It was my father’s birthday this weekend.
I have no idea where he is or what he’s doing. To tell you the truth, I don’t even know if he’s still alive, though intuition tells me he is. Still playing golf. Still drinking with his buddies in the village pub. Still doing his card tricks. For that reason, when his birthday comes around – he’s in his mid-80s now – I like to dash off a ‘many happy returns’ -type email and press send. Hey, he’s still my father. It’s the right thing to do.
Our relationship is strange. Mostly one way. Like waltzing with the Invisible Man. Not something I can explain, and probably not something you’re interested in hearing. You have your own problems. Suffice it to say that he’s extremely angry with me right now.
Right now and for the past couple of decades, as a matter of fact.
One day in the early 90s, something insignificant I said or did lit his blue touch paper, sending him up like a bottle rocket, and he never came back down. That was it. Since then, he’s been at war – if that’s even possible when your enemy’s imaginary – single-handedly fighting his own Afghanistan, refusing to pull out, even though the polls are against him and despite the evidence of defeat all around.
Such a stand does not make an iota of sense, of course. Fighting for fighting’s sake. Twenty years of revenge just to make a point nobody else gives a damn about. Not, that is, unless you were born into our family. In our family, when you have a grudge, you hang onto it for dear life ’til your fingernails almost shred the fibers. You wear it like a badge of honor into Hell, if necessary. Never surrender, never give up. Winning is all that matters.
My mother and her sister engineered a similar spat. They were estranged, same way my dad and I are, the exact details never to be spilled. Not to me anyway. Even so, I’m prepared to wager that the reason, whatever it might have been, was miniscule and unimportant and certainly not worth sacrificing a relationship for. Yet they allowed this petty grievance to foam and fester between them for the bulk of their adult lives. Until eventually, inevitably, the black tar of mutual animosity ate away at their bodies, and both women died. At the same age and of exactly the same thing! Physical diagnosis: cancer. Emotional diagnosis: deep anger, unresolved conflict, lack of forgiveness. Result: needless waste. There were no winners. There never are.
What’s weird is that, of all of us, I appear to be the exception. An oddball. Mother Theresa to my father’s Dick Cheney. I’ve lived broader and seen the world; so naturally I have a more pragmatic perspective.
I believe totally in getting over yourself. Talk it out, reach a settlement, forgive, forget, move on. To me, it’s not a sign of weakness. Far from it. In fact, I happen to think that that’s what life is all about. It’s part of the learning and growing process. Everything else is your ego talking. Fighting, then making up afterwards leads to redemption and forges stronger relationships all round.
Not surprisingly, my dad fully disagrees. On the odd occasion that I tried to reconcile with him in the past, bafflingly it only made things worse. Nothing – nothing – gets the old fella more riled up than a kind word or a well-intended greeting. And NOTHING is more likely to send him ballistic, I’ve found from tragic experience, than being told, “I love you.” Oh boy, did I land myself in a whole heap of trouble once for that gaffe! His normally terse one-line emails gave way to great exploding fireballs of rage, and I think he cut me out of his will soon after.
Yet still I try. What can I say? That’s me. I’m an optimist.
Like an adopted kid who spends a lifetime doggedly seeking out his birth parents, refusing to throw in the towel, I sit down once a year and send a message to the Invisible Man, in the vain hope that, someday, a light bulb will flicker on and he’ll say to himself, “Holy shit, what was I thinking? Afghanistan’s a dump, we need to get out of here” and set off to find me.
It’s a loser’s scenario – don’t even say it; I know – and bound to fail. But I don’t care. Hope, as a motivator, is Teflon-coated. It keeps me going, and will continue to for years to come no doubt, until word finally reaches me that he’s dead. If it ever does. And if it doesn’t, then those ‘many happy returns’ messages that land in his inbox every September 18th are going to start seeming miiiiiighty creepy.
For the time being, I’m just going to duck down behind this four-foot thick lead radioactive shield over here, say, “Happy birthday, dad. Have a wonderful year, wherever you are,” then continue on as if nothing has happened.
Because nothing will.