Sunday, January 25, 2004

Sunday Confessions I

The oldman has been traveling the last few days and pitching in with some family friends to help out relatives. It's been funner than I ever imagined it would be. As a youth, the oldman was a somewhat distant surly teenager who often felt bothered when family members tried to drag him away from his obsessive self-training regimine for boring family stuff. Now the oldman recognizes this bizarre activity for what it is: love and caring. The oldman has always been old, being something of an "old soul" as some quaint old people once put it when encountering his younger incarnation. Now things are different. With time has come seasoning, both in acumen in the various joys / pitfalls of human nature and also in the living of a fulfilled life.

My youth was filled with an unrelenting focus on private measures of achievement and introspective journeys of intellectual investigation in all manner of sciences heathen and cutting edge. Dad was a workaholic, what he didn't throw into work he filled his hours with book studies and private tinkering with cars, electronics: you name it he did it. It wasn't until he passed away tragically that some old resentments died and I realized how much I loved him. It's a cliche that you don't appreciate what you have until you've lost it, but it's too true.

It's not like the memories of Dad's fits of anger, his frustration with my lack of interest in worldly success, or my uneasiness at whenever he simply tried too hard to get something across to me and it fell flat disappeared. Not a single fault vanished into dreamy nostalgia. He'd grown up fatherless, and while it was always known by me I never really tried to understand him. I had never given him credit for how obviously hard he had tried. My critical faculties were all too ready to fault him for his failings, and my pride was all too ready to disregard his advice in the face of my relentless search for excellence beyond human recognition or fame. Never once did I try to understand him.

I never tried to understand the marital dynamics and his own struggles with my grandmother that drove him to the brink of distraction. I know them all too well know because after his death, it became all too clear the tensions and pressures that tormented him because now I had to deal with their aftermath. Yes, he could go into a frenzy of anger sometimes but I could always stand up to him and face him down. He never wholly lost reason. But I only saw the anger, and not the provocation - absorbed as I was in my pursuit of private achievement.

My family never really knew these many long years of my true activities. Sometimes my father complained of how "mysterious" I was. My mother complained about my distance even when I came home. Like my siblings they only saw the aftermath of my struggles. In order to cloak them and the sometimes less than legal lengths I went to pursue my avocations I allowed others including my family to think the worst of me. That I was whiling away all my time playing cards with my buddies, that my medical problems came from being unlucky and not from less innocent injuries, and that sometimes that I was even slightly crazy rather than admitting all the "crazy" things I was doing. They only saw the puzzling paradox of a highly intelligent and talented young man, who was seemingly doing nothing with his life.

In truth I cared nothing for fame, recognition, or money. For years, I lived like a monk burning with the passion for only my investigations, discipline, and pursuit of skills and knowledge. Even the slight obligations of success - mortgages, families, and careers - I denied myself to give myself a purity of contemplation and a complete freedom to take any risk necessary to prove the true validity of my ideas. Sometimes I would purposely throw away opportunities, fail deliberately tests, and walk away from ludricously lucrative wealth opportunities. It was all a trap for me, an illusion whose attachments would prevent me from pursuing the epitome of my ambitions: Arete and Excelsior. Excellence ever higher or excellence ever better. Excellence for excellence's sake, and damn all the trappings of success that would distract me from that goal.

My family could only see the scars that I explained away or the ever expanding encyclopediac base of knowledge I was accumulating in all manner of endeavours. The latter occasioned them with great confusion, for if one could know or do so much (and my attitude could be very haughty and arrogant at times) then why was there no outward manifestation? It must have driven them nuts. They undoubtedly came to their own conclusions.

But in the end it was I who didn't understand my family, most especially my father. It was after his death, that it all hit me in one terrible blow. We'd quarrelled before his passing, and the last time I'd seen him alive I'd tried to patch things up. It was only a partial reconciliation with so many things left unsaid. To myself I said that this would be the year that I came into the open and shared all that I had done and cloaked under misdirection. To myself I said, that the very next time I saw him I'd finish making up with my father and we'd have that talk I'd always been meaning to have and spend more time with him. It sounds too crazy, but that's exactly the way it happened. When I turned to go away, my mother actually told me that I should go talk to him one last time, because who knows I might never see him alive again. She actually said that. And I did try (awkwardly) to hug him, but he'd only shake my hand. It was a brilliant metaphor for the whole of our relationship.

Then he died, and there would never be a next time to explain all, to ask for all sins to be forgiven, and to forgive all. It was only then that I realized that my utter insensitivity to the opinions of others, my obsessive drive for achievements that I shared with no one, and my inhuman ambitions of achievement were all just extreme cariactures of my own father's behavior. It should have been obvious, but it wasn't. I had promised myself that I would never turn out just like my father. I had succeeded all too well: I had become far worse.

At the same time, it all came flooding in. Everything that had been opaque to my understanding was illuminated. His frustration over my outwardly achievements were the reflection of the natural frustration of an ambitious man whose oldest son seemingly ignores all opportunity for advance. His lack of ability to communicate his genuine concern and greviances were reflected in my alienation from the rest of my family. His snappishness was the mirror of my own irritability. His unending curiousity was the dual of my pursuit for knowledge and truth for their own sake.

My siblings didn't know the details, but they knew of my long rocky relationship with my father that had culminated in estrangement before his death. So they blamed me in the aftermath of his death, a blame redoubled because I was distracted by the enormity of my own culpability in piling grief on his head before his demise. I cannot say they were wrong.

Many times my siblings have misjudged me, and I have humored them knowing that to do otherwise would be to blow my double-life apart. But that time though they were dead on. My mother recently told me in half humor and half reproach that she hoped that my father would haunt me in the light-hearted guilt-tripping fashion of which only mothers are natural virtuosos. He does haunt me. A few times a month now I dream of him. These are not chain-rattling dreams. He looks quite healthy and well. However they are not fuzzy dreams of nostalgia either. In them, he is just himself as he always is. He is still quintessentially himself. It is me who is overcome by remorse. It is me who reaches out to him. His flaws have not faded from my mind, but I no longer blame him for them because I finally understood the context from which his frustrations stemmed. I hope he continues to haunt me. Sadly, this is all I have of him now.

Also I admit to myself the ultimate truth, which is that I never had anything to fear from him. It was only my hurt feelings, childish resentments and snubbed pride nursed over the years that had stood between us at the end. I had traveled too far from that young boy in order for them to dominate my thinking, yet they did. He had changed too. He had mellowed over the years and tried for quite a while to make ammends. But I wouldn't forgive him for past slights and actual misdeeds. I had by my own measure completely outgrown the insecure young boy that had been overawed by my father's seeming wide-ranging expertise at anything he put himself to. I could admit that my own epic quest for excellence had been inspired by no other than trying to live up to the standard my father had set. Yet my heart was still too petty to reconcile fully with him before his demise.

The only balm is that before the end I told him how much I respected him. Not loved, but at least respected. I still remember the look of surprise on his face, as if I'd told him something he never expected to hear. That should have been a warning sign to me, a rebuke of how I had disregarded him over the years. It is a small thing to set against the look of pain and even moisture I'd brought to his eyes the day I'd shouted in frustration that he'd never given me a single good piece of advice. I'd never meant it how it came out, but I was always frustrated because being so competent my father couldn't understand how what worked for him didn't ever end up working for me. I remember thinking smugly at the time, that good at last I've finally gotten through to him. Now I'd give anything to take it back.

Such is life however. We make our beds and then we lie down in them. The greatest punishment we bear is to simply live with what we have done. We make our choices and then we have to live with them. So I have borne every coldness and every rebuke silently since my father's funeral, thinking of each time he himself swallowed the insult that I this sharper than a serpent's tooth child had given him. It is the least I can do. There are other things he has asked of me over the years in the event of his passing, and however ridiculous now after his passing I have followed them to the letter as intelligently as I can manage. I always had responded flippantly to them, saying "Sure Dad." They have taken on new importance now. Having failed him in life, I can hardly fail him in his death.

A great debt to the rest of my family I owe also, who while not as hurt as my father was by my turning away from him were hurt as well in more ways than I can say. It is time to drop the masks and facades, and to stand up and be counted. Whether they approve of what I have done and what I intend to do, is irrelevant. They deserve to know the real me, and have of me my best that before I have always reserved solely for my own personal vision of striving. It is not complete yet, but soon I think it will start to become apparent.

Once my father asked me that if I ever achieved anything great, that just to thank him in it and that would be enough. I bitterly regret now how contemptuously I disregarded any need to try to make my father proud of me. Whatever I shall do good or ill, he will never know of it. Now that I finally move out from the shadows ever so slowly to prove my worth, I will never have the chance to gain his forgiveness or make him proud. That is my punishment. This is my Sunday confession.


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