I had no idea his invitation was a one-time only opportunity. We were rarely alone, in fact I felt like he had been avoiding me for years. He’d tense up if I tried to hug him, I don’t recall much physical affection between us. Our conversations were brief and mainly perfunctory. He’d tell jokes, make ridiculous puns, and finish my sentences with verses of songs with the same or similar words, then spend the next several hours singing those few lines over and over until anyone in earshot wanted to knock him out. He loved me, and I don’t think he understood how to show me.
That opportunity came the last summer I was home from college. I don’t know where everyone else was, but there we were just the two of us having dinner in the kitchen. As we ate my father started a conversation asking me about my life, my feelings, about personal matters. I was furious. How dare he? After years of pushing me away did he think I would just open up and spill my guts? He asked me about how I had felt (two years earlier) when I found out the guy I was in love with was gay. Where was he when I was going through it? I was shocked he even knew about it. I was shocked he knew anything about me.
“Fuck him” I thought. I was cold and distant, answering in monosyllables and refusing to meet his eyes. I was surprised by the fury welling up inside me; after years of swallowing any feelings of anger towards him, or anyone else I was suddenly a human flame, burning with rage. He was finally offering me what I had been craving for years, and I wanted to spit in his face. No, I wanted to smash it! It was too late, and I wanted him to feel the hurt and rejection I’d been feeling for so long. I hated him almost as much as I loved him.
He kept trying to draw me out despite my lack of response. He told me how much he loved me, how he had always loved me as much as he had the day I was born. I don’t know how I held it together much less remained stony-faced, but I did until I was finally able to get away, and run I don’t even remember where and cried for hours. Crying for myself, for all the years I felt abandoned and unloved. For all the times he’d failed to protect me from my grandmother. For all the times he’d punished me by refusing to speak to me for days without explaining my transgressions.
I cried for him; for alienating me, and missing most of my childhood, for missing out on a relationship with me, for his failures and frailties and for his humanity. I had no idea this was a one-time offer. There would never be another moment in either of our lives when he’d allow himself to be that vulnerable. There were times I tried, but after that night he retreated back to his comfortable distance. I’m sure I hurt him, and for that I am sorry, but I was still a kid, and he was the adult. I wish he could have understood how stunned and unprepared I was with this sudden change in protocol. I wish he hadn’t waited so long.
My father had an uncanny ability to shut off or down when he was hurt. Over the years I paid the price for hurting him, and often I didn’t realize until it was too late. Once he shut a door there was no negotiating to reopen it. When I started college and was no longer under his roof on my birthday he faithfully called me at 7:00 a.m. every year so he could be the first person to wish me a happy birthday. It was both sweet and annoying. I am an early riser, but one year he woke me and I was cranky, asking why he had to call so early, he’d woken my roommates. It was the last time he called to wish me a happy birthday.
My father was a difficult man to love, and though I still miss him, the man I miss most is the daddy of my early childhood; the warm and playful guy who’d sit me next to him on the piano bench and play and sing for me. The father he was for most of my life was distant and awkward. I think he was so afraid to lose me he never allowed himself to get close to me, and never let me approach beyond a certain (unnamed) point. There was that one-time only window, when he tried to reach me but I shut it and he never forgave me. I’m sorry for him, he missed knowing me, and I’m pretty sure he would have really liked me.