"I'M PLAYING BRIDGE! I PROBABLY CAN'T HEAR YOU!" Dad shouted into the phone.
It was the second time I attempted to call Dad this morning for his birthday. The first time I called, I heard his phone click on and voices in the background, but no one said anything into the phone. Not a "Hello?" Not a "I'M PLAYING BRIDGE!" Nothing.
Then his phone clicked off and that horrible deafening beeping sound echoed through my ear. I pulled the phone away quickly and turned it off. I stood there for a minute not knowing what to do. Should I try to call him back? I didn't want to. I hate calling my dad. Even for his birthday. Should I wait and see if he calls me back? He probably won't.
We have nothing in common but a love of Chinese food, so unless we're gorging ourselves with fried sweet and sour chicken and carb-rich and oily lo-mein over a quick lunch together, we have trouble knowing what to do with our empty mouths. Neither of us is good at talking to people we don't like. Dad prefers conversations with people from The Greatest Generation about big band era music, dancing, playing bridge, and well...uh...that's about it. Oh, and watching Golf on TV. And pie. Dad's a big fan of pie. I think all those things are a big snoozefest and there's only so much nodding and smiling and pretending to listen I can do before I start to feel nauseous. I prefer conversations with interesting, unusual people who are both kind and smart. So yeah, people who are not like my dad.
But something inside me made me hit the redial button. That's when he picked up the phone and shouted, "I'M PLAYING BRIDGE! I PROBABLY CAN'T HEAR YOU!"
"I JUST WANTED TO WISH YOU A HAPPY BIRTHDAY," I shouted back.
"WHO IS THIS?" Dad shouted.
"IT'S BECKY. YOUR DAUGHTER," I clarified, suddenly remembering last year's heartbreaking phone conversation when Dad mistook me for one of his dance partners named Becky.
"OH. BECKY? DID GLENDA TALK TO YOU ABOUT FRIDAY?" Dad shouted.
Glenda is my sister from Dad's first marriage. We're fifteen years apart. We never lived together when I was growing up. Her mom got custody of Glenda in the divorce agreement. We've become closer these last few years. The glue that sticks us together the most is our mutual disgust with our 87-year-old cranky, selfish, rude dad, who also manages to draw pity from us. Only a sister can understand how you can still love such a motherfucker. He's old and achy and blind in one eye and 90% deaf without his hearing aids on. He treats everybody like shit unless he wants something from them. He can still make it to the bathroom on time but he pees on the floor instead of inside the toilet because his one blind eye throws off his depth perception. At parties he talks to whoever in the room is closest in age to him, preferably female, more than he talks to us, his daughters, or our children, his grandchildren. And we're so relieved that he does because it's even more uncomfortable to have to talk to Dad than it is to feel ignored by him.
"YES. I'M MEETING YOU GUYS FOR LUNCH FRIDAY!" I shouted.
"OK. I'LL SEE YOU THEN!" Dad shouted.
"I JUST WANTED TO WISH YOU A HAPPY BIRTHDAY ON YOUR BIRTHDAY!" I shouted.
"OK! I'LL SEE YOU FRIDAY THEN!" Dad shouted and hung up.
Thank God. It was one of the best conversations Dad and I ever had. Short, direct, and to the point.
I'd been mad at my dad since I talked to him on the phone three days ago. Katie and I were getting baptized at our new church Sunday. We had invited him to come. He called Saturday and talked to Will while I was at work. When I came home for lunch, Will said Dad couldn't make it to the baptism because he didn't have a ride.
My stomach sank. "Did you offer him a ride?"
Dad is 87. It's easier now than it was when I was a kid to explain away his awful parenting style because everyone at age 87 has an excuse to be cranky and unreliable. They can't see or hear well enough to drive. They feel stuck. Their old aching bones make them crabby. Sure. I get that.
When I was in seventh grade and we had just moved to a new school district and I had no friends, I invited my parents to an open-house event at my junior high school that evening at dinner.
Dad shouted, even though we were not on the phone and he was less deaf then, "I'M TOO OLD FOR THIS BULLSHIT!"
Bullshit. I remember it was that exact word he used because I'd never heard him use it before. My dad swore all the time, but he didn't usually say "bullshit". Something about that word is too "country" for him, the son of a poor slaughterhouse worker who was the first in the family to leave the farm. Dad went to business college and became an accountant. He wore white shirts to work and bought a new car every other year. He was not the type to call something bullshit, but I guess his impatience with my childish needs brought out his baser instincts.
In some species the father tries to eat his children. It could be worse.
Now that he's 87, when Dad cops out on showing up to something important to me, I can blame it on his age, not his rage.
"No, I didn't offer him a ride," Will said. Will does not understand why I try so hard with my father. To Will, my father is nothing but a source of misery for his wife. He's said more than once, "If that bastard weren't such a fail little old man now, I'd take him outside and beat the shit out of him."
It's funny how violence proposed by your husband on your behalf is so romantic. I would never want my husband to actually beat the shit out of my dad, but I appreciate the sentiment.
"Maybe I should call him and offer him a ride," I said.
Will looked at me with that mixture of pity and perfect acquiescence. "If you want to," he said.
I didn't have much time. I had to eat and be back at work within the hour. I told myself to wait and call Dad when I got home from work. But he'd probably be out eating dinner or heading off to some dance. I should call him now or I'd miss the opportunity.
"YEAH? HELLO?" Dad shouted.
I could hear the TV in the background. Good. I'd caught him at home so he could talk. "YEAH DAD, THIS IS BECKY. YOUR DAUGHTER."
"YEAH?" Dad shouted.
"WILL SAID YOU CAN'T COME TO KATIE'S AND MY BAPTISM TOMORROW BECAUSE YOU DON'T HAVE A RIDE. DO YOU WANT US TO COME PICK YOU UP AND DROP YOU OFF WHEN IT'S OVER?" Here I was offering a kind gesture, but it sounded like I was ripping Dad a new one. It's difficult to talk to someone who is hearing-impaired without sounding like you're mad at them. Especially when "mad at them" is your default.
"AW, NO. NO. THAT'S TOO MUCH TROUBLE." He didn't say for whom. "NAH. I DON'T WANT YOU TO DRIVE ALL THE WAY OUT HERE TO GET ME," Dad shouted. He lives 25 minutes away.
"IT'S REALLY NO TROUBLE. WE'D BE HAPPY TO DO IT," I offered once more.
"NAH. AND BESIDES, IT KIND OF INTERFERES WITH ONE OF MY DANCES, BUT NOT REALLY, BUT ENOUGH THAT I FIGURED I'D JUST NOT GO TO YOUR THING," Dad shouted.
No "I'm sorry." No further explanation.
I was more surprised by my still giving a shit after all these years of disappointment than by Dad's lame excuse for not coming to our baptism. He'd rather go dancing than see his daughter and his grand-daughter go through a spiritual transformation? Yep. That's dear old Dad.
"OK. I JUST WANTED TO EXTEND THE OFFER. SO WHAT ARE WE DOING FOR YOUR BIRTHDAY?" I asked. Even I couldn't believe what a big girl I'd become, standing there asking this asshole who can't be there for me how I can be there for him.
"I DUNNO. I HAVE TO TALK TO JOYCE. AND GLENDA. I'LL LET YOU KNOW WHEN I HEAR FROM THEM." Dad shouted.
Joyce is his current girlfriend. Dad divorced his third wife, Naomi, a few years ago. My mom was wife number two. My mom finally got the courage to leave him after twenty-two years of an unhappy marriage, when I was twenty-one. He's had a succession of girlfriends since he left Naomi, but so far he hasn't suckered anyone else into marrying him. I'm surprised. An ambulatory 87-year-old man is quite a catch in the seniors' circuit. An 87-year-old man who can dance is HOT STUFF!
"OK, I'LL TALK TO YOU LATER," I shouted.
"YEAH. TALK TO YOU LATER," Dad shouted and hung up.
And that was that.
I felt crushed. I immediately felt like that 12-year-old girl asking her dad to come to her school and meet her teachers and show an interest in her life and getting immediately shot down. I felt like crying. But I'm not a 12-year-old girl. I'm a 43-year-old woman. A remarkable woman. A woman who moved out of her father's house and found her own way. If anything, my father's uncaring taught me to care more for myself. I'm proud of all the years of therapy I put myself through, all the self-help books I've read, all the chances I took in life that have lead me down this amazing path to where I am now. I married the best man for me. We have an amazing child. I have tremendous support from other family members, my friends at work, my friends in life, and now, my new church family.
I did not cry. I talked it out with Will and Katie as the three of us sat at our lunch table.
"You're dad is such a jerk," Will said.
"Yeah. He is," I sighed.
"At least my parents are coming to our baptism!" Katie announced with glee.
"That's right, Punk." I said. My eyes were getting watery and my voice cracked a little, but I said it with as much conviction as I could manage, "I will always be there to support you. I'll come to all your special occasions. I'll celebrate all your happy moments. I love sharing happy moments with you, Sweetie."
I did not cry. Katie smiled so big there's no way I could. Will looked at me in a way that made me swoon.
"We're your family," he said.
Life dealt me a shitty dad, but I got a great family of my own creation.
The next day we got up and went to church, my own trinity of Will, Katie, and me. My good friend Linda went along for the ride. We met more friends at church: Sarah, the one who brought us to her church in the first place, Helen, the one who said she'd only come if they baptized us at the dog park lake but ended up coming anyway, my new friend from church, Marvin, who runs the Gay Christian Fellowship, and my mother-in-law Pam and father-in-law Scott, two people who treat me like their own daughter. I always say I lucked out when I married Will. I married him because he's hot and plays the guitar and sings. It's an amazing bonus that he's such a good father and a good husband, and he came with a great, supportive family too.
During the sermon Pastor Jonas talked about living in the moment and not dwelling on the past. "Jesus said 'thy kingdom come' not 'thy kingdom will come.'"
Pastor Jonas preached:
Are you listening to God in the present moment? Or are you dwelling on the past or worrying about the future? Every sentence… every action of Jesus… anchors… on this reality: claim… believe… that you are God’s beloved… NOW… in the present moment. The realm of God is here. “Thy kingdom come!”
Jesus constantly draws our attention… to be mindful of the present moment.
I needed to hear that.
A few years ago I was called out at work for my intolerance toward religious people. I know. It's ironic now that I've gotten all Jesusy and joined a church. But back then, when I said, "Oh, I think he's a Christian," in a disparaging tone in the staff room to one of my co-workers I'm friends with outside of work, another co-worker reported in as assessment that I needed to learn to be more tolerant of people who believe in different things than I do.
It was like a punch in the gut. What? The whole reason I left the Church and I never really belonged to one in the first place is because I didn't want to be associated with hateful anti-gay so-called Christians. It's intolerance that drove me from organized religion.
But my co-worker's criticism was apt. I had grown very intolerant of people who believe in different things than I do.
I assigned myself the task of researching religious tolerance and Inter-faith groups. I discovered The Dalai Lama and fell instantly in love with his message. Here is my favorite:
I must emphasize again that merely thinking that compassion and reason and patience are good will not be enough to develop them. We must wait for difficulties to arise and then attempt to practice them.
And who creates such opportunities? Not our friends, of course, but our enemies. They are the ones who give us the most trouble, so if we truly wish to learn, we should consider enemies to be our best teacher!
For a person who cherishes compassion and love, the practice of tolerance is essential, and for that, an enemy is indispensable. So we should feel grateful to our enemies, for it is they who can best help us develop a tranquil mind.
I relied on that message for many years until I found another amazing teacher through Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, Jesus of Nazareth, with the same message:
43-47 “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.
48 “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
It's easy to forgive people you like. It's hard to forgive people you dislike. But that's what Jesus instructs us to do. And the Dalai Lama. Shit. My two favorite teachers are telling me to forgive my dad, to live in the present, and to learn compassion from my enemies. It's time to listen.
I don't forgive my dad for not being an ideal father because he deserves it. I forgive my dad for not being an ideal father because it makes me feel better. Carrying around resentments toward my dad, Glen Burton, is a heavy burden I'm ready to release. Ready to focus on the present. My family and friends who do support me and do offer me a firm foundation of love and acceptance. I no longer crave my father's acceptance because I've become so filled with it from my husband and our daughter and our new church family.
Baptism and New Membership at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church
But that's not all. I've been astounded at the number of my agnostic and atheist friends who have supported me through this spiritual journey. My good friend JJ, an atheist whose mother is a Nazarene pastor, set the record straight when I started to get all mushy telling my friends how much I love that they are supporting me even if they don't agree with me, "It's cuz you don't party like most Christians, Becky!"
After church, we threw an "after party" at our house. Lots of good friends came. It was a beautiful day, in the seventies, so Will built a fire and we roasted hot dogs and ate tons of sandwiches, chips, fruit, and cake. We talked and laughed. My musical friends jammed around the fire. My friend Sarah--not the one who brought me to church, but another friend named Sarah--taught me how to hula hoop. She's a dear friend who grew up Christian and now calls herself a Pantheist. She's married to an Atheist who is good friends with my Agnostic husband Will, who is now married to a Presbyterian. Our "religious differences" didn't keep any of us from hearing the songbirds' sweet harmonies in the trees above as we hooped and jammed outside, soaking up the sun, feeling the breeze on our flesh, and enjoying each other's contribution to the song.