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My Father’s Gift

It’s been two years since we discovered my father was having an affair.

For the last 12 years, the moral center of our family had been
outwardly manning the grill at backyard barbecues, treating my mother
to coffee in bed every morning, whisking his grandson off to the zoo.
But secretly, he’d been sending another woman roses. Telling her he
loved her. Giving her nicknames none of us had ever heard, and making
himself at home in a house — in a neighborhood — none of us even knew
existed.

The fallout was hideous, as you might imagine. Screaming. Pleading.
Nausea. Sleeplessness. Broken po ttery. And enough tears to fill the
swimming pool where we had always spent summers floating peacefully,
ignorantly.

There was so much crying — four generations bawled intermittently —
that we became desensitized to it and could eventually sit and watch
each other sob without offering a hug, fetching a Kleenex, or trying to
say something reassuring. Through blurry eyes we watched three decades
of mutual reliance, respect, and devotion wash away.

My mother said the worst part is he never could tell us why he did
it — and that he seemed okay with letting us wonder. Friends think the
worst part was the duration of the affair; a slip of the will is
forgivable, a decade of deception diabolical.

For me, the worst part was the walloping flood of disappointment
that came with learning the one person I upheld as ever-giving,
ever-strong, ever-true was truly selfish. Truly weak. Truly false. But
there are so many”worst parts” it’s hard to rank them.

My parents divorced. My father moved away and, perhaps tragically,
neither he nor I have made much effort to stay in touch. There’s too
much bad water still sloshing around between us, lapping at our
increasingly distant shores: shame on his end, resentment on mine.

Now that the wounds are starting to scab, and we can actually
picture the rest of our lives without him, and we are able to utter
things like,”I guess you never really know somebody the way you think
you do” without our throats closing up in that familiar, tiresome
way — now there’s a new worst part. Learning to re-love him.

As much as I prefer the burn of anger to the sting of sorrow, as
much as I rather enjoy the lingering flavor of a nice beefy grudge, it
turns out you can’t fully write off a parent.

There’s a weird thing that happens when you’ve been betrayed by
someone you love. First you reevaluate every fond memory that enters
your head: When he wrote that beautiful poem for my wedding, did he
read it to her first? When he came to meet his first grandson in the
hospital, was he wishing he were somewhere else?

But eventually, fond memories begin to creep in without first being
run through the Hostility Filter. Things he says that make me laugh, no
matter how often he says them. His magic tricks that never fail to
dazzle a crowd. The way dogs, cats, and dull people always gravitate
toward him, much to his dismay.

I didn’t send my dad a present for Father’s Day this year; I
couldn’t bring myself to do it. Instead, perhaps I’ll celebrate the
gifts he’s given me — the values he modeled so beautifully when … well,
when I knew him best.

We share a passion for peanut butter, a love of driving, a reverence
for Bill Cosby. His heroes are mine, and his politics. His favorite
songs are mine, and his sense of humor. If dishonesty is what carved
our family’s rift, then let’s be honest: My father is me. And I’m him.

I guess you never really know somebody the way you think you do.

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Published inColumnsParenting
My columns are collected in three lovely books, which make a SPLENDID gift for wives, friends, book clubs, hostesses, and anyone who likes to laugh!
Keep Your Skirt On
Wife on the Edge
Broad Assumptions
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