It’s Mental Health Awareness week here in the UK, and also locally there’s a festival Pushing Up Daisies: http://www.pushingupdaisies.org/ creating conversations around death, dying and bereavement both of which inspired me to write this letter to my dad today. He died a few years ago. I cried a lot when I wrote it, which is new for me and feels healthy and healing.
Dear Jim, my dad,
Four years ago, when I found out you’d died, I was visiting Karen in France with my 2 kids. I was confused when we got there, because despite the anticipation it was clear she didn’t really want us there. We stayed in a caravan with no windows adjacent to her’s in a dilapidated, once upon a time, barn and she would drop us off by the nearest river where we would entertain ourselves as best as we could for the day while she went about her usual routine. It was isolating and stressful and I felt angry with her for inviting us when she so clearly couldn’t handle us being there. As the days unfolded, she told me you had prostate cancer and on the day before we left, she got a phone call from mum to say you had died. She couldn’t look at me. I tried my best to be there for her, to offer my condolences as angry tears spilled down her face. I felt like a hypocrite and she assumed the same and could take no comfort from me. There was just hot spiky anger and I felt like an intruder as she blanked me and I disappeared and tried to explain to the kids and keep them quiet.
Karen’s friends gave us all a lift to the airport the next day and they hugged and kissed her and told her how sorry they were. With the wind blowing in my face in the back of the car, I was struck how no one had ever said sorry to me for the things you did and it was like the cultural silence once again deafened me. She was relieved to say goodbye as we were dropped for a long wait at the airport where I tried to answer the kid’s questions about you – a man they’d never met but were intrigued about.
Back in the UK, I started to sift through my feelings and watch as new ones arose over days and weeks. I had been estranged from you and mum for over 20 years so I didn’t expect to feel much, as cutting you out of my life had been a very positive decision and one that was no doubt easier for you too. Without your hatred and your blame, I had been able to grow stronger and healthier, but you were harder to banish from my head and lived loud, doubting everything I did and telling me how crap I was. Initially, after your death, I felt a massive relief, a liberation that I would never have to fear you again, a sense that I could move on, that this was a new chapter. And then came an unexpected grief as I realised a hope so dormant it had long been forgotten. It was grief from the tiny child part of me, the one who had left those scribbled love letters by your bed telling you how sorry I was for being such a bad girl, and how I would try harder to not make you so angry. I thought she had been killed off by your beatings, by your hateful insults, by the hopelessness, but she was still there. At some deep down level, I still hoped you would tell me that I was ok, loveable even, so that I could have that voice inside me too and start to believe it. I grieved the loss of that whisper of hope.
I wish the things you said to me in anger and hate were as easy to lay to rest as your body must’ve been, because although it happened so long ago they stay with me, are part of me like the blood coursing through my veins despite years of therapy. You broke me Jim, and it is hard to believe I will ever mend. For the stuff you did to me, and the stuff you let others do to me I don’t blame you for, I blame myself. I still believe if only I’d have been better behaved, been more compliant, been less compliant, I could’ve stopped those things happening – I could have stopped your prodigal son, my brother from raping me, etc etc. I know you had a cruel and loveless childhood and were the scapegoat in your own family, and I know how that feels and can understand how hard it is to parent after that. That’s the bit I can’t forgive you for – how you have impacted my beautiful innocent kids, despite them never having met you. Parenting with PTSD brings up your voice loud and clear, the one that says I contaminate everything I touch, that whatever I give will never be good enough. Triggers spin me out less and they get older and I have had years to acclimatise, but still I hate you for handing me this legacy, for the way that despite my best efforts and conscious parenting, I know that my trauma runs through them in a more diluted form. I will have to hand the baton of “breaking the cycle of abuse” onto them as I have not entirely managed it. At least I’m trying though.
I have no doubt you rest in peace, if there is such a thing, and I wish you no less. I do wish we’d been given the opportunity to have a better relationship though, and that is what I mourn, rather than the one we actually had. Through you, I have learned determination – to keep trying when I fail – because I want more for my kids, and I am in the position to commit to that. I traverse the chasms, cling on by my finger nails, at times frozen in cowering terror, at others putting one foot in front of the other left, right, left, right; still trying to silence your voice in my head.
From your daughter, Ruth.