It’s been almost five years since my father disowned me. Last night was the first time I’d ever written those words together: My father disowned me. Dis-own, as in not-have. I used to be a daughter to my father, and now I am not. I have a father who will not have me.
The word itself bears weight, signifies pain, like an amputation, or a cancer diagnosis that pierces you with the fear of mortality and leaves you looking over your shoulder for the rest of your life. A trauma, I suppose, although I haven’t even been able to admit this until now.
Recently, my husband and I were gathered with a group of friends, drinking wine and playing a game where teams vote on the person mostly likely to fit with the scenario on a given card. Who has the worst sugar addiction, for instance, or who among us is the most judgmental person — truths revealed and discussed among friends, and usually lots of laughter.
Someone in the group pulled a card that asked us to identify who among us had the best heartbreak story. I must have flinched a little, because I could see one friend signal to another to choose another card. Though I pretended not to, I noticed her subtle hand gesture, the shake of her head, her slight glance in my direction.
These were good friends, mind you, and although I’m not in the habit of hiding things from my friends, some of them still don’t know that my father disowned me, and that even after five years I still feel the hard pounding of blood in my stomach — the kind of desperate, queasy pulse that comes before getting sick — when this fact is brought to light. Most of my acquaintances don’t know that I live with this pain and believe myself to be responsible for its residence in my body, like a chain smoker who refused to heed the cautions on the cigarette pack.
“What did you expect?” my brother once asked, implying that this was a self-induced wound, a self-severing — a stupid, childish act, like jumping out of a moving bus. And maybe I even agree. But the truth is a little more complicated than that.
What did you do? you’re likely wondering. Maybe you’re already allowing your imagination to fill in the blanks. What kind of a person gets disowned by her father? It almost doesn’t matter, because the wrong I committed must have been so terrible, so egregious that expulsion was the only answer. That being banished from the family was justified, that I must have deserved my figurative death.
How else could this have been done?
It has been almost five years since my father disowned me. I have friends who are cancer survivors, and for them, the five year mark is a milestone — a cause for celebration, an indicator of improved chances, the increased likelihood of a bright future despite the trauma the body has endured.
The five year mark of estrangement carries no such optimism. It is a widening gap, a chasm whose chances of repair have grown too dim to even imagine. It’s a death without a death, a thunderous shout into a canyon with an eerie, unnatural silence instead of the echo you expect.
During that first year, I dreamt about my father. I saw him in strangers on the street — the silvery glint of the back of his head, the tall, hunched bulk of his frame. I imagined him sitting in the car ahead of me at traffic intersections, watching me in his rearview mirror, looking to see if I was still too emotional, too righteous, too affected by my youth.
Months later, while attending a writing workshop at Bread Loaf, I suffered a sudden case of vertigo while eating lunch with my group because Scott Russell Sanders, my workshop leader, has hands that look like his.
During that same writing retreat, another writer and I were chatting with Rick Bass at the final barbecue dinner, asking him how his summer was going. His college-aged daughter had an internship in Montana, and was living with him for the summer.
“I get up early to make her breakfast,” Rick said, swatting a mosquito from his head, “and then putter around all day until she comes home so I can make her dinner and have a beer with her on the porch.” That’s so sweet, we gushed, making your daughter breakfast, and then I said, Awww, Rick, I wish you were my dad.
Later though, alone in my room, I thought about all the weekend mornings my father labored over the stove, making waffles in the waffle iron, turning and turning it over until they were just-right golden-brown, then gently releasing the sections onto my plate, the waffles crisp and steaming with care. The tears came quickly, and I had to take a midnight shower in the bathroom down the hall so my sobbing didn’t wake anyone up.
This is what I did: I wrote and published essays that revealed unflattering moments in my childhood home. My father felt accused. I attempted to apologize; he did not accept.
To be fair, I hadn’t fully warned him about the content of my work. My attempts at conversation about our past had not been well-received. And instead of insisting on an honest exchange, I put my work into the world with the belief that my father wouldn’t read it. I was wrong.
To be fair, I hadn’t made anything up.
“What did you expect?” my brother asked.
I had hoped that my father could see I was in pain. I had hoped that he would have tried to meet me where I was. I had hoped that he could forgive my need to revisit our past just as I had worked to forgive the hurt that I’d endured. I had hoped that we would figure out a language between us. I had hoped that my father’s capacity to love me was large enough to accommodate mistakes, even big ones such as this.
But what did I expect? This, which is to say exactly what has happened. I expected it because I think a part of me has always lived in fear that my father would cast me away for something. —Which is why I had to write.
It has been almost five years since my father disowned me. I still see glimpses of him in strangers, still catch him in the corner of my eye. I see him most clearly when my youngest daughter struggles with the same difficulty with emotions.
I feel sharp pangs when my brother’s wife posts holiday pictures of him on Facebook, laughing with their kids. But the hurt is tempered by the glimmers of him I see in the everyday things: the rustle of sails at a marina dock, the splash of sunlight across a lake, the sound of walking through autumn leaves, the horn of a distant train.
I have come to wonder if my estrangement is less about punishment than it is about protection. Protection for him, protection from me.
The truth is, I wasn’t trying to hurt him. I was simply trying to have a conversation that I didn’t know how to have. I wanted to know why my childhood continued to press on me as a mother and a wife. I wanted to make sense of the things that had happened in our home. I wanted to understand us. Like Rebecca Solnit says in The Faraway Nearby: “Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone.”
But the conversation that should have happened can never happen now. This death without a death — it was inevitable, I suppose, because things said and left unsaid can both kill a person. It would’ve killed me to continue keeping them in. But it has killed me to let them out.
I am an East-coaster and a West-coaster. I am an academic and a creative spirit. I am an environmental scientist who always wanted to write, and a writer with a nagging nostalgia for the complexities of environmental science. Above all, I am a mother — so whether I’m writing about the natural world, family, or place, I like to consider my work as environmental advocacy in the broadest sense.
Dear Mary Heather,
I cried when I read your blog, and I wish there was something I could do to help your hurt. If you know of anything I could do, please let me know.
I am so impressed with your spectacular ability to write. Keep it up!
Mary Heather, We were so moved by your Plume: An Investigation story! From M’s symptoms existing (one of each) in my three children to better understanding ourselves as parents and our parents. Thank you the world over for this.
Most important though, I wanted you to know that a coach helped me tremendously when I was stuck with never being able to see my mom again as I was barred from my sister’s home where mom lived. Cruel and more, as you know.
What my coach said to me one day was “When are you going to stop believing you can never see your mom again?” That’s it. Just a belief. As I let that go right then, in a way…and more as time went on, I stopped believing it and in some months we did get to see my mom. Story in itself.
I’m just hoping that that question and the possibility of letting go beliefs attached to your dad’s disowning you may open something for you. Beyond that, as a hospice nurse for years and years, I know it is also possible to work these things through after death — sometimes it goes that way.
Will have the warmest, open heart to your reduced suffering around this heart break. Do let me know if there’s something here you’re interested in — I can point anyway. Much love to you! v
Hi Virginia, Thanks so much for reading and for your kind words! I so appreciate the connections to your own work in hospice, and all the difficult emotions around family and loss. xo — MHN