I have struggled a lot with this post. I’ve struggled with it because it is about my father. I have a complicated relationship with him, and am unsure how best to approach that relationship, much less talk about it here. He is a big part of my story, an inescapable part, and I’ve told him I might talk about him here, but I’ve struggle with how to present the issue. Hopefully, this post will present him in a balanced light, and should I err in that goal, I beg his forgiveness for that.
First, some context is needed. My father’s side of the family comes from Cuba. My father came here alone shortly after Fidel Castro assumed power and other family members followed. My grandfather, after assuring that his son was safely settled in the United States, was arrested and imprisoned in Cuba for his opposition to Castro. My father, still just a young boy, would not see his own father again until he was grown up and had his own life. His life was marked by the prolonged absence of his father, who was imprisoned for standing up for what he believed in.
Fast forward to my own young childhood. My father made the decision to attend medical school in the Caribbean, far from home. He was gone months at a time and only ever home briefly. After graduating, he ultimately made the decision to return to the Caribbean and enter into government service in pursuit of his medical license down there. I did not want him to go, and felt like my voice was unheard. In my father’s eyes he was doing something he believed in, he was trying to better himself. Yet, like his own father, it meant long absences from his family, which strained relations. Speaking for myself, his absence had a pronounced impact on me, and is a significant factor in the mental health issues I now struggle with. Most significantly, its led to a nagging self doubt that my voice isn’t worth listening to, that what I want doesn’t matter.
For several years I didn’t talk to my father, a decision I still question at times. In more recent years we have improved our relationship some, but it is still complicated. There is a great deal more to this story, but they involve other people, people whose story is not mine to tell, and I must respect that. As I said, I can only speak for me.
In my weekly therapy session yesterday my therapist asked me, how things would have been different for me if my father had been there, if he had listened to me. Strangely, though I’ve wished that had been the case for many years, I had never given significant thought to what it would have meant until yesterday.
Her point was not that I can change the past, nor even that I would know for certain what would have happened had he stayed. It was more a tool to get me to think about the behaviors I developed as a result of his absence. The avoidance, the feeling that my opinion doesn’t matter, which blossomed into self-doubt and the semi-constant isolation of depression, which exists even when I am in a crowded room. More importantly, it was to think about what could be different. Because my story isn’t over. Recognizing these behaviors for the lies that they are is the first step to changing how I react to them. And though it is a small step, it is a huge one. And yes I know that seems like an oxymoron, but in the battle with depression and anxiety, every step in the right direction is hugely significant.
One of my biggest fears is that I will repeat the same mistakes. As happened at the end of the Harry Chapin song from which this post gets its name, I now find myself fully grown and trying to find my way in the world, which makes it even harder to find time to try to improve my complicated relationship with my father. Yet unlike the song, I would not say that I have grown up just like him. For I see the scars his absence left me with, and am trying to choose something different.
An even greater part of my fear is that someday, when I have kids of my own, the flaws I carry will leave them with the same struggles that I now face every morning. That truly terrifies me for those struggles are terrible and I wouldn’t wish them on anyone. Yet as I said, I see the scars, and can choose a different path. My story isn’t over. Much of it isn’t even written yet.
I can’t change the past. For all the flaws my father left me, he also left me some truly great qualities. I would like to think that if he had to do it over again, that he might make different decisions, though even if that were true, it wouldn’t change anything. I can’t change the past, and I can’t change him. I can only change myself and how I choose to react to the lies my mental illnesses whisper in my ear. It means reexamining things I’ve long tried to bury, but healing rarely comes without a little bit of pain, at least not when the scars are this deep.
I wish that Harry Chapin had written a sequel to his famous song, a picture of the Little Boy Blue and the Man in the Moon later in life, when they’ve come home, and gotten together, when they’ve had a good time. Cats in the Cradle always hits me so hard when it comes on, given how close to home it hits. As for what comes next, what I am learning is that that part is up to me. And that is where I am and what I am struggling this week after yesterday’s therapy session. And for the first time I see a future with fewer shadows from the past. I don’t know if you have something similar in your past reader, but if you do know that, with work, those past demons don’t have to cast shadows on your future.