Many of us have been wounded by our fathers. For some we experienced abuse growing up. For others we dealt with neglect. For most of us, our fathers were absent physically or emotionally more than we would have liked. Many of our fathers died too soon.
The first wound occurred for me when I was five years old. My father, a writer like me, was having great difficulty making a living during tough economic times. He wrote in his journal:
Your flesh crawls, your scalp wrinkles when you look around and see good writers, established writers with credits a block long, unable to sell, unable to find work. Yes, it’s enough to make anyone blanch, turn pale and sicken.
Yes, on a Sunday morning in early November, my hope and my life stream are both running desperately low, so low, so stagnant, that I hold my breath in fear, believing that the dark, blank curtain was about to descend.
Four days after that journal entry, he tried to commit suicide. The first wound occurred when I learned he’d wanted to die. “Why doesn’t he love me?” I thought. “Why does he want to get away from me?” I didn’t understand. He was 42 years old and I was 5. The wounds didn’t end there.
Camarillo State Hospital
My uncle Harry visited my father every Sunday and it was my job to accompany him. It was a two hour drive from our house in Los Angeles to the hospital outside of Oxnard. I knew we were getting close when we drove between a huge stand of eucalyptus trees that lined the road. The closer we got the more terrified I became. I wanted to see my father, but the other “inmates” were strange, sitting alone rocking or talking to themselves. Remember this was 1948 and a mental hospital wasn’t a great place to be.
I did my best to cheer my father up, but he was usually quiet, and interacted very little with me. Driving back my Uncle would tell me how glad my father was to see me and how much I helped him by being there. I hated going, but even then I was a “good little boy” and thought it was duty to be strong and do what I was told.
I went to Camarillo every weekend for a year until it became evident that my father didn’t know who I was. He’d look right through me and my Uncle would have to remind him that I was his son. I finally was allowed to stop going and I felt I was given a reprieve from the weekly wounding.
He’ll Never Leave. He’ll Die Here
The doctors told my mother that he’d never leave the hospital. His mental illness hadn’t improved and she could accept the fact that he needed to be taken care of the rest of his life. I started having nightmares about going crazy and being locked up for the rest of my life with my father. I didn’t tell anyone about the horrible dreams.
In school, particularly around holidays, like Father’s day, other kids would ask about my father. At first I would tell them he was in the hospital. But I was stymied when they wanted to know when he was getting out. I finally told them he was in a mental hospital and I didn’t know when he was getting out. I felt very ashamed to have a “crazy” father and the kids taunted me endlessly. When I changed schools in the third grade, I told anyone who asked that “my father is dead.”
But he wasn’t dead and we got a call from my Uncle one night telling us that my father had escaped from the hospital and police were out looking for him. My mother was terrified that he was coming to get me and so she sent me to live with neighbors. I lived there for a couple of weeks. And one day there was a knock on the door. It was my father. I hid under the bed and he finally went away. I knew he was out there somewhere and my mother continued to tell me to be careful. “There’s no telling what your father might do.” But he didn’t do anything. He disappeared. We never heard from him and gradually I concluded that he probably was dead.
A Ghost Attends My College Graduation
I graduated from U.C. Santa Barbara and had been accepted to U.C. San Francisco Medical School in the fall. I felt on top of the world. As I walked across the stage to shake hands and get my diploma, my hand turned to ice. I saw someone in the audience that reminded me of my father. It was a momentary glance and then he turned away. I was shaken to my core, but I didn’t tell anyone. A day later I got a letter in the mail from my uncle. He said he had run into my father by accident in Los Angeles and had given him the information about my college graduation. “He seemed OK,” my uncle wrote, “and he said he wanted to see you.” He also left his contact information in Los Angeles. “He goes under the name of Tom Roberts gave me a number where you can reach him.”
After I returned home for the summer, I called him at the number I had been given and we set up a meeting. I had a jumbled mixture of feelings. I longed for the father I had never known. I was afraid of his “craziness.” I felt I should help him. The first meeting went pretty well. He told me that he was a street puppeteer and I saw how much joy he brought putting his shows on around his neighborhood in Ocean Beach. But he still had an edge of anger, weirdness, and unpredictability.
I visited a number of times, but by the end of the summer he seemed to be becoming more and more agitated. I didn’t know what to make of him and I’m sure, unconsciously, I was going to medical school to find out what was wrong with him and how he could be fixed. I had planned a trip to Mexico before I began Medical School in the fall and my father suggested we spend a few days in San Diego before I took the bus on to Mexico City. Our time started off OK. He showed me parts of San Diego he liked, bought me a book of letters from Theo Van Gogh to his brother Vincent, and we went out for our last dinner before my planned departure in the morning. But when I got ready to go the next day, he became extremely agitated and angry and forbade me to leave. “You’re my son and you have to stay and take care of your father.” I was dumb struck. I couldn’t believe what he was telling me. As I boarded the bus he screamed after me, “You’ll never be a good doctor, if you can’t even take care of your own father.”
Brief Encounters of the Wounding Kind
I headed for Mexico, badly shaken, but glad to get away from this “crazy man.” I wondered where the gentle, supportive father I was dreaming of having had gone. I had a great summer and started Medical School in the fall at U.C. San Francisco. I lasted less than a semester. I dropped out and enrolled at U.C. Berkeley in the school of Social Welfare. I took many years to deal with the curse hurled at me by my father. It took even longer to realize that he was probably right. Medicine wasn’t for me, but not because I wouldn’t take care of my father, but because I had to learn about taking care of myself.
He and I ran into each other unexpectedly four more times over the next fifteen years. Each time we’d spend a few days together and I thought maybe we would be able to have a real adult-to-adult, father-and-son, relationship. But each time it would end the same way. He would make some demand that I wouldn’t meet and he would scream at me, “You’re no son of mine. I disown you. Get out of my sight.” I had armored myself to the blows and they didn’t hurt as much, but they still struck home.
The Last Wound and the Courage to Heal
I hadn’t seen nor heard from him in over five years. When my first book, Inside Out: Becoming My Own Man, came out, it developed a wide-spread readership. I wrote about my father, his inner demons, and our wounding relationship. I got an email out of the blue: “I read your book and was very touched by what you said about your father and your relationship with him. I work at Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco and I’m a nurse on the ward where your father lives. I think he’d like to make contact with you.”
I wrote back and said, I wasn’t so sure, given our history. But I wrote a letter to my father. For the first time I told him the truth and didn’t hold back my feelings:
I just learned that you are in the hospital and I’d like to come visit you. But things have to change. I’m tired of being blamed for your pain and I’m through with your angry outbursts when I don’t do what you want me to do. It was you who left me, remember? I was five yours old. All I’ve ever done was to try to love you and all you’ve ever done is reject me over and over. You are my father, but this is the last time I’m reaching out to you. I’m the only one in the family who makes any attempt to get through to you. If you keep acting like this, you’re going to end up a lonely old man. I’m through. It’s up to you.
I figured that would be the end of things for us. At least I could say I had done my best to connect with my father. But I’d done what I could do. I was totally surprised when I got a letter back and even more surprised with what it said.
No one has ever talked to me like that in my life. And you’re right. I have blamed you, the family, everyone for my own unhappiness. And I don’t want to do that anymore. I do want to see you and I promise to you that I will treat you well. Please give me another chance.
The End and the Beginning
I did go and see him and he did treat me well. The only exceptions were letters I would get which were written at 4 AM (he’d always but on the date and the time). He was depressed and would chastise me for having plenty of time to travel all over the world, but didn’t seem to have much time for your Dad. I didn’t get many of those. And they’d usually be followed by a much more positive letter written in the light of day. As a mid-life man I now understood something about the weariness, depression, and sadness that can hit us when we’re awake into the wee hours of the morning.
We spent 10 years together until he died at 89. He met my wife and children and put on puppet shows for them. He even came to a family reunion was able to heal a lot of wounds with his brothers and sisters. I would visit him at his little apartment in the Tenderloin District. I still remember our last walk together. The new San Francisco library had just opened and he wanted to leave a flower on the steps to thank all those who had helped bring the library into being.
It was a long walk and we took it one slow step at a time. He laid his flower on the steps and we sat on a bench to rest. Finally, he looked me in the eye, gave me a slow smile, and told me “It’s time to go home.” A week later he died.
At a gathering of friends and family I told the assembled group: “By the standards of society, my father was not a success. He didn’t make a lot of money. He was labeled as mentally ill. He liked to live among people that society pretends do not exist.” Someone read one of his last poems, “Because of you,” said one, old madness has become new meaning. Because of you, my tongue is no longer lead.”
Happy Father’s Day. May all our souls heal from our father wounds. It’s never too late.
Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cpstorm/1516351219/lightbox/