My dad left when I was 7 -- now he wants back in my life

My sisters and I are happy he's back, but we wonder what he's up to.

Published August 10, 2006 10:38AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm 33. My parents divorced when I was 7. My dad wasn't an ogre, he just wasn't around. Last year, he wrote me a letter saying he'd been a shitty dad and despite that fact, he thought I turned out great anyway. I was shocked at the time, but since then, we've really warmed to each other. Recently, we had a great weekend together where he told me lovely things like that he is proud of me and so on. Then, when he left, my sister told me he told her that he's thinking of divorcing his 70-year-old wife and moving to where we live. My other sister said she felt that he has been thinking of this for a couple of years. Honestly, the first thing I felt was that I was kind of used. It made me question his motives for warming up to me lately.

So, instead of being nice and seeing the good side, I immediately reverted back to my old way of seeing our relationship. Unfortunately, he forgot something at our house and walked into the room just as I was saying, "Well, if he moves back here, I'm going to move away, because I don't want him to have some weird expectation that I'm going to take care of his ass." (Classy, ain't I?) I was not sure if he heard me at the time, but since then, he has said things to my sister that lets me know he heard every word.

The thing is -- part of me wants to come clean and say that I am sorry and tell him that I'm kind of glad he caught me being cynical. I want to say that it made me want to rededicate myself to being forgiving, on levels that perhaps I never expected to forgive him. Part of me wants to come clean and use this situation to build a stronger bond between us. But my dad is kind of weird -- I mean, he very may well be the kind of guy who would try to manipulate me on that level. My mom always accused him of being that way. My sisters don't know him much better than I do, so they can't really judge, and what's left in the balance is a good piece of my heart.

My stepdad passed away earlier this year, and he filled some (not all) of that "dad space" in my heart as a kid. It was an honor to take care of my stepdad in his last days, and I will always regard that sweet time I had with him as among the most cherished of my life. As for my dad, I always saw my sisters being his primary caregivers later on in life because they know him better than I do. (Not much, but somewhat.) If I lived here I would, of course, help take care of him -- I'm not the kind of person who would completely abdicate familial responsibility, even if I hated him. But I don't know that I expect a relationship like the one I had with my stepdad to bloom.

I just don't want to feel that I've been manipulated by my dad, though part of me really suspects it. Even so, part of me really wants to apologize to him and use this incident to bring us closer. I mean, who knows how the human heart can heal and grow, right? I mean, maybe we can truly forgive.

So -- do I forget about it and pretend it never happened, lie about what he heard (pretend I was talking about someone else ... not likely he'll buy that), or do I apologize?


Dear Daughter,

There is much about this that you cannot know.

What you do know is that your father disappeared when you were young and now he has returned. That is cause for rejoicing. It may be a rejoicing freighted with sadness and mistrust. He wasn't there when you needed him. Now he has reappeared. It doesn't seem fair. But still: He's your dad. Your dad is back.

People do change. They get older and review how they have conducted their lives and identify ways in which they have been selfish and dishonest, and they set out to make corrections. It may happen for utterly personal and secular reasons, or it may involve religious teaching, or it may be the result of some wrenching personal event, or the fear of death, or it may be some prescribed program of restitution suggested by a spiritual mentor. You may not ever know exactly why. He may not tell you what led to his change of heart. But this isn't an accident. He has reappeared in your life because he has changed. And that is something to celebrate, if in shades of skepticism and anger.

The principle I try to follow in such cases is this: Always work toward improving relationships with people to whom we are bound by strong force or circumstance, whether neighborhood, work, school, family, commerce, whatever. Improving relationships is a lot of work. But we try. We point ourselves in the direction of improvement and pedal hard and hope that improvement occurs.

Recognize that it's natural for you to feel suspicious of and angry with your father. Part of improving the relationship will involve taking in those feelings and letting them be a part of the relationship: Breathe them in, take them into yourself: Yes, you feel suspicious; that is natural. Yes, you are still angry; that is natural. That is part of your relationship with your father. This is natural. This is holy. This is real. Your caution is understandable, as is your anger.

When parents disappear, children learn to be cautious. We learn not to hope too brightly, not to believe too deeply, not to care too strongly, lest our little limbs of care be broken. Yeah. We learn to guard our torsos with folded arms, to pull in our heads, shield our eyes that brim with tears too easily. Yeah, we learn all that. But that does not mean that we cannot improve our relationships with others by choosing to act in positive ways.

Helping him will help you as well. You will feel better about yourself as you approach reconciliation; and you will learn more about where you come from, about his family, about all the people whose lives made yours possible.

Helping your father will also help your sisters, upon whom most of the responsibility has fallen. You do not want them doing all the work. Then you, the youngest sister, will be perceived as shirking the burden. Instead, you want to make sure that you are doing your share.

As for your simple question: What should you say to your dad about what you think he overheard?

I suggest you start a conversation about the possibility that he might move there, and in the course of that conversation try to work around to it: Tell him that you said some things that you're embarrassed about and that you did not completely mean. Tell him what you actually do mean: That you are glad he is back in your life, and that you would like to have him around, but there are limits on your time and energy, and on your emotions.

I suggest that you begin this conversation with your father now. Do not wait. Call him and talk.

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