I’m experiencing some complicated grief over my father. I won’t speak for the rest of the family, but he left behind many unresolved conflicts between him and me. Some might think I should remain silent and just go on with my life. Believe me, I want to move on but I don’t think I can until I say some things that I’ve held inside for too long.
I must have been thirteen. I was listening to some classical music on our old stereo when Daddy came striding through the living room. He paused and waved his arms to the music.
“I would love to conduct an orchestra,” he announced. “Wouldn’t you?”
“Um…” I said, “Well… I’m not sure. It’s kind of hard.”
“Really?” he said. “I guess you’re not as much a leader as I am.”
“Probably not,” I agreed with a shrug.
In fact, I often dreamed of conducting orchestras and choirs. I was already more advanced in music than my dad and I was aware that conducting is difficult, and I knew I wasn’t ready to do it. Because I was only thirteen, I figured he had to be right about his assessment of my leadership skills. For what it’s worth, I went on to conduct choirs.
I was nearly middle-aged before I realized how terribly competitive my dad was with me, even when I was young. When he couldn’t compete, Daddy settled for belittling me.
Once, he went to my high school to talk to the principal and found out my test scores were higher than 99 percent of other students in the country. Rather than being proud of me, he was astounded to the point of being distressed. He couldn’t believe that I scored so much higher than he did when he was in school.
“Maybe it’s because kids aren’t as smart as they were when you were in school….” I suggested.
“That must be it!” he said. I’m not sure why I supported his need to be superior, but I have felt self-loathing from having done so throughout my life.
He could not endure my receiving honor. He missed most of the concerts I sang in, and he skipped my high school, college, and seminary graduations.
I could never beat him in arm wrestling, even when I was a young man in my twenties and my biceps bulged from weightlifting. Somehow, I couldn’t let myself win. He crowed about it for years.
He often said, sometimes with sadness, other times with scorn, that I was much weaker than him. I wasn’t strong enough to work as hard as he did. I couldn’t stand up to pressure like he could. And I believed it.
A few years ago when I started my life over, I introduced Sylvia to him.
“Poor Davey,” He said to my new wife. “He just had to get away from the ministry. The church can be so mean. I guess I was able to stay in it because I’m tougher than he is.”
In the weeks since his death, I feel like a veil has lifted and I see more clearly now, often with a burning rage. I need to say some things that I never allowed myself to say when he was alive:
“I surpassed you a long time ago. I’ve worked harder than you ever have. I was always smarter, stronger, and more mature than you, even when I was a kid.
“I didn’t bully loved ones like you did to feel important.
“While you may have had bigger audiences as a preacher, I’ve cared for more individuals than you can imagine.
“And I didn’t leave the church because they were mean to me. I left because I couldn’t believe in a delusion anymore. You were never brave enough to entertain the thoughts and ask the questions I had.
“Anytime I tried to address these conflicts I had with you, you filled the air with venom and confusion, and went back to your adoring parishioners.
I’ve kept quiet until you were in your grave, but I will not go to my grave keeping your secrets, much less believing the lies.”