It’s been 6 months since my adopted dad died. And I haven’t been able to write much about him, not just since he died, but for many years before he contracted Parkinson’s. Some of that is a combination of grief and estrangement, and some of that is guilt for the many ways I was never the child he wanted me to be, and some of that is that he is and has been a very tough person to do justice to.
My father was a good person.
That just doesn’t give those words enough resonance, so let me say it in a different way: my father was a Good Person.
And because he was so busy being so very, very good, in a way I never knew enough about him as a person, other than that if there was something on behalf of others that needed doing, my father was going to be there with his hands outstretched. It’s hard to explain how relentlessly flawless he seemed.
Dad was very religious. Our days started with scripture study and ended with prayer, and our weeks were often spent studying and volunteering for church service. Among other church roles, dad spent 5 years of my puberty/teens as a Mormon bishop, which in adapted terminology is like being the minister or pastor. Mormons don’t have a theological education or ministerial training program, per se, although some of the weekly 3-hour church sessions include priesthood leadership classes for men. Being a bishop is, therefore and like all church roles, a lay-person’s calling. However, I’ve never known anybody better suited to that job: if someone needed a bed to sleep in while their marriage fell apart, they spent a night or five in our basement. If there was a flood, if somebody’s car broke down, if someone was ill, my father was there, calm, and thoughtful, and listening, and infinitely helpful.
I’ve been thinking recently, both as a parent and as his child, about a disciplinary concept he used a lot, which was to remind us that whatever we did, good or bad, had resonance in the rest of our lives and the lives of everyone to whom we were connected. For me, this really stuck, and the results were not so great, as they fed my already strong sense of depression and outsider-ness. While I had probably a usual number of parent/child run-ins, this sense of resonance made me think that every infraction committed was permanently blackening the person I was becoming and infecting those around me. The voices that praised me (and there were enough of these) seemed nearly silent, while the voices that blamed me seemed very loud.
Probably there are people who can resolve to do better and succeed easily, but I’ve never had those skills. It’s taken me years to find my inner mettle and to find the person within of whom I am proud rather than guilty – and to stop covering that guilt with a mixture of defiance and sarcasm. I now think that dad was probably trying to help us build strong characters amplifying our strengths, not remind us that our characters were going to be comprised of the mess resulting from every bad judgment, self-serving lie, and half-cocked argument we’d held. But because I thought of myself as bad and unworthy, I didn’t have a healthy way to expunge those feelings of guilt.
Also, because the way I was supposed to heal my feelings of unworthiness was through the Mormon path of confession/forgiveness to the bishop, which meant confessing my guilt and doubts to my father, I ended up avoiding what possibly would have been cathartic in that way, choosing instead to avoid any cause to talk to him as his congregant. This may not have been as cathartic as I imagine - I am not sure what this deeply religious person who was also my father might have done with doubt-riddled me when he put on the confessor hat.*
I miss him. My siblings each have seemed to try hard to be the same kind of person: infinitely good. I have to confess that, while I admire that strength and devotion to a path of hyper-vigilant excellence, it’s occasionally a bit irritating in a sibling. It’s lately occurred to me that my mother, who, while averagely good, isn’t a deeply Good Person in the same way (interesting, vivacious, fun, and prone to emotional intensity, yes), has been discovering her own level without the constant excellence-by-example my father provided. I’m sure she misses him tremendously, but I can see that she’s also more her own self than I’ve ever known her. This has been difficult, but also very interesting.
I’d like to think I can parent my kids in a way that organically evolves as they get older. I have no fear that they’ll think of me as exceptionally Good. Hopefully they won’t think of me primarily as Muddled, but that’s at least a fairly human example. At any rate, I’d like to think that I can grow my relationship with them to encompass their ever expanding intellect and sophistication – remaining both Mom and person, and that I can help them build characters that acknowledge the possibility of what occasionally may feel like endless mistakes without the weight of endless resonance.
* Not a literal hat