When the Pedestal Falls

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My dad has always been my person. My anchor. The one who made the world bearable, even on the darkest nights. I’ve tried several times on this blog to capture the essence of my dad: In a pre-emptive eulogy, a Father’s Day post, a Moth live story-telling event, where I won first place for the story of my dad as my refuge, and in a poem about loving him always. But none of these attempts could fully capture just how important he was to me. The first time I went to therapy I bawled about losing my dad. “Is he sick?” the therapist wanted to know. “No,” I replied, “but I won’t be able to handle life if he isn’t here.”

I recognize now, from my work as a therapist, how rare and life giving it is to feel seen and heard and understood by someone. For the first 33 years of my life, that person who saw and heard and understood me, was my dad. Having one person, consistently and unfailingly play that role for over three decades is a minor miracle. I am lucky. I know that many people have to function in the world without having a person like that, maybe ever. I just didn’t know how they did it. And I was terrified for the day when I would have to find out. For the day I would inevitably lose my dad.

It is developmentally appropriate for children to begin, at some point (most commonly in adolescence), to see their parents’ flaws—to begin to see them as humans, not just as parents. I was right on target with this trajectory with my mom. We were at odds with each other off and on when I was an adolescent, and by my late twenties we were coming into a place of mutual understanding and appreciation. That trajectory and transformation has been incredibly powerful. Both my mom and I have been committed to our own growth and it in turn has allowed our relationship to open up in incredible ways. Again, I am lucky. Not everyone has a parent committed to their own growth.

My mom is a woman of uncommon elegance, strength, and heart. A woman who has been given more than her share of significant lifetime challenges; who knows how to carry on, and who is learning, at age 65 how to let herself come undone. Watching her becoming, and paralleling it with my own becoming, has been one of the greatest gifts of the last half decade of my life.

I didn’t follow the same trajectory of seeing flaws and normalizing with my dad. My dad remained on a pedestal for me for 32 years and 363 days. Until three days prior to my 33rd birthday when I received a message that exploded the pedestal into a million fragments, fundamentally turning my world on its head, leaving me unmoored and charting unfamiliar waters.

The explosive missile was a brief but utterly devastating text. Revealing an affair he had been having for the last half decade with a woman my age--letting me and my older brother know that we would be getting a half brother this summer as a result of this affair.

Some children are relieved when their parents split. After months or years of fighting the separation, and then divorce, feels like a natural and necessary conclusion. Part of what was so shocking about my dad’s announcement is that he and my mom, at least to an outside observer, seemed to be having some of the best years of their nearly 38 year marriage.

People have since asked me how the rest of the night unfolded after receiving “the text.” It unfolded like this: I was physically ill. Vomiting repeatedly throughout the night. Folklore, and recent science, indicate that we have three centers of knowing: the head, the heart, and the gut. My gut was the first line of defense, trying to reject information I could not bear to metabolize.

My heart, on a physiological level, and of course on an emotional level, came apart too. My annual spring physical had revealed a heartbeat irregularity, and in the follow up, which was the week following my dad’s reveal, my echo-cardiogram showed that the irregular heartbeat had increased six fold and that I was having mild mitral regurgitation. In essence, my heart was following my gut’s lead, and gently throwing up too. The cardiologist stated that it was most likely a stress or caffeine induced shift. Since I don’t drink coffee, it feels reasonable to assume that my heart was also rejecting the news about my dad.

One of the stories I loved to tell about my dad was that when I was a very young child, I asked him if the tooth fairy was real. I was so young at that point that I hadn’t even lost a tooth. In response, my dad double checked if I really wanted for him to answer, and when I insisted that I did, he replied with a simple, “No.” My dad’s honesty felt like one of his immutable qualities. One that made me feel incredibly safe, because I knew whatever he said, he meant.

My gut and my heart and my head have been on a spin cycle of grief and anger and numbness since March 23rd. Rejecting the dissonant information that my dad who was the most honest and selfless person I knew, in fact has a deeply dishonest and selfish part.

My initial insistence was on wanting to understand why? Why would someone so good do something so incredibly deceptive and wounding?

My dad has given me his story of why. That as he gazed into his final decades, with retirement from a long medical career on the horizon and growing deafness that was making his world smaller, he couldn’t survive without something that would give his life meaning--and that meaning for him comes in the form of feeling needed and useful. He has explained his inability to see other options for achieving this desired outcome as a result of the tunnel vision that depression creates. He has said that in the tunnel of depression having a baby seemed to be the only way out. He has said this baby was his bid for survival. That he did what he had to do.

Of the other woman, he has said that she too was desperate for a baby, and that they united over this shared desperation. She is a 33 year old who for various reasons, per my dad’s reporting, felt she had no other prospects for a child, and my dad a 65 year old man, who per his own reporting, also felt he had no other prospects for a child.

His story feels brittle and full of holes and riddled with sharp edges. How could my dad, the man who could always see beyond the margins, not have had more of an imagination about how to have meaning in his life? How do I understand his explanation of this new reality being the fallout of depression when he never displayed any of the signs and symptoms of depression to those of us who adored him?

His why is a hard story to swallow. We are the only species that tell stories—stories are integral to the human experience. Whether my dad’s story is one that is grounded in reality, or one that has unfolded to fit the shape of the reality his actions have manifested, is probably unknowable.

But the territory where my gut and heart and mind churn the most these days is not on the why, but rather on his inability to acknowledge the intense hurt he has caused people he purports to love so much.

Five years ago when I called off my engagement to a man I loved, but was feeling doubts about getting married to I felt destroyed. I felt destroyed for many reasons. One being that I wasn’t sure if it was a huge mistake to have called things off. The other being that I hated hurting someone I loved. And the third, belated reason being that I had to face the reality that I was capable of causing someone I loved intense pain.

My ex was incredibly generous, as was his family, saying that they forgave me. I’ve not yet fully forgiven myself. My capacity to hurt is a shame I will carry with me always, though that shame has lessened in intensity as the years have passed.

But my dad’s reaction to the pain he has caused doesn’t read as shame or regret. He does not lead with his sorrow for the pain he caused. He leads with his joy for having gotten this child he wanted.

And, his apparent remorselessness, calls forth an anger in me that is monstrous. An anger that leaves me screaming into the phone, hoping that somehow if I get louder he’ll finally hear me again. But he doesn’t. It’s as if overnight the dad I knew disappeared, though somebody in his form still walks on this earth.

I imagined that I would lose my dad when he died.

The greatest surprise of my life is that I’ve lost my dad and he is still alive.

The wild hope, that I can’t imagine ever fully losing, is that somehow my dad is not lost forever.

My dad has always been self destructive, in a way that up until this March, seemed charming. He was a daredevil young adult, riding a motorcycle around Europe sleeping on park benches, swimming with sharks in Mexico, heading off for day hikes that would turn into hikes by moonlight. His willingness to be in the center of outlandish, often scary, situations carried on into adulthood. He was always experimenting, pressing up against the margins. Just last summer, less than a year ago, I got a text from my dad calmly describing jumping away from a mugger who held a knife to his belly on a cliff over the ocean in Honduras. He swam to safety. Had he died at that mugger’s hands, my dad would have been immortalized in my heart and mind as the dad I knew him to be.

Instead two months later, he and a woman my age would be conceiving a child--my half brother born this May.

It is not, in the end, a bad thing for my dad to be off his pedestal. It was probably long overdue. I have growing awareness about the ways in which idolizing my father has gotten in my way in other parts of my life. And in the end it is quite unfair to expect a human to be anything more than human. What is so impossible about this moment in my life is that I’m still watching my dad in free fall. Because the pedestal was so high and this new reality is so very low. And watching someone you love in free fall is the most torturous thing I’ve ever experienced.

I’ve never struggled on Father’s Day until this year, which puts me in the category of lucky again. But this year, I’m in a Father’s Day hangover. Not from drinking, but from drowning in the cocktail of anger and grief that is born out of feeling unheard, unseen, and unknown by the person who always accomplished those tasks seamlessly in years prior.

The last few months I’ve thought often of Arlie Hochschild’s On Being Interview, where she discusses the concept of a “deep story,” --which is the story where the facts don’t matter, it’s the feeling that matters.

The facts of this new part of my family’s story—of my story— are so bewildering and confusing and convoluted. But the feeling for me is crystal clear: it is a feeling of being abandoned by the one person I never could have imagined abandoning me. Not in the sense that my dad won’t spend time with me now—but in the sense that he no longer seems to have the capacity to see, hear, and understand me.

And my dad cannot tolerate that this feeling of abandonment is real for me. And so he denies it. Declares it isn’t true.

But my feeling is true--I do feel more deeply hurt than I could ever have imagined feeling. My world is spinning; my head is dizzy from watching the fragments swirl; my heart is an unknowable wild animal, learning to navigate in a foreign land.