June is an ambivalent month for me.
As a child it meant the start of summer vacation, and weeks spent at my grandparent’s beautiful beach home in Hyannisport. This was wonderful because it meant spending time with my siblings and seven cousins, a houseful of children of all ages, and loving—even adoring—grandparents, aunts, and uncles. And, best of all, it meant no Dad.
As an adult, June means “Father’s Day.” I’m not a fan of “trigger warnings” and I think there is too much concern, generally, with the whole matter of triggers but, in my case, I’m pretty sure that June should come wrapped with a big ol’ trigger warning cause that’s how it is for me.
For a month I will be bombarded with dad memes: pictures of kids with happy fathers, FB posts about the joys of baseball games with dad or watching football with dad or going camping with dad or building things with dad or sharing a beer with good ol’ dad or just loving the Best Dad in the World. There’ll be movies like Kramer vs. Kramer or Hook or other family films about estranged fathers and sons who learn to love one another.
All this makes me want to puke.
I write this column for all of you out there that maybe don’t feel so great about dad. If you are a loving dad, or have had the benefit of a loving dad, or have worked out any issues with your dad or your child, well, my hat’s off to you. That’s not my story and I know I’m not alone.
My dad wasn’t a bad man, by any means. He was a physician, a pediatrician, and a fine one. He helped save the lives of many children. He devoted the second half of his life to public health, establishing clinics in underserved communities. He was loved by his patients (although sometimes struggled to get along with bosses and colleagues). He could be remarkably compassionate.
But he wasn’t good to me.
I now believe that he suffered severely from depression, the result of a lifetime of untreated and undiagnosed PTSD brought on by his experiences in World War II. He was a bona fide war hero, by the way. He flew bombing missions over enemy territory in Italy, in the face of anti-aircraft fire. On one occasion the back portion of his plane was shot off, and an engine damaged. He successfully guided the plane back to base and landed, with all of his crew safe and sound. Yes, I am proud of him.
But the war left him unequipped to be a dad, at least to me.
I’m sure I adored him as a child, but I think he saw me as an embarrassment. I was effeminate and clumsy from an early age, and I believe this mortified my old man. I can remember seeing him cringe when I spoke, or struggled with table manners, or waddled effeminately, or was too anxious to cuddle. He would lose his temper and yell at me. By the time I was six, I was haunted by an oppressive fear of death. I have since learned that for many children, such a morbid symptom can mean that the child fears that a parent wants him dead. I think this was the case with me.
I share this for those readers who know what I’m talking about from experience, but have perhaps been afraid to name such things. Yes, children, there are parents who, in some hurt place of their own psyches, want you dead. It happens, more than we like to think.
I am writing the Father’s Day column I have always wanted to read: the one that is unafraid to tell the truth about a father who was never the sort to whom you’d want to send a sappy greeting card, or who resembled the dads you saw on TV.
By the time I was a teenager, I was a chronic runaway. I had to leave home because I was unable to keep my mouth shut around my father: I let him know he had failed me, and he responded with resentment and rage and I couldn’t live with it. I found an alternative father in a local hippie psychologist who ran a commune and whom I later learned sexually abused his daughters. What I remember is a lot of naked people and inappropriate hugging. To me, it felt like I was being loved for the first time. The long term results did not serve me well for many years of my adult life. (When I told some of these stories to my therapist—a man who almost always maintained a disciplined therapeutic distance in every session—burst out with the remark, “Jesus! It sounds like Running With Scissors!”)
As a young adult, just out of my teens, I remember visiting Dad in his new home (with a new wife, having abandoned Mom) in sunny California. As we lolled around the swimming pool I let him have it. He responded: “I’m not going to let any Tom, Dick, or Harry come into my house and question my behavior! How dare you?” That was me: any Tom, Dick, or Harry. Certainly not any kind of son.
When he died I wrote that I could not, would not grieve. What I felt was relief.
Now, more than a decade later, I wonder if I loved him. I’m not sure. I admired him certainly, as physician and war hero. And I feel deeply sorry for him, and his lifelong struggle with depression. I see much of him in me, much that is good. But I have almost no pictures of the man. I can think of only one, in fact, taken at my sister’s wedding. We are not standing near each other.
So what are my thoughts in June, as I feel Father’s Day looming over my consciousness? Dad, I wish I’d loved you. I’m sorry you suffered so much and I’m sorry you took it out on me. You tried to be a good man. You taught me to want to be a good man. I’m grateful for that. I wish I could love you now. I am glad there were a couple of years, towards the end of your life, when we had a few months of caring for one another, trying to make peace. We said “I love you” once or twice. I am truly sorry that those feelings couldn’t be sustained.
This is for all the readers who just can’t stomach Father’s Day. It’s okay to feel that way. It really is.
Rumpus original logo by James Lorenzato, aka Argyle C. Klopnick (ACK!).
“The Storming Bohemian Punks the Muse” was originally developed as a column under the editorship of Evan Karp at Litseen. An earlier incarnation of this work can be found there, along with many other interesting things.