My father is sick, but I don't want to see him

I feel so awful for him ... but he's been so awful to me!

Published November 14, 2005 6:38PM (EST)

Hi Cary.

My father is in the hospital in South Dakota with complications from diabetes. I've spoken to him once in eight years.

I lived with him while I was a teenager for a short spell. That was a disaster. We didn't get along. I ran away. He called the cops. I attempted suicide. When the paramedics came, he laughed at me. He told me that I'd never be anything, I'd never make it as anything, never be somebody. When I left the hospital, I moved back in with my mother. My father only returned half of my things.

He keeps in touch with my brothers. I went to dinner with them once a few years ago. He broke down crying and apologized for the horrid things he's done (abandoning my brother, all of us, really, talking about my mother behind her back, taking my things, taking things from everyone). Then he kept on behaving like a bastard.

He taught my little brother to paint (and the boy is now a phenomenal talent) and, once he realized that my brother had surpassed him, started to undermine him and cheat him when my little brother's paintings sold.

When I got out of the hospital, I moved home, went through a lot of therapy, went to a very prestigious college on scholarship, and am now starting out in a very competitive field. My family's kept my whereabouts a secret from him, because we fear that he might come and beg me for money and support.

I have a very good relationship with everyone else in my family. My stepdad introduces me as his daughter, and he's pretty much the only father figure I've got.

Here's the thing -- it's my dad's 50th birthday. I think it's kind of horrid that he's alone, in the hospital, he might die (although for some reason I think he won't), and it's his birthday. I'm sad for him, but I don't want to contact him. Do I love him? I don't know. I once did, but now that sounds strange to me, that I ever loved my father, that he was ever a part of my life.

Do I call him? I don't want to. Do I do nothing? That seems cold. I am OK with being cold. What would I say? "Happy Birthday, hope you don't die!"

I don't know what to do with this information. I started crying at work earlier because the idea of someone being alone in the hospital on his 50th birthday seemed very sad to me. Alone and unloved. The abstract idea is sad. That it happens to be my father in the hospital, alone and unloved ... feels like ... nothing. There is only numbness.

Seeking Guidance

Dear Seeking,

Whatever you do you're going to have to process all the feelings. So you could go be with your dad and process those feelings. Or you could not go be with your dad and process those feelings. Either way, you are in conflict. Either way, you are going to have powerful feelings.

I generally find that when something is in my mind, a person or a place, it's helpful to go there and see what it's like, try to sense what it is that's got such a powerful hold on me. But that is just me: I go out into the world because, ultimately, the world interests me; it all interests me. But that doesn't mean things always work out well. I get into scrapes. I overextend. I spend too much money. I spend too much of myself.

Last week I spent some time with my dad. I don't see him very often. I live on the other side of the country. A lot of time has passed and he's grown old. I didn't really expect him to grow old. I kept meaning to get down to Florida and see him. So I have all kinds of feelings about seeing him, about having been away, about the changes I see in him. So I have to process all that. So here I am, just another person on the planet, processing my feelings.

That sounds very industrial, doesn't it -- as though once you're done processing your feelings you'll have them in a can, or you can put them in the freezer? I don't mean it like that. Better to say: Live with your feelings, feel them, get to know them, carry them, weigh them, feel their weight, get to know their characteristics. It's quite typical of us, we Americans, warlike, repressed, efficient and work-obsessed, that we would use that term "process" your feelings, isn't it? It also implies, if I may be a little vulgar, a cycle of consumption and digestion, as if the end result were going to be a waste product. We are so efficient, so well trained!

So anyway, what I am trying to get at is that no matter what decision you make, your larger challenge in life is to learn how to navigate around these feelings (why navigate? Is that another telling metaphor?). Now I personally if I were sitting with you and talking, I would probably say: Go. Go be with your dad. It's just the obvious thing to do. If you're thinking about something, if an opportunity presents itself, I generally feel that the thing to do is trust that, to treat it as a calling, as a signal, to believe what the universe is telling you, if I may be a little bit woo-woo-woo about it. This is part of my general orientation: Take your life and your experiences literally. Do not live in metaphor; live in the actual.

But my way of doing things is not the only way of doing things. On the other side of the coin, you have the perfect right to protect yourself from the effect your father's presence may have on you. You have the right to preserve your own life. You may have had to struggle mightily to get where you are, and you may feel, rightly so, that to contact your father would jeopardize it. It might sort of, um, destabilize you.

So I can't give you a prescription. I can only suggest that you try to feel deeply, and think deeply, and ask for guidance not just from me but from the resources of your own psyche and your own world. You may be called to go to your father. Or you may be called to ignore the call. The trick is to divine what you are being called on to do. Usually, I find, if I spend enough time with something, it becomes clear what I have to do. It's often not what I want to do, or think I should do. It's what I have to do.

Like that Theodore Roethke poem says: "I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. I learn by going where I have to go."

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Cary Tennis will be on vacation until Nov. 22. Look for his next "Since You Asked" column on Nov. 23.

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