25 May 2005

Digging in the well

Since I last posted, I've done a couple of big things: I've written my father a letter saying I don't want to see him, and I have visited my grandfather, who is 87 and in what I think of as the steep decline of his life. A few years ago my grandfather was traveling, going dancing, and having a busy social life. Since breaking his back in a fall last year, he has round-the-clock nursing care and can't even feed himself.

Before I left, I asked myself many times over why I was going to see my grandfather, since in some ways I don't think he is a very nice guy. But he's always been good to me (even while he's picked mercilessly on other members of my family).

I started seeing a therapist over the past month or so to help me with some of my overwhelming feelings about the violence and abuse that plagued my family, and the fact that I have a four-and-a-half-year-old daughter and that's exactly how old my sister was when she died (I was six at the time of her drowning). My therapist and I made a big chart of all the people in my family, color-coded with information about relationships, deaths, afflictions, and how I felt about them.

My grandfather is one of the bright spots on my family chart, largely because he supported my goals. I feel that my parents were busy rejecting the conservative ideas of their time but perhaps didn't always know what to put in their place. As a result, I often feel like my academic successes and goal-setting were pretty much my own. I didn't have the kind of parents who urged me on every step of the way, or helped me with my essays and science fair projects. Meanwhile, my grandfather had money, which no one else did at the time, and he believed strongly in the value of a good education. So he encouraged me and gave me money for tuition. My mom and stepdad did, too, when they could, and I did my part by working for a year and becoming a California resident, which reduced my tuition bill enormously, and I worked for my spending money. I was fortunate to finish school with very little student-loan debt. I only had to take the occasional economics class to convince my granddad that I wouldn't end up with a completely irrelevant education (I was an English literature and creative writing major).

Now I am one of the few people I know who can say she is using her degree: I've worked as a writer and editor through college and ever since. (And I've never regretted taking those micro- and macroeconomics courses -- they turned out to be pretty interesting.)

When I went to visit him a couple of weeks ago, my grandfather asked the question he always asks, which is basically: "Do you think your education helped you in your career?" And again I assured him that I did. He helped me in a big way, and he and I both know it.

In contrast, I came home after my first year of college and over dinner with my father at a nice restaurant, I proudly told him about my classes, and that I was transferring to UC Berkeley, because Davis seemed far too isolated to me (and also because my then-high-school sweetheart and I had decided not to break up after all and and we both got accepted -- and it worked: we're still happily married). I asked my father if he could send me $100 a month to help with my college expenses, since I knew costs were likely to be higher in Berkeley. I was completely stunned when my father said no, explaining: "I just can't support what you're doing with your life."

When I told my therapist about this conversation, she said, "That's bullsh*t! He just didn't want the obligation to you." Which definitely fits the overall picture. When my sister had a terrible motorcycle accident some 11 or 12 years ago (and had six or seven surgeries to repair her shattered leg), our father offered to send her the little, old microwave that he used at his auto shop. That was the extent of the help he offered her. Whereas my mom, who was living in the same area, moved in with her and took her to appointments and gave her all kinds of support.

When I think of these moments and many others, I think of my father as such a stunted person, and I know that some of this emotional stunting was the legacy of his parents, my grandparents. That (and the fact that my grandfather is rich) made me question my own motives in going to visit my grandfather. Did I want to confront him about his parenting? Ask if his parents had been violent toward him? Four years ago, however, when I went to his wife's (my step-grandmother's) funeral and saw him bereft, I helped him thread his belt through the belt loops that he couldn't reach because of his bad shoulder pain. I touched his arm and felt this jolt of compassion and recognition. However emotionally stunted the guy may have been, he is still my family, and I am his, and I care about him just because of that. So that's why I went. Not to ask for money, or to demand some kind of accounting for his parenting skills (or lack thereof), but to squeeze his hand and see him, and remind him that family is all we really have in the end. And I did, and it was good.

Somehow I am far closer to forgiving my father for his failings, too, as every day I seem to feel a little more compassion for all of us and a little less pain.


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