Love, Defiantly Guarded
I don’t consider defiance a great character trait. In fact, I’d probably remove it from the list of my character traits, given the chance. Not that I think that’s wise, but because I’m embarrassed this trait is part of my personality.
Let me tell you a story. As a woman who has had to relate to defiance as a visitor, well, even a squatter, on this occasion, it did very well by me.
My father was a brilliant surgeon. He was also an alcoholic, which cost him his medical practice and the ability to relate to his eight children. In the last couple of decades of his life, he would drink himself into a coma about every 18 months. He’d be whisked off to the hospital and, probably through some very odd mix of luck, medicine, divine intervention, and a will to live (I did say an “odd mix”) – he would pull through.
These occurrences were not something his way grown children were told about. It was done in secrecy, with the exception of one son who would be called to help get him to the hospital, no ambulance, what might the neighbors think? Sometime after Dad would come home from the hospital – whispers would begin to circulate through the family. By the time several months had passed, we might all know about it.
Then there was a change in the pattern. We were told shortly after he was admitted. But, we were not to go see him, to call him or to in any way acknowledge where he was.
This is where defiance came to visit me, again. Alcoholism may have robbed me of a father, but it didn’t rob me of my love for him. I was incensed we were being told we weren’t allowed to visit him. We ranged in age from 35 (me) to 45. Certainly, we were capable of making some mature decisions. And I am a firm believer in the healing power of love and honesty. It’s so often what we hide that puts us in harm’s way, while acknowledgment may very well free us.
I went to see my dad. I was shaking in my boots. I knew I was breaking family rules and though I was doing it to challenge the absurdity of this situation, not just for myself, but for all of my brothers and sisters, there might well be no one who would support me. I didn’t call ahead. I just showed up, late one morning hoping to find him resting in bed. But I found him sitting on a commode. Well, this was simply great, nothing like finding someone who was living in shame in another humiliating position! I offered to get a nurse, since he said he was all done on the pot. He said, “No, I’m OK.”
It was definitely awkward, but a conversation happened anyway. It was very short, but unforgettable. He said, “I love you.” I said, “I know you do.” He said, “You didn’t always know that, did you?” I knew that there was blame in his voice, and that despite his indifferent behavior toward me (to name just one thing that might give one’s daughter the impression you couldn’t care less) he really hadn’t comprehended how it was that I could have missed the fact that he loved me. I chose to go for the good stuff and let some of the details fall away. “No, Dad, I didn’t always know it, but I do now.” He replied, “That’s good, honey.” I left shortly after. I can recognize a peak moment when it stares me in the face.
I called my stepmother later to let her know I had defied orders. I wanted her to be warned. She knew about it. Dad had called and blasted her for my break from form. She was cold as the Snow Queen. She didn’t really speak to me again for a few years.
Out of this defiant act of mine came some changes. Often we were told when he was hospitalized. In his next hospitalization, he decided that because I was a massage therapist I might be capable of cutting his toenails, a task he could no longer perform. Every few months I would go to his home, bearing his favorite sweets and cut his toenails. They needed it more often, but it was a difficult relationship and I just couldn’t get myself to face the barbs and ice as often as his toes required. He didn’t quite get why I didn’t fulfill my duty more dutifully. But I was grateful for this little tiny bit of a relationship with him. I was tending to my broken heart, protecting it from his carelessness while nurturing him a little bit. All in all, it was a darn good thing.
The last time I saw him, he said some careless, unkind thing about me. I snapped at him sharply, though I knew he was totally clueless, took their dogs for a walk and went home. I wished I could have done better because I knew he was doing the best he could. But I understood that I was doing a damn good job as it was and if I lost it that day, so be it.
His death came about 2 months later. I felt a moment of remorse that our last visit was the one in which I’d snapped at him. Then I refused, defiantly refused, to allow a bad moment in a relationship, for which I’d carried far more than my share of the burden to polish the love between us, to allow me to cast aspersions upon my efforts.
Dad had become a recluse in the last 10 years of his life. He only left the house to buy vodka, up until the time his disease took his abilities to drive and walk. He’d been ousted from his surgical practice over 30 years before he died. He and his wife had left town. He hadn’t maintained contact with any of his friends or colleagues for the most part or his kids (though he did call some of us once looking for evidence against our mother’s case for the child support he never paid, and he had a hard time grasping why I could wonder about his love for me, go figure). When he retired, he returned to town and lived here for about 15 years. Ultimately, he didn’t reconnect with people he’d once known. He sat in his chair watching sports shows and reading. He loved reading, biographies, novels, history and current affairs.
Yet, over 200 people were at his funeral. Over 200 people knew a man I didn’t know, they remembered him and came to honor the shining light he always was, though he’d hid it under a basket years before, robbing them of the man they respected and admired. The obituary said my father died of heart failure. Yet everyone there knew he died because of the basket he’d hidden in – alcohol. Yet, they came to honor him.
To be in that church with all of these people who knew this man as kind, thoughtful, helpful, understanding and brilliant was an experience I won’t forget.
I was so glad there were people who knew him that way; that this man who had not been a kind, thoughtful, understanding father had nonetheless been all of these things to others in his life. He had been a shining light. They had kept those memories and cherished them. They had come to pay their respects to the truth of who he was. In their hearts, they had not abandoned the real man. I still cry when I think of it.
Defiance has its place in life. It’s not always a visitor I welcome because I can do some things that push the envelope pretty hard when Defiance and I take up together. But, in relation to my dad, I’m glad that I allowed it to be my companion. It is how I got to have a relationship with him at all. It is how I honored the truth of what he is, the man all those people came to pay their last respects to. And, defiance is how I protected the love and wisdom I’d expressed in navigating the minefield our relationship had been from being trashed when he died.
If defiance is one of your uncomfortable visitors, treat it kindly. That may allow you to use its influence in very positive ways. But, treat it with respect. It will never be a predictable or a safe companion; still it can be a good one.
Visit Elizabeth Wescott’s website Stepping Stones to Health