The story I never wanted to tell
October 26, 2016
A story of denial
Does everyone have a price? I thought yes. Then, no. Then changed my mind again.
I wanted to believe the answer was no. I needed to understand the answer was yes.
Integrity and moral fiber become inherent, I used to think. They are part of consistently learning to be, and making the choice to be, a good person. To choose to do the right thing whether or not it was easy.
Suffice to say, that I could still believe into my mid-30s despite all my experiences that prove otherwise suggests a bedrock of faith I didn’t know I had until it crumbled.
But the story doesn’t start there.
It started with my first lessons in the school of hard knocks, toiling to save my family from financial ruin. I was 17 when I learned we were more than broke. We were in debt, deeply in debt, and my parents saw no way out of the quicksand they had built our lives on. Credit cards were used to make ends meet, too often. It wasn’t frivolous but it was absolutely foolish. When their siblings needed cash, or a parent needed a replacement something, they turned to my parents. Saying no is not an option for that generation, so they found a way. Half a lifetime of solving other people’s crises left them carrying six figures of debt on credit cards and personal and business loans.
Making mistakes didn’t make them bad people. My parents deserved my help because they always helped others. For a decade I made it my life to help them back, but I also learned from their mistakes. I helped them but I saved.
At first it was paltry. I was literally saving pennies. Nickels and dimes were salted away. I scrimped and skipped meals, worked overtime, saved like my life depended on it.
In a way, it did. More than my life, this was my Hope.
After more double shifts and sleepless nights than I care to remember, I invested my painstakingly hoarded nest egg. It grew a little bit and I reinvested it repeatedly.
18 months ago, the investment matured at $15,000, and I asked my father to pick up the cash. I hadn’t decided but was almost certain it would pay for JuggerBaby’s daycare so that’s what I told him the money was needed for. No immediate rush, then, I said, but I would absolutely need it by fall.
He’d been my loan courier for the interest payments in previous year but, this time, I wouldn’t be able to pick it up from him for two months. Two long months where I ignored my sense of misgiving over his characteristic silences, chiding myself for being worried, chalking it up to a hard-won sense of skepticism gone haywire.
By this summer, I had been put off several time. He was busy, they kept missing each other when he dropped in to pick up the payment. All normal, plausible, reasonable except it felt a little off. Nothing I could pinpoint but my instinct’s honed on decades of accurately identifying my brother’s lies. They had long outnumbered his truths, his half truths, and I’d become an expert at gauging when he was trying to con me.
I had never wanted to learn the art of detecting deceit in another family member.
An old friend always says, “your instincts are your best friend,” and I should have known when I was deliberately ignoring mine that they weren’t wrong.
They weren’t. But I wasn’t either.
I wasn’t prepared to accept another betrayal. I was trying to avoid it by pretending I didn’t sense the wrongness, the lie underneath, by giving him every opportunity to make it right. To make a clean breast of it and pay me the respect of treating me like an adult. Just a regular adult he cares about, never mind the fact that I’d sacrificed my life and health for his comfort and safety.
But denying your instincts always kicks your ass. My nightmares of fighting with my family started again. For years, they were so common PiC had mastered the art of soothing me without even waking himself. I’d wake screaming at my brother as we grappled over yet another bad decision.
Prepared to deal or not, once those nightmares started again, I knew I had to confront the situation head on.
A story of anger
So I did. And I saw the man who taught me to have integrity, to build a life by helping others and doing no harm, crumple under direct questioning. He had taken that money and used it to invest in a venture that was “expected to pay out within 6 weeks but…”
I watched as his face, once beloved, revealed that I could no longer trust anyone in my family. He regretted betraying my trust, he said, but the betrayal went far deeper than he understood.
Having made the colossally bad decision to take my money, my baby’s money, he then lied to me. Kept lying until he was backed into a corner.
The kindest possible interpretation is that he’s still grieving, that he’s eaten up by the shame and guilt of dependency, and the only way he knows how to deal with it is to try and make the most of any opportunity. Even if it wasn’t an opportunity that was offered. Even when it was clearly not his to take.
Some part of me still wants to be kind because any harsher interpretation is harsh for me too. But it’s been five years since Mom died. Three years since we had the incredibly hard conversation about our feelings of guilt and hurt and trying to mend things. Seventeen years since I first picked up this work of supporting my family and we had our first fights about honesty and making the household work.
He’s had time. He’s had enough chances to learn to work with me, and has proven in the starkest possible way that another chance is just another costly disappointment.
He promised to pay it all back when the money came back but in past year he’s called me once, and only because he thought he was returning a missed call and then to ask when we’re coming to visit. No updates on what’s going on, no calls to see how we’re doing. Not a word about receiving an email full of pictures of an (I’m not biased at all) incredibly cute grandchild growing up fast. Nothing.
That money, in other words, is lost and gone forever, dreadful sorry, Clementine.
What does this all mean? How do you go forward when you admit this is the state of affairs?
In practical terms, not much. I won’t put him out on the street by stopping his rent payments, I won’t punish him by stopping his utility payments. I’m not able to assess the cost of his betrayal and theft as equal to that of his right to live like a human with basic needs.
But it has cost him my love, my regard, and my trust.
The hardest realization is that I’ll never trust him alone with his grandchild. I once believed he would protect me at all costs and have now learned that we’re not even worth $15,000. I was his own child, his only daughter, his sole support, and he’s abused my good will and manipulated me under the umbrella of good intentions for years.
He’s rationalized it all as his way of helping me. He was working hard to make sure that I didn’t have to pay more than I already do to subsidize my sibling. So it naturally makes sense that he would take the money intended for my child’s care, daycare that is necessary for my health and for my income which he relies on, as seed money, then cover up his actions with lies.
That was his “better course of action.” Not: communicating clearly with me about his needs or his plans. Not asking if he could use it as capital. Just taking it and lying til the cows came home.
Well, the cow has come home and guess what? Asking forgiveness MIGHT be easier than asking for permission but what they don’t tell you is that you may never get forgiveness.
Knowing that he’d already easily rationalized the very wrong and harmful act of stealing from me and then lying to me about it until caught, what else can he rationalize? This wasn’t the first lie, but it has to be the last before the price is too high and too painful to be counted in dollars.
I’d been quietly resentful before that he hasn’t once lifted a finger to engage with his only grandchild. On arranged visits, he’s a drop-in. He’s a visitor to the proceedings, he’s played with zir maybe twice and that’s because PiC has been even more persistent than I in making sure ze gets Grandpa time.
After all this?
There’s simply no way I could ever trust zir in his care. I suppose it’s a good thing he never offered to help with zir, not even to watch zir for five minutes so I could scarf down a meal, so we haven’t developed the habit of relying on him. In my family, non-parents always lend a hand to the parents of little ones, grandparents above all. I have personally done it for more years than I can count, for everyone’s kids. He’s done it countless times for other relatives but I see that the most special consideration I get is that he’ll show up. Good thing, I guess.
He was an icon, in my eyes. A figure of storied proportions. His sacrifices to make a better life, his hard work, his ethics. I imbibed those with my mother’s home-cooked meals and tutelage. And now he’s made himself all but a stranger.
There are still some tears in the days to come, when a fond memory feels shattered, when I can’t remember the word for “meatball” in our native language and I can’t bring myself to dial his number.
I’m still angry with him. I may forgive someday but today is not that day. Tomorrow isn’t either. Even if it ever happens, I still won’t forget.
I don’t doubt he was sorry to be telling me the truth when he was forced to, but how much was regret over being caught and how much for the wrongdoing? History suggests mostly the former, less of the latter.
Years ago, a blogger aptly named Grace said she heard the voice of a hurt daughter wondering why she wasn’t good enough. It seems Grace read me more correctly than I knew.
I know now that I didn’t want it to be true. I wanted to believe in his good intentions. But his good intentions always came with a price and I was always the only one to who paid them. So here I am admitting: I am hurt. I do wonder why my father doesn’t love me enough, never loved me enough, to work with me or to put me and my well-being even equal to that of my Sibling’s when he was still clearly capable but unwilling to take care of himself.
Six years ago, I couldn’t conceive of the notion that my parent could value me so little. That he could see me as nothing more than a way to pay the bills. Today, I’m seeing that it’s not only possible, it’s been the truth for a long time.
I regret the loss of faith. I regret the loss of history. I regret that ze won’t be able to learn our family oral history the way I did from the man who remembers so much of it because he can’t spend an hour in our company. I hate that ze won’t have a living loving grandfather worth knowing.
I hate that when people joke that they still lean on their fathers like JuggerBaby now flops against zir father with complete faith, I feel a pang of envy. I hate that when a dear friend got married and his bride introduced me to her beaming, over the moon father, I felt loss.
Where was my father for all that? For the joy, the support, the fatherly bond? I worshiped him. I still remember before so clearly. At five years old, I was brewing his morning coffee and sitting with him while he drank it before he left for work. I brewed his nightly pot of tea, offering the first pour to our ancestors with lighted incense as is our custom, every night. I carefully washed it and the tea cups afterward, setting them out to dry for the next day. He combed my hair for me, just like his!, before school every morning of first grade. When Mom and I clashed, I could always turn to him for support over books, over clothes, over anything.
When did he stop loving me?
I won’t ask why. I don’t want to know. Maybe I don’t want to know when it happened, either.
A story of acceptance
I refuse to let this diminish me. I refuse to let this make me feel like I’m less than worthy. With or without him I am a person, whole and complete, and I will not be made less because my father forgot I have value.
Just as I learned from his mistakes in money, I’ll learn from his mistakes as a person and as a parent. I know now that not having money can do terrible things to a person, no matter who they were before, and while I cannot save my father from himself, perhaps I can save my chosen family from making the same mistakes.
For better or worse, I am my father’s daughter and inherited many of his traits. But I am not him, just like I’m not my mother, either. I have a choice and can choose to do things differently for my future.
I think it’s clear that I have done that, in finding a way to fulfill what I see to be my responsibilities and still preserve and protect my own family’s future. It’s not as easy as it would be if I were unfettered but I make it work.
More than one friend has asked me: would you ever cut him off?
The reality is he’s 70 years old, he’s unlikely to get hired anywhere, and he has minimal Social Security. He can afford his food and his gas, but clearly not more than one utility bill at a time. It would be inhumane to cut him off when I do have the means to support him, but I will be looking at ways to reduce the burden on our finances by pushing him to move to senior housing. This has been a challenge because he won’t throw out my sibling, the Parasitic Trainwreck (mixing my metaphors to give a clearer picture of his character), and I’m not sure what senior housing would allow for the presence of a person like him.
But for now, it’s enough that I’m able to face this squarely.
Then I’ll fix it. Like I always do.