Sunday, June 29, 2008

Like Father...

Five years ago, I don’t think I would have ever admitted to myself, much less to anyone else, that I took after my father. I thought he was too stubborn for his own good, too proud to admit he was wrong or to apologize for a mistake, too rigid in his beliefs and so quick to judge others who did not share the same values as him.

Then beginning in 2003, my life fell apart so many times that I began to develop a most effective coping mechanism—looking inward. And I went poking about inside my psyche, inside my thoughts and motivations, as seriously and as determinedly as a CSI agent. Out of this inward curiosity, I discovered that there was inside me a too-stubborn, too-proud, too-rigid, too-judgmental person and that it was this part of me that was attracting and causing the pain and misery and confusion of which I was suffering. No wonder my father and I didn’t get along—we were so alike, we shared too many of the same negative traits that we clashed.

I decided I was going to change.

I willfully altered my habits and thought-patterns (repeatedly telling myself as a mantra: “You don’t always have to be right”) and before long the miracle happened: my father and I managed to stay at the same table without arguing. Looking at my father from a more open, more accepting vantage point—and not always trying to exert my own will--I saw that he was a kind, funny, irreverent, pure-hearted, deep, thoughtful, intelligent, honest romantic idealist who was always trying to do the “right thing”. And this allowed me to get in touch with the part of me that was all that, too. The more I liked my father, the more I liked myself. I developed such a deep, unwavering affection and respect for this man who happened to be my father—and what all that was doing for me--that I found a kind of peace that I never even imagined. And for a few years, we were doing fine. That is, until I fell in love with a man with whom my father was so violently opposed.

The new man in my life had been married before and had two kids from that marriage. For my staunchly Catholic father, who didn’t believe in annulment and who saw me as the loose, immoral woman who was coming between a man and his family, this was a definite no-no. I thought I could change his mind once he’d hear from me how happy I was in this new relationship. But in our first meeting after he learned (from my sister) that I was dating a “married man with kids”, he told me in his straightforward manner: “I just want you to know that if this relationship ends up in marriage, I don’t want to be there.”

It was too late to hate my father for that or to think that he was just saying it to hurt me. I had already seen a more complete picture of him—I could never go back to thinking he was just put on this earth to make my life a living hell. We were at an Italian restaurant, sharing a pizza while he sipped his cappuccino when I brought up the subject of my new relationship. Almost instantly, storm clouds gathered around him, his expression darkened. He looked like he couldn’t wait to get away from the table, from the restaurant, from me, from the whole idea that his eldest child was devaluing herself by being with a man who did not value marriage and family. He suddenly looked old and lost, and my heart went out to him. I found myself saying gently, “I understand, Pops.” The strange thing there was that I meant it. Knowing him, I did understand his position. He was consistent. He was acting according to his own strong personal beliefs, according to what he believed was right. He didn’t mean any harm. In fact, to his mind, he was trying to protect me from harm. He reminded me so much of someone—he reminded me of myself.

Right then I vowed to myself that I wasn’t going to change how I treat him. I would continue to respect his position and his beliefs even as they were the direct opposite of mine. I would treat him the way I wanted to be treated. I would never again try to change his mind. For almost a year, he refused to speak to me and I let him be.

During that time, I became a writing teacher and discovered that I loved teaching almost as much as writing. Teaching revealed to me my own capacity to be a safe place for my students, that I was a person with whom they felt free to be their most natural, authentic selves. I couldn’t help thinking it was my experience with my father that made me into such a person.

After almost a year of not speaking, my father turned up in one of my workshops. It wasn’t as dramatic as it may sound because he isn’t a very dramatic or sentimental person. He simply sat, matter-of-factly, in class and was the most enthusiastic student. Whenever I asked my students if they would like to share what they had written, my father would raise his hand like an eager little boy and proceed to spill his guts. In one heart-wrenching essay, told in his trademark straight-up, unapologetic, unsentimental, irreverent, funny and unflinchingly honest style, my father shared with me, his writing teacher, the story of his life—his dreams and disappointments and the peace he was trying to make with all of these.

It took us three drafts, a few more cups of coffee in a café and plenty of trust and respect on both sides to get us back on track.


Cecille said...

like father, like daughter indeed... i used to really 'dislike' this one person 5yrs ago that it took a good friend to tell me that that person and myself were so alike... and i went 'whaaaatt????' in disbelief....

Tweet Sering said...

Di ba? Unnnnnerving...