Me and my little lightbulbs in the bluebonnets!

Me and my little lightbulbs in the bluebonnets!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Abandoned: Five Things I Learned From My Absentee Father

Sometimes I find myself waxing nostalgic about my father, more for the dad I know he could have been instead of the shadow he turned out to be. I remember, for instance, that he would sometimes strum his guitar singing "Can't Help Falling In Love" to me as the evening sun was fading. I also recall very fond memories of lazy summer days camping with my whole family, Dad and me on the boat, skipping rocks, sitting on the dock. But the warmth of those memories is punctured by the reality that my father was a father when it suited him, virtually abandoning me in my pre-teen years when I desperately needed him most.

My father was a womanizer, alcoholic, recreational drug user and emotional and physical abuser. He had a lightning-fast temper that sparked at the smallest provocation, often exploding into rages that left deep wounds. But even as I write this, I don't feel anger; I feel a deep sadness. Because for all my father's failings, parts of him were lovable and even admirable.

He was charismatic, good-looking, extremely intelligent and giving (when he felt the urge). And, despite the pain he caused me throughout my life, I learned quite a bit from my dysfunctional, on-again-off-again relationship with the man I now call Harold.

1. Words matter. 

I can recall very sharply some of the hurtful, hateful things my father said to me growing up. Things like stupid, liar, you won't ever amount to anything. Those statements took me years to process and overcome. Even to this day I have a strong reaction to the word stupid. When my children say it, I correct them quickly. No one should be told they are stupid or ugly or worthless. Because no one is. And, believe it or not, those words stick like super glue to an already wounded soul. So, I've learned to think carefully before I speak, especially in anger. For, as much as I hate to admit it, bad tempers are hereditary, and I have been cursed with Harold's quick-fire temper.

2. Time matters. 

My father will occasionally call me, and, although we haven't had an honest-to-goodness, let's-get-to-know-each-other conversation since I was probably 10 years old, he still says he misses me. The real truth, if we were to boil it down, is that he misses the idea of me. But, he didn't put in the time to get to know me, to sit down and ask me about my likes and dislikes, goals and dreams, without judgement. I make it a point to listen to my children's seemingly meaningless ramblings, because inside each one is a nugget of truth, a tiny window into a soul that is growing and changing with every passing minute. It's not enough to say, "I care". It has to be exhibited moment-by-moment each and every day.

3. Memories matter. 

As I mentioned, I have very warm recollections of some of the times with my father. When he was truly engaged, he was the most fun and adventurous father a girl could ask for. And, as we both get on in age, I hang on to those moments and try to remember my childhood with him through that lens. Because, as few and far between as they were, these are the times I can point to and say, my dad did love me in his way.  

As my children grow older, I want them to have those solid accounts to hang on to. These little intangibles are what sustain us through hardships and anchor us through the storms of life. They are gifts no one can take away, and my aim is to give my children one thousand of these treasures every day if I'm able.

4. Dreams matter. 

In college, I decided to try my hand at the Miss Texas America pageant system. I was very excited, and put everything I had into training my mind, body and voice for the competition. When my father heard that I was going to do this, he quite bluntly told me I was too short, that I'd never succeed. 

At 5'0", I was short. He was right about that. What he wasn't right about was my ability to accomplish my goals. I went on to win one of the most coveted crowns in the Miss Texas system, competed twice at the state level in Texas and once at the state level in Miss Louisiana, winning talent and swimsuit.

My father was wrong, not only about my ability, but in throwing up a road block that, had I been a different kind of person, could have derailed one of my goals. I know now that this came from his own fear of failure. It was the driving force behind his never attending college and trying, through abuse and intimidation, to keep my mother from doing so as well after they were married.

So, when my children say to me, "Mommy, I want to be an astronaut surfer brain surgeon," I say,"Go for it!"

Whether you've been here three years or three decades, dreams matter. Period. And they should be nurtured, supported and encouraged.

5. Fathers matter. 

I can go on for ten pages about the difficulty both my brother and I faced by not having a stable father figure in our lives. Aside from the emotional and physical scars, we had deep insecurities, abandonment issues and, at least for me, trust blocks that affected our relationships. When I met my husband, Dan, God placed in my path a man who would not be intimidated by the shadows in my past. Instead, his love helped me dig through the mire of my emotions and become a much healthier person. 

I watch our two boys with their father and my heart swells. Knowing the absence of that kind of affection, it deepens my appreciation for each moment they share. And I know our children will be blessed with better tools to manage love, life and all the ups and downs that come with both.

If you're a father, know that your role matters, and as part of that role every aspect holds weight: your words, your time, the memories you make and the dreams you nurture. Dads don't get the kind of recognition they deserve. But know that God pointed out 21 times in the Bible how important fatherhood was to a family.

My father failed me, it's true. But through his absences and missteps, I learned how to be a better parent to my own children. Moreover, I learned what to look for in a father for my kids. That is a gift we all benefit from and for that, I'm forever grateful.