My awkward relationship with my father
My father wasn’t around much during my childhood. I realize this sentence usually indicates an irresponsible parent, who cares more about having fun than taking care of his children, but it wasn’t as exciting as that. He was still happily married to my mother (as far as a kid like me could tell), but in order to provide for us, he had to take a job in a distant part of the country. So, since about the age of 5, I lived alone with my mother and sister, and we’d only see my father over the holidays and a weekend here and there. Whenever I’d meet him on such an occasion, I’d hide behind my mom’s legs, feeling shy and awkward, as if meeting my father for the first time all over again… His long periods of silence, combined with his rough black beard, gave him a very unapproachable look in my eyes. He didn’t talk much with anyone, much less with children, much less with me. I knew this person was my “dad,” but he felt more like a stranger than my uncles and aunts, who I saw even less often.
When I was 10 years old, my mother got sick. She was constantly being admitted to the hospital, but the doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her. About 2 years went by, and then one day, as my sister and I were watching Pokémon on TV, my dad came home, looked at us with bloodshot eyes, and almost inaudibly said, “Mom died.” He hugged us, and I saw him cry for the first and only time in my life. We cried together around the small table in front of the TV. And we would have stayed there the whole day and night if it hadn’t been for the other family members who started to pull us back to reality…
From then on, my father took over the task of raising my sister and me on his own. Two pre-teens who he’d barely interacted with before… He must have been scared, but he never showed it. He took it very matter-of-factly, without hesitation or asking for help. We were his responsibility now, and that was all there was to it. He didn’t talk about my mother much, but I could feel the tension of what had happened in the air all the time. Her photos on the walls were a constant reminder of the happy times we’d once had as a family, contrasting with the cold, harsh reality of the present. It was as if my mother’s death had sucked the life and joy out of everything in our home. Especially my dad. I know he wasn’t exactly the life of the party before, but now, he was a zombie, dragging his feet through life.
He immediately went back to his job, and I went back to school, both of us powering through the pain of our loss by focusing on work. In the evenings, he would make classic “Portuguese bachelor” delicacies for my sister and me, such as beans with tuna, scrambled eggs, or ready meals. He’d never eat with us, though. He’d watch some TV, then go read in his room, and then get up at 2 AM to eat a sandwich. That was his daily ritual.
To say my father was a reserved person would be an understatement. He acted as if saying one word took more effort than walking away. He would be the first to leave any family gathering, sneakily disappearing without saying goodbye, to avoid dealing with “Already? Please just stay a little longer!”. He didn’t (voluntarily) hang out with friends, go to the movies, or even go out to buy a pair of shoes. He was happiest left alone, in bed, reading a detective novel or the newspaper. In fact, that’s how he spent most of his free time.
And so, to me, my father remained a stranger, even when I saw him every day. I didn’t know anything that he felt passionate about, what made him get up in the morning, which political party he voted for… And my attempts at initiating a deeper conversation were always dismissed with a grunt. I wanted his approval so badly, but any trophy or good grade I’d proudly present to him was met with a flat “OK.” The only times I saw him smiling, he was talking to work colleagues, and I felt guilty for never triggering a smile from him. There was also a picture in which he was smiling and holding me as a baby, and I felt so jealous of my younger self for being able to connect more with my father than I did…
My dad was a strong supporter of the parenting style “do as I say and not as I do.” He put me in a therapist yet never attended one (he obviously didn’t need it). He put me in sports but never exercised (not even walking up the street to buy the newspaper). He told me to go out and meet people, yet never left his room. “Dad, you’re being hypocritical!” I’d argue, but he’d just respond with his typical dismissive grunt and continue reading the newspaper.
When it came to sex, instead of having “the talk,” he just gave me a Sex Encyclopedia when I was 13 and said, “There you go…” without any context. The book wasn’t the basic manual I expected at that age, it had an extensive assortment of sex positions and sexually explicit photos, which I had fun browsing through, but I always wondered if he’d actually checked the contents before buying it… And then, at 16, he sat me down one day and said, out of the blue, “I hope you’re not thinking of having sex before you finish University. Because if you get pregnant, you need to get a job. And you need to finish University to get a decent job.”
I left home when I was 18. I gave the excuse that I needed to attend a University in a different city, but the truth was that I wanted to be free from this black hole that I felt at home. As the years passed, my main interaction with my father became our weekly phone call, which went something like this: “Everything OK?” “Yes, and with you?” “Yes. OK, Bye.”
In January 2020, my father died unexpectedly at the age of 63. I don’t remember the last thing I said to him before he died, but I know it wasn’t “I love you” because we never spoke about our emotions. The only moment I ever saw him let his guard down was when he told me that mom died, the only moment I felt we connected… I wish I had a neat bow to tie around our relationship, but I think it will forever be this unresolved awkwardness. As I reflect back on his life, though, I start to admire how he gave zero fucks about what others thought and just lived as he wanted to, even if that meant staying in bed, reading a book.