At the start of every new year, I resolve. I gave up resolving out-loud years ago, but I resolve none the less. This year is no exception.
Like a lot of people, I’ve resolved to lose – weight, toxic relationship, bad habits, double chin, muffin top. And to gain – more knowledge, more money, more fun, more wisdom, more sleep. This year I thought I’d try something new. I have resolved to grow. Not a garden full of tomatoes nor my bank account nor my hair. The focus will be on one very specific muscle, which really isn’t a muscle at all, but I like to think of it that way. Compassion. It’s right next to the heart muscle. Not really. But for argument’s sake, let’s say it is. Anyway, I want to grow this in a big way. I want it to be so large I’ll have to give it a name and buy it a wardrobe.
I wish I had resolved to do this sooner. About ten years sooner, while my father was still alive. Or probably further back than that so it could have actually had some affect on our relationship.
Little back story. As far back as I can remember I had this love-hate relationship with my Old Man. That’s what my siblings and I called him, not to his face of course. Actually we referred to him as “The” Old Man. He didn’t even warrant a personal pronoun. Looking back, that disrespectful name-calling makes me sad. I guess my compassion muscle is already starting to grow. In our defense, referring to your father as your Old Man was pretty common back then, even amongst offspring who revered their fathers.
There were reasons for my love-hate relationship with The Old Man. First and foremost, he was an alcoholic. And it wasn’t pretty. He wasn’t the life of the party, the fun guy when he drank. He was mean and miserable and terrorized my timid mother and her four kids. I being the youngest, and his only biological child had no memory of a father who didn’t drink. Not that it’s any consolation, but my siblings had a few good years without an alcoholic in their midst prior to my parents meeting and falling in love. Okay, that’s the hate part – the ‘I wish he’d drop dead’ silent prayers.
The love part goes like this. The Old Man was a sweet, shy, funny, give you the shirt off your back guy – when he was sober. That father took me with him when he delivered bread, went to my parent-teacher nights, took me to baseball games that he umpired, brought home pastries from the bakery, bought me my first teddy bear when I was sick (that I still have), took us for Sunday drives in the country, on trips to Duluth, taught me to drive, hugged me when my heart was broken, yelled at drivers who sped down our street for fear one would hit me, spit on my warts every morning because he’d heard this was a cure, took me to church, loved me unconditionally, thought I was beautiful. And so much more.
My father’s alcoholism got in the way of things. It especially interfered with my ability to love him like a daughter. As I grew older, so did my resentment and impatience. Even long after he had found sobriety, my detachment and lack of interest in my father’s thoughts or feelings was ever-present and my inability to forgive was paramount. As he became elderly, he also grew cantankerous and ornery, demanding of my mother. This was just fodder for the chasm that lay between us. Even as his hands shook and his gate faltered, his hearing went and his eyes clouded over, as he developed Diabetes, Parkinson’s and Petit Mal Seizures I was unmoved, detached and lacking in compassion. None of this touched my heart, or if it did, I wasn’t about to tell him. I was over it, past all that. Emotionally bankrupt.
Of course, I’m not over it. And probably never will be. I also have regrets. I wish I had spent more time with him that last year of his life. I wish I hadn’t scolded him for sneaking cookies and cake, threatening that it would send him into a diabetic coma. I wish I had listened better to his stories at the dinner table. I wish I hadn’t looked away, called him an asshole under my breath. I wish I had told him I loved him more often. I wish I had said ‘thank you.’
My father died of a broken heart five weeks after my mother. I had this crazy thought in my head when my sister-in-law called to tell me the news. I was relieved. Not because my prayer for him to drop dead had finally been answered but because I took comfort in the thought that perhaps he was with my mother. For the five weeks prior to his death, I worried about her being all alone “out there” and now she wasn’t.
A few months after he died my sister-in-law sent me a small box of his stuff. There wasn’t much in it – his wallet, watch, ring, a few photos, a Finnish Bible and a Song Book that belonged to his mother and some newspaper clippings which included his obituary and an article on his days driving a horse-drawn bread wagon, the last of his kind.
In his wallet was a photograph taken by my mother of The Old Man and I when I was about three months old. It was tattered, torn and cracked, barely recognizable. I didn’t know it existed. He had carried it with him my entire life. I love that photo. My heart expands when I look at it. As does my compassion muscle.