Our father was both a wonderful, lovable parent and an abuser, both a liar and a former medic who sometimes understood how to comfort without being asked, both a vicious intellectual bully who gaslighted all of us and a producer of truly inventive ideas. To say his wife and two children were confused, while accurate, does not do justice to the anguished internal contortions, self-attacks, pain and rage that filled the atmosphere at home, even when we were not interacting.
By the time I was sixteen the family was, finally, falling apart. We, or sometimes just our parents, were traveling a couple of hours for appointments with a family therapist. He saw me individually once and asked me what I’d like to ask of my father, if I could. I think he was surprised by my answer, but gently went on to ask how I thought he would respond. That stumped me. I had no idea, but the seed had been planted. Perhaps I was not so desperately helpless after all. Perhaps I could speak to my father.
Dad did the dishes after dinner. I dried most of the time. So it was a relatively low-key moment for raising something. Though I thought at the time I’d never forget my exact words, I have. It went something like this: “Dad, I have something I’d like to ask you.”
“What’s that, baby?”
“Could you please be like other fathers?”
“Oh, no, baby. That’s just not the way I am.”
And with that simple, serious exchange the light of reality began to grow and to replace the darkness of false hope. Maybe more important, that lovely therapist who had so nondirectively suggested the importance of speaking up, had begun my lessons in how to hope: not for the fine, glorious redemption one can imagine, but for the next good step, the thing one can do in the face of so much one cannot. That is the hope that is such a wonderful ingredient of our daily bread.