DEAR DAD, I’M SORRY I didn’t go to your 80th birthday party, just a year before your heart gave out. I was that angry at you, still smarting from all the belittling, the sarcasm, the intimidation. Just this morning, I was listening to a broad-shouldered CEO with a booming voice on CNBC and began to feel beads of sweat on my forehead. I was just a kid, Dad. I’m pushing 80 now, wounded as you were by the slings and arrows of life, and chastened by my own experience of fatherhood.
You were one smart dude, so you must have known how I felt about you, but you never retaliated or abandoned me. I’ve been there now and learned restraint from you. My repudiation of your impoverished childhood, your religious heritage and all your business accomplishments must have stung. I know because that’s what I intended.
Dad, do you remember my first time on a two-wheeler? I think I was four. You promised you would follow me along the sidewalk and hold on to the back of the seat. You lied, Dad. You lied because you believed your son shouldn’t need help. But I did, and I took a nasty spill. I ran back into the house and only stopped crying when Mommy put a Band-Aid across my knee. Maybe you were trying to prepare me for the rigors of life, but I also learned not to trust, not to delegate, not to have business partners.
You never put much stock in my psychology training, but please try to make this connection: In graduate school, all of us were asked to lean backward until we fell gently into the arms of a fellow classmate standing behind us. I was the only one who couldn’t do that.
You always hated the stock market because you couldn’t control it like you controlled your business. You’ll probably snicker when I tell you that, right now, I’m trapped in a bear market. You know what, Dad? Even though I’ve seen this plot play out many times before, I have no faith that it’s safe, and that’s probably your influence as well. I’m afraid I’m missing something out there that threatens the largesse you and Mom left me. I’m hanging on, but it’s a fight to the death.
Dad, you hollered like a football coach, one wildly swinging his arms on the sidelines. You scared the hell out of me when you came home from the office and bellowed from the bottom of the stairs, “Stevie, come down for dinner already.” You’ve probably had it with my psychobabble, but this is the truth. Over my 11 years as a college professor, I only taught one undergraduate lecture class and instead capitalized on my ability to publish research. I did a lot of supervision of graduate students’ dissertations and clinical work, but I didn’t want the anxiety of confronting an audience publicly.
This may come as a surprise, but I have always been upset about what you did to Richie. You probably don’t know what I’m getting at, so I’ll try to explain. Richie loved you like I never could, he was the son who listened to you, wore the same kind of shirts, he totally honored you. I was so jealous of your relationship. But you betrayed him, Dad. He went to law school, specialized in real estate and advised you on several closing transactions. He knew which apartments were on Eastern Parkway and which commercial properties were on lower Broadway. I compensated by willing myself to be a respected scientist.
You were blindsided by the stroke, bitter and humiliated by your partial paralysis. I’ve had a stroke warning and have some idea of how terrifying that must have been for you, a man so aggressively proud of his masculinity. But you wouldn’t hand the ball off to Richie. If you couldn’t score, then no one was going over the goal line. You dumped everything, Brooklyn, Manhattan, a businessman’s life in one fell swoop. Where does pride end and ego begin?
One time, driving back home from the city, you said, “Stevie, Manhattan’s not getting any bigger. They’ll have to come down our way. Not soon, but I hope in your lifetime.” And it happened. Dad, remember your rickety buildings downtown, you know, the ones with all the graffiti? They’re all fixed up now. The whole area has been revitalized and gentrified. It’s a little place called Soho.
Can a parent raised in a dingy Bronx tenement not be envious of the affluent life he provided for his children? You showered us with those imported sports cars and classic watches, but you were anguished that neither Richie nor I could truly appreciate how hard your early years were. I’m sorry, Dad, and I know Richie is, too. I get it now.
You were a real character. In the summer, when we were kids, you would come out in your yellow shorts, no shirt and a Giants cap, and play softball with us. When you belted one onto the Jacobs’s front lawn, you trotted around the imaginary bases and tipped your hat. At my 25th high school reunion, a couple of old friends came up to me and asked, “How’s Wild Bill?”
In your world, under the surface, every man had dignity. I recall the time you heard Otis Redding sing, “I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay, watchin’ the tide roll away.” You slapped my shoulder and said, “Cool, man. That guy knows we all need a break in this life.”
Dad, with all those buildings you suddenly unloaded, you just missed knocking one out of the park. I miss you horribly. I’m sending along some pictures of the buildings you once owned. Richie took the photos last time he was in New York. I’m also including a recent one of my son, Ryan. He’s programmed a little like you.
Steve Abramowitz is a psychologist in Sacramento, California. Earlier in his career, Steve was a university professor, including serving as research director for the psychiatry department at the University of California, Davis. He also ran his own investment advisory firm. Check out Steve’s earlier articles.
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Like many people I rebelled from my parents when I was young man. However, I subsequently learned it was just immaturity on part. I’ve known for a long time that I was lucky to have parents that did their best for me even if I didn’t like it at the time.
To paraphrase: Forgive and you will be forgiven. That to me is the key to long term relationships.
So true. In my case I carried on my adolescent rebellion for far too long—almost until 40. I was lucky though. My career I used to “leave home,” psychology, turned out pretty well for me. It was a good fit, but it eventually became clear it was not my passion. I am now in semi-retirement, managing my own investments and helping people manage theirs. When you’re a kid, your parents seem foolish, though at middle age they don’t seem that dumb after all. With the wisdom of 77, I would rate them just a little below genius!
Excellent insight…thanks for sharing.
What a nice thing to say! Thank you. Some of that insight comes from my family, some from hard work in my own therapy and truth be told some from my patients. Therapists learn so much about themselves from hearing about the travails of their patients, even though they might deny it (or not even be aware of it).
Steve, thank you for sharing this. It’s impossible to overestimate the influence our parents continue to have on us, even as we reach old age ourselves.
On a lighter note, my wife recently told me of a quote attribued to the actor George Clooney back in his bachelor days: “I refuse to date any woman who still hasn’t forgiven her father.”
Andrew, I think that coming to that humbling awareness is a prime task of the aging parent. It allows us to be more sensitive to the profound influence we still have on our adult children.
The last thing I need to do is compare George Clooney’s bachelorhood with my own. Unfortunately in my case it went like this: “I refuse to date any woman whose father hasn’t forgiven me!”
Thanks for writing. I’m glad the piece carried some meaning for you.
“And he will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers.” Malachi 3:24.
You bring to mind two favorite quotes
of my own:
In our attempt to protect the people we love from pain, we manage to keep those memories forgotten, hidden in our own minds—Galit Atlas, Emotional Inheritance
What cannot be communicated to the mother, cannot be communicated to the self—John Bowlby (1991)
Thanks for contributing and stimulating my own thinking.
I was so touched by your eloquent tribute. It’s taken me a long time to try to understand my parents. Unlike you, I still have a long way to go.
Thanks so much. Can we ever really put ourselves in their shoes? We’re so biased! Sonja, knowing as you say you still have a ways to go tells me you’re you’re already on the right path.
Wow! There sure are a lot of layers there. Your story reminds me somewhat of my relationship with my father. I tried, and thankfully succeeded, to intentionally build a different relationship with my sons. Life can be difficult and confusing. I can identify with your experience in learning to ride a bicycle – there wasn’t a lot of patience. Remember the Johnny Cash song “A boy named sue”?
Thank you. Have to admit I don’t remember it. But I do remember “I Walked the Line.” I too have been trying to avoid a repeat performance—I only hope I haven’t gone too far in the other direction.