“I think you need to get her on some medication,” he advised. “Something like phenobarbital.”
Phenobarbital? Isn’t that for extreme mental patients? Or the drug of choice from “Valley of the Dolls?”
But I just nodded. “OK, Dad.”
I hoped my acquiescence would signal him to stop. It’d been a long 24 hours as it was, with his unsolicited advice. I know he meant well, but his weighing in on everything just went overboard. Plus, I couldn’t understand why he positioned the state of my life, my kids, my weight, as so dire, so in need of intervention.
“You don’t want Toots to turn out like you,” he said one morning. “Too emotional, over thinking, melodramatic.”
“Just leave the kids alone!” he said soon after. “You’re overmothering them!”
And: “You’re the heaviest you’ve ever been,” he observed. “I think you’re a compulsive eater.”
He knows his words kill me. And while I defend him by saying he is a moral man, a good father, someone I always knew would be there if I needed him, this part of him is ugly and unrelenting. He knows the buttons to push, and like a child, he presses them again and again. Even when my pain begs him to stop.
“Half of what your dad says is bullshit,” The Rock tells me. “The other half is what he really believes.” So I usually tune out when my father tells me I’m not a good parent, or my “hyperactive” daughter needs medication, or I’m “too” imaginative, as if that should be outlawed. And I roll my eyes as he expands his riffs to “broads who shouldn’t be in office,” “women drivers,” and the hundreds of other slurs he heaves on black people, gays, idiots. He doesn’t really mean it, I say, and I believe most of him doesn’t, but what of the parts that do? How does a daughter reconcile that with the image and experience she has of her father as protector, guide, hero? Especially when I’m a target like everyone else.
He’s always been this way. I understood early on that my dad likes to get a rise out of people and there’s a disconnect between what he says and what he does. This is a man who puts labels on everyone, yet one of his good friends was a homosexual who’s since passed away, he works for a black man who he respects and he’s a friend to anyone who needs him of any stripe or color, taking in sick people without families, allowing them to stay in his home to die peacefully, just my dad and stepmom to hold their hand.
It’s so important to me that you know how much I love my dad; how he was there for me during and after the births of both my children, how he advocated for my happiness by transferring me to different schools, acting as intermediary between my mom and I; how he would go anywhere, anytime to be with his kids in times of need, most recently traveling to Minneapolis to support my heartbroken sister after the very (22 weeks) premature birth of her baby girl. And it’s fundamental that you know the length of my guilt. That I can call my dad out like this is hard for me. I can’t quite untangle my love for my dad from the hurt he causes me with his thoughtless — or calculated? — comments.
I even hurt when I fight back, tell him to not talk that way about me or in front of my kids, because shouldn’t I just let him be who he is? And it doesn’t matter anyway, like an impish child, he does what he wants. This resistance goes down to the smallest levels. When we told the kids “no more candy,” he took that as his cue to offer them both a solid chocolate bunny.
And would you believe, part of me is embarrassed to tell him how I feel. After all, I should be strong, impervious, stable, not hurt, fragile and imaginative. Through it all, I know in my head that this is about my dad, not me. But it’s become harder to tune him out and focus on the good. My dad taught me through action to accept people for who they are, to be tolerant, to forgive. But the words, and the words…what are sons and daughters to make of them?
And right when he pushes with a comment that bites, he pulls you back with his sincere desire to love you, the transparent hope that you are safe, well, and happy.
I spent the three-hour ride home hoping that would be enough.