I love you. These words are crucial for children to hear from their parents and see reflected in their actions. I can recall vivid details from my childhood, but I can’t remember a single instance when my father uttered that phrase.
When I compared memories with my older sister, she insisted she remembers our dad saying he loved us. I’ve scoured the crevices of my mind, but can’t conjure up my sister’s recollections. Thoughts of my dad only evoke deeply rooted emotional wounds.
In 1969, my mother married a brilliant young man who was pursuing his Ph.D. in psychology. Soon after, my dad was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. My sister was born in 1971 and my parent’s marriage was hanging by a thread when I came along three years later. In 1981, my parent’s divorce was finalized.
I remember court-mandated visits to my father’s filthy, unheated apartment. I remember watching him purchase groceries with food stamps, and cowering in the corner with my big sister while we witnessed his erratic behavior. Slowly, those frightening visits became less frequent and by the time I was 10, we stopped seeing my dad completely.
My mother loved us with a fierce intensity, but her love could not fill the gaping hole left by my father. My maternal grandfather, who expressed his love for us in abundance, died suddenly just months after my parents divorced. Thankfully, my paternal great uncle, Joe, remained a constant in our lives. He was the only father-figure I had, or who cared about me, after my grandfather’s death.
When learning about our childhood, some conclude that my sister and I must be pretty screwed-up adults. While that’s subjective, I’m proud to say I don’t think either one of us falls into that category. We are both happily married with careers, and are busy raising our own children.
I didn’t speak to, or see, my father for nearly 30 years. In 2013, we learned he was dying from lung cancer. I called the hospital and had a 20-minute conversation with the father I only associated with pain. My dad was very bitter and kept firing abrasive questions without allowing me to respond. His voice was marinated in anguish.
“Am I going to have to wait to die until I get to meet my grandchildren? Do you remember the sandbox in our backyard? Who do you think built you that sandbox? Uncle Joe told me you were in Fiddler on the Roof and other plays in high school, why didn’t you invite me? Why didn’t you invite me to your wedding? Uncle Joe walked you down the aisle, that should have been me. I sent you so many letters over the years, did you get them? Why didn’t you ever write me back?”
I didn’t know it then, but that was the final conversation I would have with my dad. Although my sister and I visited him several times before he died, he was intubated and non-communicative.
I waited 30 years to hear my father tell me he loved me, and those words never came.
Mental illness robbed my dad of the opportunity to raise his daughters. How horrific it must have been for him to receive only occasional snippets about our lives, relayed through my uncle. While dying, my dad remembered the names of the plays I’d been in 20 years earlier. After his death, I learned from his caregivers that he bragged about my sister and me constantly.
I regret I had to end that last conversation abruptly. I told him, “I have to get off the phone so I can pick up my kids from school.”
His harsh tone softened as he said, “Go. You don’t want them to be scared if you’re not there. Get off the phone and take care of my grandchildren.”
I’m devoting myself to following my father’s directive. My husband and I say “I love you” to our kids, but more importantly, we show them we love them. Part of me will always yearn to hear my father say those three magical words, yet, I know he loved me the best he could. I may carry emotional wounds, but I’m not broken. My childhood will be forever tainted by my father’s absence, but my future doesn’t have to be.
Growing up with a mentally ill parent is devastating, but it need not define a child’s life trajectory. I’m fortunate I received love from many friends and their parents, teachers, and in overflowing volumes from my mom and sister. While their love did not replace my father’s, it gave me the foundation I needed to learn how to love others, and to learn how to love myself.
I don’t mean to make it sound as though my kids ride to school on unicorns, or I poop rainbows. Believe me, that’s not the case. I’m certain my children will one day spend time on a leather couch lamenting how badly their parents messed them up.
But perfect parents don’t exist, and neither do fairytale childhoods. My son and daughter will be scarred by the mistakes their father and I make, just like every other kid on the planet. In the absence of perfection, what we can do is hope those scars build resilience, and inspire them to thrive.