How I Finally Healed My Relationship With My Father
My father was a high-achieving, sharp-looking, charismatic, entertaining guy. He provided well for our family, and I learned a lot from him. He taught me the importance of hard work, paying attention to details, asking for what you want, anticipating what can happen, being a good conversationalist, and being friendly to and respectful of others.
He could also be a short-tempered, controlling, overbearing, critical, and perfectionistic pain in the ass. Like with anyone, overused strengths can become weaknesses. But it didn’t stop there — I heard many racist and misogynist remarks from him throughout my life. He was far from perfect, but he was my father.
After the Korean War, he left the military and applied for a sales job at a pharmaceutical company in New York, saying he would work for no pay until he proved himself. They took him, and he went on to have a highly successful, 30-year sales career, retiring from an executive position.
As I grew up, I don’t remember my father being around much between his job responsibilities and his love for golf. If I went to the golf course with him, things usually ended in a meltdown as he tried to overinstruct me. Eventually, the sport made me miserable, and I quit playing. By the time I got to high school, my father and I were miles apart — I didn’t understand him, and he didn’t understand me.
I went off to college, grew my hair long, and went full counterculture. I protested the Vietnam War, became a conscientious objector, took drugs, studied just enough to get by, and graduated near the bottom of my class. I collected my English literature degree pleasantly stoned. A few months later, I dropped out of mainstream society, moved into an ashram, and followed an Indian guru for the next 10 years.
My path was not what my father had in mind. He’d just paid a small fortune for my education, and now I was practicing meditation and living like a monk in some run-down hippie house in Boston. As he teed off at his swanky country club, what could he say to his friends whose sons were promising young attorneys or med students? “Oh yeah, my kid is a monk worshipping a teenaged Indian boy.”
Much later, I realized how he suffered, but I didn’t care back then. I wasn’t interested in conforming to his idea of the “perfect son” — I needed to find my own way.
On my infrequent visits home, sitting at the family dinner table with my mother and sisters, my father ridiculed me about the “gugu.” I wanted to punch him in the face, but I just looked at him and let it go, feeling embarrassed for him. He was arrogant and closed-minded, and I knew nothing I could say would change his mind.
My father and I didn’t talk much during the 10 years I was a monk. But when I was 33, things took a turn for the better when I left the ashram, got married, and started working in corporate America. I was now in “his world”; we could talk about marriage, business, homeownership, and sports.
When I was 37, my daughter was born, and I felt the raw responsibility of raising a family. When you become a monk at 23, you may grow spiritually, but you don’t grow psychologically. All my suppressed critical and short-tempered bullshit started to surface. I felt like I was becoming my father. I knew one thing — I didn’t want to treat my children the way my father treated me.
I found a good shrink, a guy named John.
John told me I had to deal with my wounds — particularly the one with my father. I was angry because I never had a father who understood me. I was pissed off by his absence in my life, the way he opposed my choices, and how he ridiculed me for 10 years. To get the anger out of my body, John had me pounding leather pillows and screaming at the top of my lungs. I cried my eyes out. I left those sessions exhausted, but I knew something good was happening.
John suggested I write a letter to my father, telling him what it was like to grow up with him and what I wanted now. Initially, I struggled. I’d show John a draft, and he’d say it wasn’t good enough. I’d show him another. Finally, I got one in acceptable condition and off it went.
My father’s letter in response kick-started my healing process:
You remember clashing on a number of issues when you were young, afraid of me, my anger and pickiness. I must say that I recall some of those moments, and it saddens me to think of them now. I regret them with all my heart and know my fuse was too short.
I had a lot of insecurities and only wanted you to be the best. You were and are such a great son. I have always loved you and again regret my inabilities to convey that message properly.
My father had never said things like this to me before. I wrote him back, a long letter, thanking him and letting him know how much his words meant.
Over the next 10 years, my father and I were pleasant to each other, but we never talked about those letters or our relationship in person. When I turned 55, I realized the son had now become the man, and I wanted to have a face-to-face conversation with my father before he passed. He was 81, and his health was beginning to decline. During my next visit, I asked him if we could talk, and he agreed.
I told him what it was like growing up under him and how I needed to break free. I explained why I joined a spiritual movement and lived like a monk for 10 years and how I missed being able to have him understand and support me.
He listened quietly and apologized. Then he told me his side of the story. It turns out for those 10 years, my father was constantly worried about me, not knowing where I was or what I was doing, and he didn’t know how to connect with me. Tears welled up in my eyes as I listened to him. I could feel the heaviness, the loneliness of his heart during those years he felt he didn’t have a son.
My son was a young teenager at the time, and my worst nightmare would have been losing connection with him or having him walk away from me. Until this conversation, I had never understood how things looked through my father’s eyes.
I could feel the heaviness, the loneliness of his heart during those years he felt he didn’t have a son.
And there, sitting across from me, was my dad, telling me this happened to him. Tears streamed down his face too. Later that evening, I crawled into bed and cried uncontrollably.
Finally, I understood my father did the best he could with what he had. If I hadn’t fully forgiven him before, I did then. I was at peace — I’d done all that I could. He lived another 10 years and then passed in his sleep in 2016 at the age of 91.
He, like all of us, was flawed and fabulous. Accepting him as he was helped me more fully accept myself. I gradually eased up on my perfectionism — becoming more forgiving and tolerant of my mistakes, more effectively managing my negative self-talk, and taking constructive criticism with less self-flagellation. Over time, I became more forgiving of and patient with others too.
After my work with John, as my kids grew into their twenties, I would occasionally catch myself before I said something I shouldn’t. Other times, the words just leaked out. But no matter what, I made sure my kids were loved and supported. I wasn’t a perfect parent by any means, but I worked hard to make sure they knew I was there for them and we could always resolve disagreements.
Despite the progress, the work never ends. About five years ago, my kids gave me a hoodie for Christmas with the words “In Control” printed on the front. I said, “Really, still?”
They spoke with big smiles. “Yes, Dad. Sometimes you still are a control freak.”
I said, “I’m trying. I really am.”
They laughed and said, “Yeah, you’ve definitely gotten better.”
Hearing that was a relief.
Recently, I started playing golf again. I’m really enjoying it, and as I walk down the fairways, I remember my dad. I think he’d be pleased I’m finally playing the game he loved so much.
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