The night before my middle sister’s wedding, my father sent me a text message. He wanted to talk, “So, it won’t be awkward tomorrow.” My father had not spoken to me for one year and two months. In this time, I had quit my job and moved from Denver, Colorado, to Riverside, California, for graduate school. I had learned my mother had leukemia. I had turned 30. None of these occasions had warranted a phone call from my father or a text message or a flock of homing pigeons with apologies and congratulations and consolations secured to their miniscule ankles.
So, I spoke to someone else. As a graduate student, I was entitled to five free sessions a year with a therapist through the campus mental health clinic. I had never spoken to a therapist before, but when my sister called me that May to see if it’d be possible for me to fly home in June for her short-notice nuptials, I knew she was also asking me to stand in the same room as my father and smile. It would not be possible for me to return to Louisville, Kentucky, for her intimate 30-person wedding without seeing him. And I did not know how to be in one city and leave my anger in another.
They didn’t have any Black women therapists on campus, so I took an appointment with whomever was next available. The therapist was a white man in his fifties, probably around the same age as my father. His features were about as interesting as his university-issued office décor: faded teal couch, grayed-out walls, boxy desk, fluorescent lights. I would have preferred a warmer color palette with softer lighting, but this was the aesthetic of free mental health care. The therapist asked me why I was there, and I told him, “I’m either crazy now and need help or I will be by the time I get back from Louisville.”
I wanted to talk about my father, the therapist wanted to talk about my mother. My father is not speaking to me. My father can be cruel. My father has a temper. But what about your mother? My mother? My mother has cancer.
Growing up, my mother taught us three girls how to read our father’s moods like the weather, how to discern their ever-shifting winds. How to carve out a childhood at the base of an active volcano. How to survive the flash flood that was my father’s temper, rage like water rising fast. He’d yell, he’d berate, he’d snarl. He’d snatch sentences from our mouths before we could finish them and twist them against us. This was at home. This was at school. This was without notice. This was a torrential downpour on a day the weatherman hadn’t even warned me to bring an umbrella. There was so much of him that there became very little room for me in my own head. It never occurred to me to stand up to him, to raise my voice in return, find out what he was truly capable of. All I knew was what my mother had taught us, that you can’t control the weather.
We rode the waves of his anger, never really knowing how far away from shore and safety we’d be swept. Every chair we neglected to push in after dinner, every light left on when leaving the room, every smear of egg yolk remaining on a counter was taken as a personal slight against him. Expressions, words, behaviors that seemed benign could mean something entirely different to my father, something worthy of a vortex of anger.
But the weather wasn’t always the climate. He also helped us with our homework. Patiently explaining algebra to me, long hours spent solving for the unknown. He bought me a used car at 16 and when I totaled it, he arrived at the scene unconcerned about the vehicle, saying, “All that matters is that you’re okay,” and replaced it with a brand new, cherry-red Jetta a few months later. I was born two months premature, and he often told me stories about holding me in the palm of one hand. How he’d dreamt of the father he lost at eight every night of his life until there was me. How I’d changed everything, meant everything to him.
This was our normal. A father who loved us, who clothed and fed us, who told us we’d never want for anything, but who left us starved for understanding. My mother taught us not to ask him for things when he was tired. Not to try to reason with him when he was raging, to let him cool down. Hours later, I’d write him letters and slip them under his bedroom door. The page was the only place I could be honest and free. Sometimes, my father would emerge from his room and behave as if nothing had happened. There’d be no apologies, maybe I’d be presented with a gift later that would be seemingly unrelated to his behavior. How I felt about these interactions was unimportant; I was the child. And I grew up to be a woman who never forgot the feeling of eggshells beneath her feet.
I performed the same delicate dance my mother taught me with all the men I dated. I weathered their emotions, I scoured their words for subtext and read their expressions as intently as a palm reader following the lines in a hand to some fictional finite end.
In Denver, I dated a man who lived one floor beneath me. We were dating, but we were not together, he insisted. We’d spend six nights straight together, all initiated by him, but if I pointed out we were essentially in a relationship, he’d do the hard work of staying away for a night. When drunk, he liked to plead with me to have his babies. But in the sobering light of morning, he’d panic at the thought of me taking his foolish requests seriously. For months, I stayed because there were also the romantic dinners, the chill nights on the couch, and the belief that beneath all his bullshit the feelings he had for me were real. With men, I knew only the reward in patience and how to sustain myself on what could be. As I had done with my father, I suspended the thoughts in my mind about who I was and what I liked or didn’t like, to keep these men in my life.
But as I neared 30, I began to question the way I’d been raised. I was trying to chart my own emotions, be my own weather pattern. So, when I saw the man I’d been dating, whose misery I’d been company to, chatting up another woman at a bar near our apartment complex, I approached him and tapped him calmly on the forearm. He shifted his attention from her to me long enough to blast me with a dismissive look. There in that moment, I knew the appropriate reaction was a downpour of rage. That this was the part of the movie where I sloshed a drink in his face or howled a warning at the woman, “He ain’t shit!”
But I wasn’t prepared to behave that way. I stopped seeing that man. It became apparent that it wasn’t possible for me to both let my feelings be my guide and be in relationships with men that were possible only if I suppressed my emotions.
But then, what about my father? Was it possible to continue to have a relationship with my father, the man whose anger had silenced me for decades, while also demanding more from the other men in my life? Could I demand more from my father too?
When I was a kid, my father was obsessed with taking us to the Grand Canyon. For him, it represented some sort of peak parenting moment, but us kids couldn’t have cared less about going. He’d pouted and finally let his dream go. “I wish someone had wanted to take me to the Grand Canyon when I was your age.”
So, when a work-related road trip was going to bring me as close to this Wonder of the World as I’d ever be, I invited my father to drive out from Kentucky and join me. When we finally arrived at the Grand Canyon, my father refused to leave the parking lot. We’d had more than one tense conversation on the way, unable to find our new groove as two adults instead of as child and father. “Are you sure? We’re already here,” I asked him. He crossed his arms and looked away from me.
A younger me would have been so racked with concern over the consequences to come that she would have cut the entire trip short. But this was the adult me, the me who had been out of his house for more than a decade. The me who was financially free. Not the me he could cradle in a single palm or threaten to take her car away or expect to shrivel under the boil of his anger. This me declined to tell him about my writing when he asked, made it clear she was uninterested in hearing about his dating life, and did not hesitate to opt out of any other topics of conversation she didn’t care to discuss. I had allowed the weight of my own feelings to crush the eggshells beneath my feet.
So, I left him behind and moved forward. I snapped selfies with the incomprehensible canyon yawning in the background beneath me, alone. One large single cloud hung in the blue sky, casting a soft gray cloud-shaped shadow on the otherwise vibrant view. An easy metaphor.
At the hotel that night, my father started an argument with me. As he had done at breakfast the previous day, he asked me about my writing. He wanted to know what I was writing about him. The truth? Nothing. It hadn’t even occurred to me that he should play such a large role in the story of who I was as to appear on the page alongside the men of my love life. “I’m not writing about you. I’m writing about sex!” I shouted.
“Oh,” my father said. “That doesn’t bother me. I’m a very open person.”
“What does that have to do with me?” I wanted to know. The question doubled over on itself. Even in a world created of my own words that did not feature him, he thought his feelings should override my own. I didn’t keep my writing from my father because I had anything to hide, but because I wanted to protect what was most precious to me from him.That night, I found the limitations of conversation.
The next morning, he packed up and left before I was out of bed. Over the phone, he made it clear that I was not to call him. “I never want to speak to you again,” he said. If only that had been the first time my father had ever uttered those words to me, maybe I would have felt remorse over the fine powder of eggshells beneath my feet. Maybe I would have let him be a cloud over my canyon. But it wasn’t the first time, it was just the longest he’d ever meant it.
At the wedding venue, I got into an argument with my mother mild enough that it mattered to no one but her. I barely exchanged smiles with my father but agreed to meet him for lunch the next day. As I got into his car, he asked me how I was.
“Angry,” I said.
“What? Why?” he asked, looking genuinely confused.
“Because you haven’t spoken to me in over a year for no good reason.”
“Well, I can’t dwell on the past, I can only move forward.”
“I didn’t deserve to be treated that way.”
“No one deserves to be treated that way.”
It was like being in the car with “Big Mouth Billy Bass” shooting prerecorded one-liners at me but far less entertaining. I wanted my father to acknowledge what he’d done and how he’d hurt me. Back and forth we went like this until we arrived at the lunch spot and had bland conversation over even blander chain-restaurant Mediterranean food.
Back in Riverside, after the wedding, I returned to see the therapist one last time. He didn’t actually smirk when I told him it was my mom I ended up fighting with at the wedding and not my father, but he might as well have.
“How can I be better around my parents?” I asked him. I knew I’d never be the daughter who’s best friends with her parents, but surely we could address whatever deficit in me wouldn’t allow me to be in the same room as them without getting emotional.
“I don’t like to say this,” the therapist said, but he said it anyway. “There’s nothing wrong with you.”
He shared a story about his own father, the way the man got under his skin over something as benign as telling him to sit down while he eats. “I know he’s going to say it and that it’s going to annoy me and we can avoid the whole thing by me just sitting down before he says anything, but the thought of doing that makes me angry too.” Sometimes, this is just the way of parents and children.
Over the next year, I moved home to Louisville. My father and I had an off-and-on relationship. He took me to dinner for my birthday, and I cried fast-rolling tears over my meal in the small, cramped restaurant over how broken we felt.
“You’re making people uncomfortable,” my father said, seeing people at other tables shooting their eyes over at us and then back at their dining companions.
“I don’t care about their feelings. I want you to care about mine,” I said, continuing to cry until the server had the sense to bring our check so we could leave.
Outside the restaurant, we talked about why every disagreement or uncomfortable conversation ended with him shoving me out of his life for months on end. That night, I found the limitations of conversation. I flooded him with my angry words like lava racing across the land to be comforted by the sea. And still I was not satisfied. I raged, and I raged about the way he’d treated me over the years. He kept returning to the fact that at least he’d been there; for him the good outweighed the bad and for me the bad was still worthy of his repentance. Now, I was the active volcano and he was the one with the words that were always wrong.
Sitting outside that restaurant, I felt the cold iron of the patio chair through my clothes like the truth settling over me: I knew that my father was never going to be more than who he was. He’d told me the story of my birth so many times, how holding me in his palm had changed him, that I had truly believed that who I am could change who he is.
I’d been searching for an answer about whether or not he was a man I could have in my life, when the question that needed an answer was whether it was fair for me to continue to be in my father’s life for the sole purpose of berating him for who he had been and for who he was? For my own sake and his, I needed to accept him for the good and the bad or move forward without him.
That night, I began to understand that there’s a difference between someone actively trying to harm you and someone’s specific constellation of shortcomings being harmful to you. It’s the difference between an earthquake, inescapable and un-anticipated, tearing everything you’ve built down and stepping into the path of a tornado even as the sirens ring out their warning. What I’m saying is that unlike when I was a child, I now had a choice, I too had power over our relationship.
I’d spent my whole life ceding ground in relationships to men and letting them dictate the terms. If my father couldn’t be who I wanted him to be, or even who I needed him to be, he could still be worthy of my love, but I was the one who got to decide what that love looked like.
My father is making an effort to be better. Maybe because he knows the time he spent not speaking to me after the Grand Canyon taught me I could withstand a world without his love and taught him he could not withstand a world without mine.
Now, he plans lunches and arrives on time. He weeds my yard in 90 degree weather and sprays around the windows of my home to keep the bugs out. His apologies come easier, he retreats more readily when he comes up against my boundaries.
Recently, he called me. “When the weather cools down, let’s do the walking bridge twice a week.” He paused, then, “I’m trying to be a better father.”
“I’m 33,” I said. Accepting my father as he is, means refusing to join him in chasing after the fantasy of who he believes he can or should be. I won’t sit on top of the stack of unachievable expectations he’s burdened our relationship with and then rage at him when his knees buckle, when he inevitably lets me down. I refused the new terms he was presenting. I told him I couldn’t commit to that, I couldn’t take on the obligation of it. He told me to look at it as an opportunity, to just think about it. I could already feel my temper prickling up.
What was driving him to continue this cycle of dreaming too big, disappointing me, and then disappearing on me? I want us to come to a place where our relationship is stable and static, where all the questions have been answered. I’m tired of renegotiating our roles in each other’s lives. Every time he tries to begin the cycle anew, it sparks up all of my feelings from the past. And anger is the only thing I’ve found to squelch out the feelings of helplessness that I felt as a child.
My father didn’t call me again after that conversation. I know it’s on me this time to call him, but I let weeks go by because I am without the right words to say. It’s me and my anger in this place between a canyon and a bridge.
My father has mellowed with age. He’s different with me. But I’m. Still. Angry. And I don’t know where to put that anger. It doesn’t feel good when I put it on him and doesn’t feel right when I sit with it. And if this anger isn’t my fault, why am I the one burdened by the weight of it? Why won’t it just dissipate? And now the anger is joined by guilt that I can’t indulge him by playing a do-over dress-up game with the past, him as the infallible role-model father and me starring as the doting daughter. I need to find a way for peace to exist between us without either of us pretending to be something we aren’t. Because even if anger does, fathers don’t live forever.
Excerpted from Burn It Down: Women Writing about Anger edited by Lilly Dancyger. Copyright © 2019. Available from Seal Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.