When You Have A Complicated Relationship With Your Dad

by Lisa Gravallese
Originally Published: 

Father’s Day is coming like a train down a track. The train is full of Daddy’s Girls and men who call their daughters “sweetheart” and “my girl.” You and I aren’t on that train. We’re standing on opposite sides of the track as it whizzes by. If you’re yelling to me, I can’t hear you over the noise and you can’t hear me. Sometimes I wonder if we’ve ever had a seat on that train together. If there was ever a time I was “your girl.”

We’re tough, you and I. It’s hard for us to tolerate the flaws we see in each other. To forgive each other for not being the person we wanted the other to be. I’ve been thinking about you that way for so long now. You were not the father I needed you to be. There was never enough affection or positive feedback and too much criticism and blame. My sensitivity just couldn’t handle you, and I’ve felt pushed away for years now.

Even on my best days, I still didn’t get what I was desperately seeking from you. Your toast at my wedding was more about you than me, ending with a rousing rendition of “Let’s go Yankees!” On the day I had my first son and again after I had my second, you couldn’t bring yourself to say “Good job” or “I love you.” There have never been “I love you’s.” When you come to visit me or when I come to see you, there isn’t even a hello. You go right to my kids and it’s like I’m not even there. These are the thoughts about us that fill my mind most of the time. Like a train roaring down the track so loudly, I can’t hear anything else.

A few weeks ago, when Mother’s Day had come and gone and I never heard from you, I felt our relationship had reached a new low. I was showering at the gym, overcome by sadness when, suddenly, the noise in my head quieted for a moment. And in that clarifying hush that only comes for me after physical exhaustion, my best days came back to me again.

On my wedding day, long before your toast, it was just the two of us standing in the vestibule of the church, waiting to walk down the aisle. I was so nervous I thought I was going to pass out or throw up. And you were nervous too because you kept drinking ice water (or something) out of a red Solo cup. But, all of a sudden, you turned to me and said, “Remember when Amy G. dropped that ball and you ran to second base?”

This ridiculous memory of a softball game from years gone by broke the spell. Instantly, we laughed and that walk down the aisle was a stroll in the park hand in hand. You, of all people, knew just what to say.

I remembered how when I had Boy #1 and you came back to see me in the hospital the next day, you walked in holding a McDonald’s chocolate shake. As soon as I saw it, I knew you had brought me the very thing I didn’t know I wanted. I remember how you looked when my face lit up too–like no one knew me better than you.

I thought back to when Boy #2 was born and how you and Mommy spent the whole day with him and me in my hospital room. I remember the summer sun coming in through the windows, the three of us together for hour upon contented hour in its happy glow. I remembered that though greeting me when I arrive is an afterthought to you, every goodbye is a struggle to hold back tears. Maybe you don’t want to let me go.

As the shower rains down on me, the silence in my mind deepens. I remember the way you smelled after mowing the lawn in your sweatshirt with the cut off sleeves–like grass and sweat. I know that I must have hugged you to get that memory, and when I hug my husband after he mows the lawn I smell that same smell and think of you. I think about your nicknames for me. Your favorite foods. Baseball on the car radio driving home from the beach.

The train and its deafening noise pass by after what seems like years. It has been years. I turn off the shower. In my mind, I see you and you see me. Despite all the noise, all the overwhelming sound that has gone on for so long, you are still there. We are still on opposite sides of the track, but there is no longer anything stopping one of us from crossing to the other side.

Seeing you still standing there is maybe all I need. Maybe our opposite stance is still a stance just the same: fixed in its place, never leaving no matter what. Believing this for the first time emboldens me to write these words, to take the first step forward while also going back in time. I trust that, at some point, we will reach each other and climb aboard a new train, our own train, together.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

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