I love you Daddy! The words rushed out in happiness. I was about ten. I smiled waiting for the four word reply. Daddy nodded.
Don’t tell me you love me. Show me.”
I am angry that I loved my father. Angry that I was made to love so freely & and want such love in return.
Dad was almost silent about his story of growing up in Belfast. The few details that did emerge were raw and harsh. I imagine it as Angela’s Ashes except in Northern Ireland, and not Catholic, and Dad’s father was a mean drunk and a philanderer who ruled the family with his fists and a cat o’ nine tails.
In his teens my father joined the church. His brothers taunted him and picked fights. What a sissy! But they could not throttle the faith out of him. Church people valued stability, education, and clean living — no smoking, no drinking. They proclaimed hope and offered certainty. With their encouragement Dad left Northern Ireland and completed college. He married. He gave his wife and children the home he had not known. He was, as he liked to say, Pretty good out of the stuff. He earned and owned his place as the spiritual leader and head of our family with unquestioned (and unshared) right to strong preferences, critical observations, impatience, and anger. And, I learned, the right to say Show me you love me.
Dad escaped physical poverty but never shook off emotional poverty. Every relationship was an exchange, a transaction. Speaking of a new acquaintance, my father might say, He doesn’t have much to offer — meaning influence, ideas, humor, or clever conversation. He would observe, So and so brings little to the table — reason enough to let a relationship cool. To get something you must give something. Perform. Prove you are worthy.
If I disappointed the parents, Dad would shake his head and say, After all we’ve done for you! What was fair exchange for all they had done for me? To do well and be good — preferably better than my peers. But way before puberty I figured out that somewhere in the world, in fact in my classroom, was another child who got higher grades, ran faster, played piano better, spoke with more confidence, and behaved more obediently and respectfully than I. My performance was shabby. I could not compete.
When life ran smoothly Dad laughed, whistled, joked. But when Dad was disappointed or displeased, harsh words were just the beginning. The climate in the house cooled. He withheld approval until the offender — my mother, one of my siblings, or I — felt sufficient chill to really, really apologize and know better in the future.
Dad’s transaction and performance expectations shifted over the years. But they didn’t go away.
In his eighties the burden to perform and prove continued. Dad stayed at a retirement community for a few months. On meeting another resident for the first time, Dad launched into a poetry recitation. After two verses of a long, lilting rhyme, pedestrian conversation pales. With a murmur of confused awe the new acquaintance stood silent.
I am angry that I loved my father.
I am angry that I loved my father. Angry that my fierce, childish love was not enough to obliterate the prove-your-worth script he knew better than his own name. Angry that I breathed in the belief that I had to prove my worth — while certain I had nothing to offer. Angry that I believed I was unfriendable because of this. Occasionally, I am angry that my father didn’t feel the need to look for and learn new skills. On most days, I am simply sad he missed the freedom and delight of healthy emotional connections. We can only give what we’ve got.
I’m over fifty years old. I still do not know what Dad expected when he said, Don’t tell me you love me. Show me.
Unlike my dad, I am not so silent about my past. I see openly grappling with my story as an expression of love. [Thank you, Brené Brown.] Shining light into darkness. Staring down fear. Finding new ways to see.
Through the writing process, I realize that much of my personal anger is linked to not being seen.
Dad, I see you. Your striving ended the physical poverty that your father, and his father, and his father before him handed to you. You broke that cycle so I can stand where I do. Thank you.
Standing right here, right now, my calling is to address the scars and patterns of emotional poverty. The wounds of family history and practices of a toxic culture go deep. The road is long. But I will show up as wholeheartedly as I can — to offer & receive acceptance freely, to give & get help without keeping score, and build and belong in relationships where authenticity is the best reward.