The Chameleon Complex—Dad Chapter 78

So, Dad disinherited his children, leaving his entire estate to his third wife. At first, I accepted it because it was consistent with how he treated his children lifelong. We were raised knowing that we were an inconvenience until we could leave home, at which time we were only inconvenient when we needed anything. But the more I thought about the disinheritance, the more determined I became not to allow this final slight to wash over me. It was perhaps the last chance for my father and me to connect, because the disinheritance, some serious health issues for him, and his turning eighty years old all occurred in the same year. I mustered the gumption—having been rebuffed my whole life—to speak my truth to him one last time. I expected the usual pushback, but I had little to lose.

      Always before, Dad had told me not to “psychoanalyze” him, which was not something I ever did outside of a professional relationship. He meant that he was uncomfortable being vulnerable. See, his idea of a father-son relationship and my idea were incongruent; he wanted us to both be at level 5, friends; but all my life, I wanted to be in his level 3, children—except that level never existed for him. Remember, he hadn’t experienced much emotional intimacy in his own childhood, in a stark era and in a poor and dusty part of the world. He had necessarily shut down his own emotions to better survive. So, no, Dad didn’t know about—or desire—emotional intimacy because he literally didn’t know what he was missing or that it existed other than in some touchy-feely crowd that he had no interest in joining. Thus, he simply didn’t understand what I wanted from him. After all, he had provided the requisite room and board until I graduated high school and left home, which was exactly what he had gotten at the same age. He went to work in the local slaughterhouse and then joined the military.

      I explained that my objection was about being written out of the relationship, not the money—it made sense to secure his wife’s financial well-being—that paternity mattered to me whether or not it mattered to him. I explained how deep the cut was and how hurtful it had been my entire life for him to frequently quip, “I never wanted kids; I just got horny,” because I was his kid and I knew that what he said was true. For him to rewrite his will and give me nothing from him or from our deceased mother in that will was his final statement regarding the insignificance of our relationship. Remember Mom’s prescient yet hopeful last words (if you believe in premonitions): “Take care of the kids.” I explained that the will brought into sharp focus my pain over always wanting my father but my father never wanting me. Now his disregard for me was in black-and-white legalese. I knew I was right; after all, I had a son, too, and I’d never treat him that way. I asked for a token gesture of paternity and suggested that he give me his military medals in a rewritten will.

      Instead, he drove to Scottsdale and gave them to me within a week. I sobbed at the gesture, unable to articulate that his lifelong lack of showing care for me had left an odd space inside of me, the masculine part of me that always needed an older and respected male to tell me that I was wanted and admired. Dad still didn’t understand what I wanted if I didn’t want his money and if his shadowbox of medals still didn’t satisfy me.

      So, I continued to place my desires into behavioral terms: I requested phone calls more frequently than twice a year, especially during his treatment for prostate cancer, which he’d hidden from us. I also wanted him to rewrite his will, taking care of his wife financially but placing his children in the lead paragraph as well—not as an afterthought or obligation but out of love—and to enumerate the sentimental things bequeathed by Mom and him, stating what his children meant to him, all written in legalese, to make a point, to stand on principle that paternity, at long last, mattered to him, and that I, as his son, also mattered to him.

      He made the phone calls; he let me in. He took the steps to rewrite his will in exactly the way I had requested, in a manner that suggested that his children were important enough to him to leave them an inheritance, even merely as a token gesture. I greatly appreciated the gesture. He then beat the cancer via modern medicine, and I came to realize that he just never knew what was required or what it was like to let somebody safe into his inner-world. He was intimacy disabled, having learned at a young age to fear vulnerability. He needed age and some health scares to open his mind enough to see that there was more available in relationships than he’d previously been aware of. The confluence of events and my open heart made it safe enough for him to open his heart to me in return. He asked if it was even possible for someone his age to change in the way that I asked, and I said sure—that despite many decades of habitual defensiveness, motivation was the deciding factor, whether at twenty-one or eighty-one. I often talked with men who became less defensive upon becoming elderly.

      I’m glad I found the courage to approach my father one more time, to risk that he would reject me when I was incredibly vulnerable and authentic with him, and to risk that he would not care, that he would not at least try to reciprocate my vulnerability. It’s scary to take an emotional risk, and it’s wonderful when it works out. My dad became a more vulnerable, caring, and intimate father at eighty-one years old. At fifty-seven years old, I moved into my father’s level 3, children, which meant that I finally got my dad.

      I like to think that we both benefited.

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