, on those rare occasions when we do talk, I still hear the echoes of the time when we were close the uncertainty in her voice, the lack of self esteem, the unspoken question: "why doesn't my father like me?"
It angers me, but I understand it. I recognize that there are a lot of the same qualities within me, though I don't think that it is quite to the extent that you find it in Sam's daughter. Perhaps I just express it less. Perhaps I have been able to overcome more of it than she has been.
I still think back, however, on the day when I found a letter from my father in a file drawer. He was long dead at the time and here was this fat letter from him in my hands his letters were always fat, filled with advice. I can remember sitting on the couch and holding it at arm's length, as if the words I knew were inside could still jump off the page and hurt me, long after his death. I would read a sentence or two, my head held as far from the paper as I could, my eyes darting to the paper and then away quickly, as if they had just touched something hot. It was bizarre. I knew it was bizarre, yet I couldn't stop myself. It was hoping for a glimmer of love and knowing that there was only criticism in the cruelest possible manner, couched with assurances of love ("I love you so I have to tell you how terrible you are..."), yet unable not to re-read it, years past his death. I think I made it through two pages before I found the strength to throw it away, unread.
Death is a double edged sword. On the one hand, the hurting stops. You don't have to worry about a phone call or the mail any more. On the other hand, it is not only the death of a parent, is the death of possibility. Never again can you hope that maybe this time you can finally do something of which your father will be proud. You are forever stuck with whatever was your relationship at the time of his death.
It angers me because we, as parents, are given the gift of these wonderful beings who are blank slates, who rely on us for everything from food to self-esteem. They see their image reflected in our eyes and if what we say and do is constantly telling them that they are worthless, that their choices are bad, that they can't do anything right, they grow up believing that.
I don't know that anybody sets out to destroy a child. I don't know that Sam made a conscious decision to ruin his daughter's life, or that my father made the decision to have the kind of lasting effect that he has had on me. I'm sure that I have also had a negative influence on my own kids, even with the best of intentions.
But we, as parents, have to keep in mind every day that every word we say, every look we give, everything we do weaves together to become the wholecloth that is our adult child. We all make mistakes, but if we give it our best, perhaps we will create beings who have much more self esteem than Sam's daughter has.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
Some really GREAT kids!
This is entry #2395