In the car driving to my therapy appointment, my phone rings. I grab it from the center console and flip the face towards me to take a quick glance. It’s my dad. I pause holding the phone, staring at the road while I let it ring again. I quickly contemplate a course of action. Would I prefer to answer it now and get it over with? Or would I prefer to let it go to voicemail, where he will call himself by his first name and leave the hovering obligation for me to call him back while I spend a week working up the mental armor to do so? It rings again. I opt for the first option. Go all in now.
“Hello,” I answer with an extra smile in my voice.
“Hi, it’s your favorite dad!” He laughs sarcastically as he spits out an immediate and probably buzzed spew of his lifetime of victimhood with an undertone that I have wronged him by his statement being false. I ignore it. This tone, which is usually accompanied by him telling me he considers me “a long-lost friend” or something about him “never wanting to be a father,” used to sting like repeated salt-coated daggers in my child heart. I once called to wish him a happy Father’s Day and his response was, “Father’s Day means nothing to me.” The daggers don’t hurt anymore. Therapy = boundaries = impervious to sharp objects.
I nervously begin to adjust the volume in my car and lower the air ventilation as if it will make him more comfortable. “Hi! How are you?” I ask with all the authentic curiosity of a lion cub about to be attacked by the alpha lion.
“Happy birthday!” he exclaims, then pauses for my response. He must be praised for his efforts. If the praise is not to his expectations, I will fulfill my role as the bad guy, a role that my mother has also bestowed upon me since I was a child. While my father is the CEO of Victims-R-Us, my mother has a PhD in Passive-Aggression with the sensitivity of a seismograph. For her, any criticism or confrontation registers at a nine on the Richter scale leaving nothing but rubble until enough time in silence has passed to brush it under the rug. After my daughter was born, her first and only grandchild, she didn’t speak to me for four months. My crime on that visit – while my baby was brand new and my emergency c-section was crisscrossed oozing and swollen with metal staples – was asking her to not put the baby bottles under the kitchen sink next to all the cleaning supplies. No one can take things more personally than both of my parents, regardless of the circumstances. The whole of humanity exists to offend them.
A car suddenly cuts in front of me in the fast lane forcing me to hit my breaks, a welcome reminder to pay attention to what I say. As of today, I am the 46-year-old daughter that has to baby my father’s fragile insecurities. “Thank you, that’s so nice of you to call.”
There was a quick moment of fumbling noises, explained only by his 73 fermented in alcohol and increasingly delusional years, until he says, “Are you driving?”
“Yes, I’m on my way to a therapy appointment in fifteen minutes.” Fifteen minutes. The self-declaration of a healthy boundary.
“Therapy? What’s wrong?”
I have zero shame in seeking therapy, but to a Boomer, it means that you either need to be locked up in a looney bin, or you are one weak son of a bitch. It wouldn’t even occur to either of my parents that maybe they are, at least in part, what is wrong with me. I’ve spent a lifetime with the devil on one shoulder – the voices of my parents telling me I’m a horrible person – and an angel on the other – my own voice, a child fighting to be understood as good. The opposing forces of this ruthless fight to the death in my head are like being pulled beneath the Earth’s surface by immense magnetism, while simultaneously scratching for the light, leaving just my face above ground, battered and bleeding in the weeds whispering desperately to the ants with my last breath, “but I’m not the bad guy.”
I reply to my father’s uninformed judgement with an upbeat, “Nothing is wrong. It’s just a part of taking care of myself.”
I have seen this man in person a total of seven times since I was seven years old after my parents divorced, among which were the 20 years where we had no contact at all. My childhood memories include him taking me to bars where I drank Shirley Temples while he picked up women, watching him and his friends smoke weed and go behind closed doors to consume other drugs, driving him as a nine-year-old when he was too drunk to drive, and pretending to be asleep in a hotel room at eight-years-old while his girlfriend gave him a blowjob. Despite his failings, I eventually extended the olive branch after having a daughter of my own. When she was two years old, I had a maternal and temporary bout of desiring some kind of dream grandparents for my child, hoping that things could be different with maturity on all sides. I mean, people change in 20 years, right? It turned out that what I hadn’t learned enough about until recently was boundaries. Despite our physical distance spanning a nation, with him in Florida and me in California, the psychological boundaries remained mere inches apart.
I look at the digital clock on my dash, which tells me two minutes down, thirteen more to go. I change the subject. “So, did you guys make it to the Super Bowl last weekend?”
A couple of months earlier, my father’s wife sent me a video of them on the local news. There were shots of people wearing matching hot pink t-shirts at their house painting eves, installing a new roof, trimming trees and hauling away trash. Apparently, their home had been cited by the city of Tampa for various code violations, so my father elicited assistance from a non-profit organization that helps veterans. This organization chose him to receive $20,000 worth of badly needed home repairs, an effort that involved tens of volunteers over the course of two weeks, culminating in a Veteran’s Day celebration on their front lawn adorned with a sign pushed into the grass that read, “We’re helping a hero!” It was a perfect opportunity for him to abate his starvation for adoration using his six years of active reserve in the Marines during the Vietnam War. While he never saw combat, his war has been waged among undiagnosed mental illness with no self-awareness as a result of never knowing his own father and being abandoned by his mother at an orphanage called Boys Town in 1960’s Omaha when he was just 13. Now as an elderly man with the mind of an adolescent, there was a news crew, a former Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver, Vincent Jackson, and two Buccaneers cheerleaders presenting my father and his wife with two tickets to the 2020 Super Bowl in Miami. I received a separate email from him after the commotion where he tried with all the subtlety of a juvenile to flaunt the attention he was getting. The email listed his military background with his own words saying only, “Someday Ava might be interested in these historical notes, if you care to save them for her.” That last bit, another dagger. Another eyeroll.
Although I never get emails asking how his only grandchild is doing or how I am doing, there is no shortage of correspondence that is all about him. In the midst of not speaking for 20 years, I received out of the blue a giant manuscript of his poetry with an impersonal handwritten note on the first page, signed with a self-deprecating, “Put it on a shelf, Dad.” More recently, he mailed me a Boys Town newsletter, his orphanage alma mater, that had an article about his football-playing days for the school written among the pages. He included a sticky note in his handwriting that said, “Just in case Ava might want to know about her grandfather.” Oh, for the love… Now she’s the bad guy.
This is why I dread our phone calls. No matter the topic, I could set the phone down and walk away, only to pick the phone back up after two hours and he would still be talking about himself, completely oblivious that a conversation, let alone a relationship, is a two-way street.
It turns out my father and his wife never made it to the Super Bowl. He proceeded to spend the next eight minutes of this supposed birthday call exhaling in one breath the whole ordeal: they did go to Miami; they spent hundreds of dollars on the trip; there was some terrible and inconvenient mix-up about how to get the their hands on the tickets; they ended up watching the game in a bar somewhere. A victim yet again.
As I exited the freeway, I finally got a word in. “Oh I’m so sorry. What a bummer to miss such a once in a lifetime experience.” Five minutes left.
“We spent seven hundred dollars for nothing.” Now with anger in his voice, he added that as a result, they can’t pay their property taxes.
“That must be so difficult,” I express in a mild tone, the therapy paying off.
While I was attempting to console his self-inflicted plight, he directed his anger at me. “I know you think it’s always about money, but we are on a fixed income, you know. This is a catastrophe for us.” As a child, I used to cry every summer when my dad would tell me without fail that I couldn’t visit him. His excuse was money every time, a neverending catastrophe.
“Wait, did you just hear what I said? I said that must be so difficult. I’m sorry that happened. I didn’t say anything about money.”
He responds with, “Well remember that plane ticket I lost five-hundred dollars on to come visit you when you cancelled that trip?”
Here we go. Talking with my dad is like risking the appearance of an ancient scroll etched with fabricated grievances miles long that he lifts high over his head and furiously rolls out at any unpredictable opportunity. This time, the “plane ticket” reference was a completely unrelated incident from nine years ago where, shortly after we attempted to normalize our relationship, I had invited him to visit for my daughter’s third birthday. He said he would look into flights. I said to let me know the dates he was thinking so I could make sure it works with our schedule. Instead of letting me know the dates, he just booked his ticket. It turned out, he booked it for the same week my mom was coming to visit. I asked him to change the flight to come the week after instead. His reaction was to be furious with me, adopt the mindset that he must not be as important, and as a punishment, he would not come at all – or ever. Nearly another decade has passed since we’ve seen eachother and my daughter has never had a grandfather.
Something calm immediately surfaced in me without thought as he crossed what I now recognize as my healthy boundary. “Thank you so much for calling to wish me a happy birthday. I really appreciate it. I’m almost at my appointment, so I have to go, but please tell your wife hello for me.”
At 11 minutes in, I ended the call with cat-like reflexes, catching the flying dagger with one hand and a smile, then tossing it out the window. I am not the bad guy. I never was.