Headcase - Just in time for Christmas

My father rejects me from his grave

In the week after my father's death on Nov. 25, I was haunted by a dream image: a cabin on a wide-open field. I was inside the unfurnished house, which was serenely quiet. But outside, winds churned noiselessly about the house, growing in ferocity every minute. As long as I didn't look out the windows, I remained calm.

I saw this as a metaphor for my circumstances. As I wrote two weeks ago, I made a decision to focus on the good qualities of my father, even though we'd been estranged for many years. That estrangement seemed to change in the months before my mother's death. When I called him on Father's Day this year, he told me over and over again that he loved me, as he had last Christmas. I felt calm during the days after his death.

But I knew the image described the potential volatility of my emotional state. I knew the calm could be overwhelmed by the winds of grief and unpleasant memories. After decades of psychotherapy, I did not want to ruminate my painful history with my father again. And so I kept my eyes off the unpleasant past.

But then my youngest brother called me while I was having lunch with a friend. He informed me that shortly after my mother's death about 18 months ago, my father struck me from his will. I was completely disinherited without explanation.

Those winds of grief and memory immediately overcame me. I got through lunch with my friend and drove to a deserted parking lot and cried. I'm grown-up enough that I don't get so overwhelmed by my feelings that I lose the "observer" part of myself. So, part of me was in terrible pain and part of me was amazed to find myself with such an old, familiar feeling.

I felt, and continue to feel off and on, exactly as I did throughout my childhood. Above all, there was the loneliness. I hadn't thought about it in years – the way my mother would stop speaking to me for weeks at a time, once at Christmas, and my father would berate me about the misery I caused her. After I went to bed, I listened to them discussing what a terrible kid I was. My mother's shunning would not end until I made an adequately pleading apology, usually for saying something angry to her.

During these "silent treatments" and many other times, I curled into a ball and pretended I was dead. I imagined myself falling through gray space, like an asteroid, every feeling drained from my body. I found myself doing the same thing when I tried to sleep after my brother's call.

There was also humiliation – and I suppose that's part of why I've made myself write this column. I refuse to hide. I spent most of my childhood feeling humiliated, hiding in my room. There's no question that I was an odd kid, but my parents' solution to everything was that I should change or hide who I was, not that I was OK the way I was.

Being disinherited is humiliating. I've never known anyone to whom it's happened. It's calculated to hurt for the rest of one's life. In honesty, I used to say it wouldn't surprise me if my father did this, but it's still stunning that he chose to be remembered as the man who rejected his child rather than the one who loved him.

I suppose, were he here, he might say I had rejected him and my mother in our estrangement. But that is what I heard as a kid, too. It was my job to keep them happy and not the other way around. Even my grandmother, my father's mother, once told me, "Your father will always be a child."

I refuse to hate my father. As I wrote earlier, he showed me love and generosity at different times. But in truth, he was also mean and spiteful.

I have a wish. I hear my father's voice every year at this time, "It's Christmas, damn it!" he would say when he wanted my brothers and me to behave well.

Christmas, no matter your religion, honors the divinity of human nature incarnated in the child. My wish is that every parent who reads this will treat their children with the love I was mainly denied as a kid. And, for God's sake, don't leave your kids with a legacy of contempt, no matter how rough things get. Love is the thing everyone most wants and needs in life. My father put a price on love. I refuse to do the same thing.

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For information on his private practice, go to www.cliffbostock.com.

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