What are you proud of?
This is a question I easily ask the adult students I teach English as a second language to. It’s a self-reflection question that often comes up, and I expect an answer in minutes. But when the question gets turned on me, I sit here bewildered. I don’t want to include the obvious; I don’t want to say “all the moments when my students succeeded and thanked me for doing what I did for them” because that goes without saying.
The truth is, something came up recently when considering this. I lay in my bed, noting things in my head, mentally scratching them out, choosing another, making a change… Then a moment came up that broke me into tears. And it’s undone me a few times; it undoes me every single time it comes up.
It’s a moment I’m not proud of. However oddly enough interlinked with an experience that I do remember with, somewhat, pride. This kind of emotional baggage and inner turmoil is the stuff that never goes away, does it?
When you act out of character due to the need to protect yourself. And it’s something I so badly live to regret. I’m so so sorry I let anger and bitterness trump the love and forgiveness that flows freely and sometimes to a fault from my heart.
Cause the truth is, it’s far easier to live and forgive than to hold onto grudges. And I’ve gotta live with that look in his eyes for the rest of my life.
Dad, I wish I’d invited you to join us that night.
It was September 2019. I’d been through a very traumatic break-up a month or so earlier, something that I kept private and never told my father or his side of the family. I was ashamed and devastated; he had fit in so well; we fit so well, he got on with everyone except my dad who he in fact blanked in a kind of protective protest, out of love for me and contempt for my dad’s neglect.
As fuckin’ tragic as Travis was, his love for me still is unquestionable. I became collateral damage in his private mental health struggle and what felt like road kill on his collision course with himself. I saw the warning signs. I take responsibility for holding on tight when I should have tucked and rolled to save myself.
So in September 2019, for the first time since it opened, my father showed up at the community upliftment organisation I had been building for 2 years, centred around a feeding scheme concept but more. A soup kitchen, except with pasta. The Pasta Kitchen, a sit down meal and safe space, community and conversation. Something I would have thought my dad would have been proud of, and dare I say more actively a part of. Retired, he didn’t have much else to do, but it took him 2 years to come.
Even my sweet unstable love Trav, although unravelling himself, knew what it would mean for my family to come to see what I’d created. Apparently, he had invited everyone to go around the time of my birthday in 2019; I didn’t know this… Probably better I didn’t … ’cause no one came.
Until he and I separated.
He said I’d look back one day and see how much setting me free was out of love for me… And I do see it, my poor, messed-up ex; in writing this, I do see that now. I know you wanted to do and be everything for me and I will always stand firm on, “Fuck you for not!”
It wasn’t all bad. I welcomed and introduced my dad that Wednesday night in September in front of the whole team. I then left him to his own devices, not wanting to take too much responsibility for him. I understand that feeding the homeless is hugely uncomfortable for most, and I know most people’s avoidance is fear of the unknown.
What I’ll never forget about that night was how my dad found his place; he observed and then decided to ask each guest if they’d like seconds. He put his hand on each person’s back as he went around the room, asking, “Would you like some more?”
Something happened to my dad’s heart that night. I saw it. It choked me up at the time and still does. This whole complicated evening does. It was a lot to digest.
He stood in the Pasta Kitchen hall, taking it all in at the end as people milled around, eating, chatting, slowly leaving. I went up to him and asked him what he thought: “This is more than just a meal, you know” (… Oh Dad, I thought, yes, Dad, it’s what I’ve been telling you)
As we left the kitchen hall and everyone dispersed, he asked where we were going.
We’re going to the restaurant for pizza, I said. And then just stood there. Thanked him for coming and said goodbye. I was coolish. Not cold, but nowhere near the OTT loving that comes naturally to me.
I’m not proud of that.
I wanted to show him he couldn’t just show up once and expect my arms to be wide open. I had been so disappointed so many times before. I told myself, next time …. next time he comes, the next time he comes like he’s just said he would, next time will be the next step closer to getting access to me, and that time, the next time, I’d take him for pizza.
How was I to know there’d never be a next time?
How was I to know he had oesophageal cancer insidiously creeping up on him?
I don’t know why this continues to break me like it does. Since I was a little girl, excluding people or others being left out has been something I have never been able to handle. I’d always befriend the new kid at school… So they would feel included. I’d send him or her a note to offer to spend the break time with them so they wouldn’t spend the class worrying about being alone.
I’d never had to be the new one at school. I’d never been left out. Why was my little heart so sensitive to this?
But on this day,… I excluded him.
There you have it. My big shameful reveal. Were you expecting something more? Does it seem an overreaction to even be stewing over this… For God’s sake, it’s now 2023.
I’m sorry, Dad. I wish I could do that night all over again. I wish I could say, “We’re going for pizza. Please join us! My treat!”
He’d probably have said no. I’ve told myself this before, that doesn’t matter.
He’d probably have said he had to get back to his disgusting wife, and I wish I could have said FUCK FUCK FUCK HER! That coffee scolding, egg fried rice throwing, meditation bead hiding monster who removed my rose quartz from my father’s cold dead hand. Fuck her.
I guess he could have come again… October, November, December, January, February… Until the world locked down.
He didn’t. We never had that pizza.
There’s so much we never fuckin’ had.
I was partly to blame for my stubbornness. Stubbornly wanting my father to show up like the dad I needed. The wedge between us grew bigger and bigger over my 20s, 30s. Another empty promise “I’ll call again soon,” another endless silence, my telephone never rang. Yes, I know I had the right to feel the way I felt. I know I am persecuting myself for…but… I just should have been better. Despite him.
I also know that I made up for it…when he got sick. I left the 25 years of absence behind and went over and above.
Can I let this go?
Can I forgive myself?
A couple weeks after this particular Wednesday, I went to a family lunch, where I walked over to the old people’s table to greet him. He was telling everyone about his evening at his daughter’s Pasta Kitchen.
I don’t remember him ever saying he’s proud of me. Others told me. I suppose he was. I’m grateful he came that night because when he was sick, I’d visit him on a Wednesday before I went to cook, we’d talk about it, and I know I had his full admiration and support.
I get it – I was not like his other kids. I was hard to work out. Complex. Inaccessible. Often closed off. Angry and resentful, he was not the father, the hero I needed.
Dad and I got a lot out of his… dying. How can I say that!?!?
But I know that while he was ill and we had all those chats, like when I popped in after I’d taken a group of kids from the township on a hike, he’d marvel at this “otherwise” daughter – biologically very alike but emotionally and spiritually Universes apart. “Good work,” he said.
When does this leave me and my daddy-issues-riddled heart? I can’t allow this to impact my future relationships.
At this point I’ve realised that I need to add something here that may change the narrative, the story I’m telling myself. Is this a turning point? You see, I received something I never asked for, when dad was dying. He was filled with regret. He told me, in tears one day, that he realises I didn’t get the time my older sisters and younger brother got with him. He said it was his biggest regret. He cried, can you forgive me?
Can I forgive myself?
May I receive the medicine within love.
May I balance my hurt with the healing nature of my heart.
May I offer my wounds the precious gift of acceptance.
May I allow for my deep humanness, shadow and all.
May I hold myself gently, piece by piece and step by step,
allowing myself to unfold into balance and wholeness.