18 June 2017

When Family Fails: Father’s Day Memories

Memories: Robin On The Beach

For thousands of years, fathers were the family caretakers, they raised children and showed them how to live in the world. Women were a kind of domestic slave, they cooked, did the wash, hauled water, cleaned. The Industrial Revolution pulled men away from their homes – they rebelled in some places, but were mostly happy to go. Women began going to work.

Women are still evolving, still searching for their own  ideas of freedom and choice and family, still struggling with the innate arrogance of men and their suffocating ways. Men in my mind have never fully recovered from the sweeping economic forces that pulled them away from their children.

Fatherhood is no longer a common truth that all men understand, and women accept.

And men will never have a true men' s movement, I think,  because they don't yet know how to talk openly with one another.

My own ideas of fatherhood are shattered and confused. I was never close to my father, we did not love one another.

I barely spoke to him from the time I was eleven years old. When we did speak for the last time, he was 88 and dying, and we agreed that he was not the father I wanted and I was not the son he hoped for.

It was the best and most honest talk we ever had.

I was devoted to being the father of my daughter Emma, but it was a confusing time, for me, my mental illness pulled me down and farther away from her. As I deteriorated, she and her mother grew close, and that was a boon to both of them. When my daughter was in high school, I began drifting away towards another life and when she was in college, I was, for all purposes gone.

When the divorce came, she was hurt and angry. We struggled through it.

It was a hard time for both of us but we hung in there together and Robin has brought us closer still. This week, my daughter and her husband and their daughter Robin and my ex-wife are all on vacation together on a New England beach, the place we all went every summer as a family for almost every year of Emma's life, and some years before that.

I appreciate her Father's Day call, but it is difficult for me to think of them all up there, it is almost as if I never existed. And in a sense, I never did.

I remember feeling isolated on those vacations, as if I didn't belong and when Emma called to wish me a happy Father's Day – she is diligent about things like that – It brought back some sadness and nostalgia. While they were on the beach, I was wandering around Provincetown, looking for my art. When they played Scrabble, I was off readiing a book. I never seemed to fit in there. I never knew how to be there.

I know exactly what they are doing now, what they will be doing in the morning and afternoon tomorrow. Robin has entered this place, where I can no longer go, she sits on the beach and glows just like Emma. It is almost disorienting for me.

I would like to think I was blameless in the destruction of my family, but the truth is, but I can't off that easy.  I think fathers are supposed to fight to help keep families together, not break them apart.

I know well that blame and guilt are pointless in divorce, my marriage had not been working for a long time, when I moved upstate to my farm, I was alone most of the time for five or six years. And still, I didn't realize what was coming, I didn't see what was happening.

Father's Day is a time for humility for me, a reminder to do the hard work of being well. People got hurt. The truth is, I am not sure what the role of a father is in our world. I am always here for Emma, and she knows that, I think. Beyond that, I am still feeling my way, and so, I think, is she. Our relationship is not simple and will not ever be simple.

Our love for each other has survived many tests, and continues to deepen. We are good. Robin is a completely new chapter.

I comfort myself by seeing how competent and loving and happy and successful my daughter is, and I think I must have done something right for that to have happened.  Fathers matter, even if they are troubled.

She has put a rich and bountiful life together, crowned by work she loves and a child she adores and a husband she loves and trust. How many people can say that?

Father's Day is a painful day for me, I admit, I just don't really know how to feel about it, and it brings up sadness and regret. And guilt, my mother's tonic. Guilt at the richness and purpose and love of my new life, my new family, my love for Maria. There are no New England beaches in this life, no playing for hours in the sand, no annual summer visits to the shore.

It is a tragedy when family fails, a failure, a wounding thing that scars everyone in one way or another. I will feel it my whole life, even as I am in awe of the life I now have, one my daughter accepts but cannot, for many good reasons, fully be a part of.

I think – hope – that the biggest lesson I taught my daughter was to get help if you need it. Help helps.

The worst tragedy would have been for me to end my life in that way, and accept the life I was living. An awful choice, really.

Those days, marked by so many years of my life are gone, and it  only on days like this that I even think of them. Today, I think of all the men struggling to understand how to love and what being a father really means. I am just learning about it, I think, and I better hurry, I'm getting older.

It is hard living with men, but it is also hard being a man, for all their power and hubris.

For me, being a father means to show up and be there. I will do the best that I can for as long as I can.

I think that will have to do.

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