On This Day: Fatherlessness

fatherlessI’ve been debating – for well over a year – how much of this I should thrash out in public. But knowing that there are a great deal of young people in the world struggling with this, and wanting to tell them how wonderful their pain can be, I think I’ve finally figured out a way to put it out there without hurting anyone.

My father abandoned my mother, brother and me when I was very young. I know now that there were many reasons – the situation he was in personally at the time, his own psychoemotional capacity, his perception of what was best for my brother and me, and his relationship with my mother. I have seen him once (an awkward and near-wordless exchange in a courthouse in 1987) in the last 25 years.

Nothing in my life has ever hurt as much as this did. I believe it was this pain that first connected me fully to the human heart. Pema Chodron put it beautifully when she wrote,

“An analogy for the bodhichitta is the rawness of a broken heart. Sometimes this broken heart gives birth to anxiety and panic; sometimes to anger, resentment, and blame. But under the hardness of that armor is the tenderness of genuine sadness. This is our link with all those who have ever loved.”

I am blessed for feeling that so deeply and so early in my life.

When I think about the impacts his choice had on me, and what moral obligations I may have to him today, all kinds of issues crop up from mortality to grace to karma. But the one that really sets the tectonic plates of my psyche into motion is that of identity. Regardless of personal judgments about my father, he is – by chance and not by design – the human being who had the greatest impact on my core personal identity.

My mom had an enormous influence and deserves all of the credit for raising and fighting for us and teaching me about love and survival and everything that actually mattered. My maternal grandmother played a strong supporting role. Mom and grandma gave me my heart and soul – they taught me (by example) about love and empathy and humility and instilled in me a sense of morality. My mother’s inner strength, independence, persistence and faith – without question – saved our family. And a family it was; a whole one. Society likes to pretend that single-parent families are somehow “broken” when – judging from the many people I have known – you’re just as likely to meet an unhappy human from a two-parent family. Kids are often better off without the influence of one (or even both) of their parents.

Growing up without a father posed very real difficulties and the occasional bit of social awkwardness, but the primary real-world hardship was the utter economic devastation. We had lived a decent middle class life my first few years, and his disappearance forced us into a frightening poverty that affects my behavior to this day.

Beyond the emotional pain, I felt insecurity and fear unlike anything I had known before. At ten years old, I found myself wondering how I could get money for my mother; how I could help protect her and my brother; how I, somehow, could make this whole situation alright. It even extended to physical security – I checked the door and window locks at night, sometimes more than once. In several ways, I had been knocked from my emotional moorings.

He disappeared at a time in when I was ramping up intellectually – starting to feel out early versions of critical and fundamental questions about Self and the world; branching out and becoming my own person. And what he did was as fortuitous as it was painful.. from the gods, if there are any. It was almost as if the rugged independence I was learning from my mother was a seed planted in the icky soil of my father’s searingly painful disappearance. His cutting of the parental cord was a major authoring force in the person I am today – my strength; my irreverence; my thirst to understand; my knowledge that confidence, safety and security must come from within; my suspicion of authority; my willingness (often desire) to bend or break society’s rules. These have served as priceless assets throughout my personal and professional life.

Without a male role model, I created one within my psyche that was made up of bits and pieces of other men (both real and imagined) – and that patchworked role model was much harder to emulate than the real one would have been. I see these marks in how I work, how I build relationships, my entire worldview – and while I am broken and imperfect in countless ways, I now see, with gratitude, that the net impact of his abandonment was overwhelmingly positive.

Put simply: nothing made me me more than that did. The crux of it is that I spent 25 years unable to forgive my father for inadvertently giving me the only gift I’d never give back.

The questions of forgiveness are equally complex. What is it to forgive someone? Is forgiveness to say, “what you did was OK” or “let’s go grab a pizza and pretend everything’s cool”?  No, not at all. Forgiveness does not require you to invite a toxic force back into your life. Forgiveness is to say simply: I love you, I wish no ill will upon you, and I want you to find whatever inner peace you can.

Because what to me has evolved into a psychological “friendly ghost” is his daily demon. It is an inner torment to which I cannot relate. I hearken back to that pain – the pain that can still break me up today – and remind myself that I am blessed not only for who it has made me, but also that it has given me the emotional capacity to want his heart to find freedom from that haunt.

So to all of you kids out there for whom this is just another (awkward) Sunday, please know that in your pain there can become light if you choose to find it. What feels like a crummy deal today may eventually feel like you won the lottery. It is up to you. If mom or grandma or grandpa is around, do or say something special for them on Father’s Day. Don’t buy something; too easy and meaningless. Stand on the couch and make a speech. Or draw something, or write a poem. Let your pain give you power, not take it away.

But most important: accept the hurt without clinging to it, gaze out the window at whatever moves your heart and know that you are whole.

24 thoughts on “On This Day: Fatherlessness”

  1. So often when people write about things like this, their prose turns saccharine or preachy or simply becomes another screen to hide behind. I have less patience for writing like that than I probably should. But this is not only said well, it’s lived well — and that’s saying something. It’s clear you’ve been to places in the heart I’ve only glimpsed from the highway, figuring to make it to the next exit before dark. From a Buick 6, my hat is off to you.

  2. I had a similar childhood and relationship, or lack thereof, with my father. You gave it voice and have a beautiful moral clarity about it. I was very moved by your post; thank you.

  3. I think that it is wonderful that you are able to put this all together and look through your “darkness” to see the light that is everything that you are. Peace be with you, always.

  4. I really admire your strength, courage, perserverance and unwillingness to blindly follow the status quo.

    It took me a long time to grasp what you already know about forgiveness…I always thought it meant turning a blind eye to the reality of the hurt. Now I understand that it’s not about minimizing that pain, or the seriousness of the injury inflicted, but rather in conquering it’s ability to continue to destroy by releasing it, by giving it over.

    My hurt wasn’t from my dad, but I do relate to some of the disillusionment you experienced. I pray that God will pour out His best on your life. You’ve got so much going for you.

  5. This is wonderful, Anthony. I grew up not knowing my father, and it’s the all-time surprise of my life that at middle-age, I’ve found him in me. It convinces me that genes are powerful, and makes this stage of life (late middle-age, early elderhood) a fascinating time. For this, you have much to look forward to, except that you have already discovered the father within, and at a much earlier age than I did. So who knows what lies beyond, or will stem from this knowledge for you. I guess I’m a bit envious at the years you’ll have on me for its fruition, and also amazed at your capacity to love the one you’re forgiving; that’s something I haven’t yet achieved. Forgiveness, for me, is a slippery state; I’ve thought I’ve achieved it, only to find myself revisiting the process a few months or years later. I suspect that my initial assumption – that forgiveness, love, or any other feeling or attitude is a solid state – was way flawed. But I’m learning.
    Anyway, this was one of the best early-morning blog-reads I’ve had. Thank you, thank you!

  6. AC,

    This is by far the most powerful posting from you I’ve ever read. It’s very eloquent. As a latch key kid with some of the same issues, I really think the lesson of empathizing with your parents as *real* people is an important take away from this post. Regardless if folks choose to forgive or forget, or whatever, it’s really important to try and understand “people’s” situations, and what/why/how they’ve based important decisions. One’s parents are no different, and you really articulate that in a very nice way. Props

  7. Those are some big cajones you are sporting. Fatherlessness can also cause fearlessness, ey? I am lucky to have a close relationship with my father, but this still meant a lot. And I love you too.

  8. I love this post, and the thoughts and feelings underneath it.

    I miss our conversations.

    Are you ever coming back to Maine? I need to make a trip to Boston while you’re still there.

    Add me to the list of people who love you, although I hope I’m already on there….

  9. It always amazed me how you can see the good in every situation in life and make others do the same. You embrace who you are and recognize the path that got you here. We’re all lucky you turned out the way you did. Congratulations on taking this step and sharing your path with others.

  10. Love ya Ant. I just love the fact that you are indeed just genuine you. Amazingly put man, you are a very inspiring voice.

  11. Hey Ant,
    I have to say that having known you for these so many years I did not realize what you had to go through as you grew up.Many times parents are caught up trying to make ends meet and still try to raise their children in what they hope is a loving and yet disciplined way so are sometimes not as concerned as they should be with other young people that they know . Marcia and I have oh so many good memories of things we have done with you and Chris and many others of your friends. You are a great guy,a son that any father would be proud, and your fathers loss is a much greater one that he chose not to stay with you and your mom and brother. Marcia and I are proud to have you as one of our adoptive family and do wish you to come here anytime
    our love to you,
    Darrold

  12. Love You, Anthony (this is really no time for rodney), as one of my own despite the long interludes between communications.

    Your message brought tugs to the heart strings, tears to the eyes, and such pride in knowing you as a friend and surrogate son. How sad for you (and your father), that you have not been able to share in the development of the beautiful, caring, loving and successful man that you have become. Its similar to the situation I grew up in except that my father was there physically and never learned how to express his emotions. I don’t eve recall having had a ‘conversation’ with my father. At least I had the knowledge that he was there to keep us fed, clothed, warm and safe.

    Anthony, I am so pleased that you are such a dear friend to my #3, and I’m sure that some of your values have ‘rubbed off’ on him. You are quite a pair!

    I do hope you will get to visit us and our new home soon. I need to share a hug with you. And, you need to see your Franklin ‘home’.

    Much love and many warm hugs, Mumcia

  13. Citrano, you win my heart. Your stories, your wisdom, your forgiving nature and your clarity of mind give me something to aspire to. I would acclaim you for writing a father’s day commentary that is not some insipid cliche, but i would never expect that from you. You are anything but cliche. Thanks for warming my otherwise cynical fathers day.
    Love goes out to you from California, hope I see you in Boston,
    -L

  14. I have put this essay away for my 11 year old son who I hope will read it, take comfort, and use it to release some of the pain of his loss.

    – A single mother in Cambridge

  15. Anthony, I must second (and third, and fourth…ad infinitum) the laudatory expressions already put forth. Because I am a fan of learning how my own stories affect people differently based on their past experiences, I offer a brief summary of my own. Not to detract or compare, mind you.

    Perhaps it’s the relative (no pun intended) proximity of the holiday, but my own father has been increasingly on my mind. He was extremely emotionally abusive to my family, a man seemingly born without empathy or compassion. Additionally, he knowingly cost our family every ounce of financial security, leaving us homeless when I was a teenager.

    I strongly identify with your description of crippling distrust of the mundane, uncertainty and insecurity.

    During my college years, I had a slow epiphany pretty much exactly like you described yours. I have been extremely grateful for the many blessings that my upbringing gave me–precisely what you so beautifully described. Put in a rudimentary form, I am who I am because of this, and that can only be a good thing. I agree with you wholeheartedly.

    I have not seen my father for three years. In all honesty, I had hoped that our next encounter would include a coffin. Now, though, I am unsure. While able to forgive him, I have never had the desire to inform him of my forgiveness. (Or to have him in my life in any sort of way.) Now, though, I think I want him to know I forgive him.

    Your post gives me pause, however. Is expressing forgiveness selfish or selfless? As you so eloquently stated, “what to me has evolved into a psychological ‘friendly ghost’ is his daily demon. It is an inner torment to which I cannot relate.” Wouldn’t being aware of forgiveness potentially intensify any feelings of guilt one might have? Have you had the opportunity to express your own forgiveness? If not, would you take it?

    I love this post. You are amazing. And you deserve all the models you can get. 🙂

  16. Anthony — powerful stuff to say the least. Your writing is moving and the story even moreso. Your wit and irreverence are definitely missed in the Cambridge environs.

  17. I share your feelings as my sister an I have also been abandoned by our dad. He was a good man in some respects, but was never a father! I remember him beating me – punching and kicking me at 15 because I ran away. I remember him beating my mother and sister so many times.

    If dad was ever caught out lying for example, he would turn the tables on us and accuse us of ganging up against him. This would end in one of us taking a beating or being alienated.

    When my children were born, he made a promise that they would never see what we had seen. Yes, the beatings stopped, but the manipulation continued. He would blame everyone but himself for his failings, usually Mum!

    He left our lives repeatedly as we grew up, usually as a result of him beating Mum and her throwing him out or as the result of him taking on another woman.

    Mum has moved on and started a new life abroad. Dad however has taken on yet another woman, with three children from her previous marriage and he has completely cut us off. He never calls or texts us and walks past us in the street as if he does not know us. It is highly embarrasing as we live in a small closeknit town.

    He walks around without a care in the world while we cry inside. He creates profound lies as reasons for not visiting my home, claiming someone is going to poison him. Despite me telling him that is untrue, he has kept away. Is that normal?

  18. I know how you feel. In pain I found strength. He who sired me does not mean he deserves my tears of pain. Instead I proved myself worthy in every sense. It is his loss.

  19. Via @technosailor, I found this piece you wrote.Your development and ability to see your path to and through it, and your sharing of it all, are beautiful. Thanks for being willing to bring this public.

  20. how did I not know that we lived parallel lives A.C.? Poignant and well written. Congratulations for not only recognizing all of this but sharing it. You are a better, stronger man in spite of it, and because of it. Cheers.

  21. 5 years and one week since you wrote this, brother. It certainly does not seem like it. I love this post, it’s the best you ever wrote.

    Love,
    Brother Jason

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