Mychal Smith’s father will never express his feelings, no matter how desperately his sons need him to find some sort of expression.
People often have a hard time understanding why my father and I don’t get along. I don’t have any horror stories of violent beatings or abandonment. He wasn’t a drunk who spent half of his days at the bottom of a bottle of Boone’s Farm and the other half passed out in his own vomit. I didn’t know him to be abusive or disrespectful toward my mother. My father was a Navy man, serving 20 years before retiring, and though he has moved through many different professions since, he has always been able to provide, at times abundantly. By most generally accepted measures, he has done his job as a parent.
And that’s where it starts. He has always approached parenting as more of a job than a relationship. He was, and still is, detached. I had hopes that as I got older, the more he started seeing me as an adult, he would relax and open up, maybe talk to me like a human being instead of a science project.
On some levels, I get it. Granted, it took me a while to accept, but I have come to recognize that my father is not the type of person to be open and honest about his true thoughts, feelings, emotions, and things of the sort. He’ll never admit it, but he’s still carrying around a lot of anger toward his own father for not being a steady presence in his life. My father is much like the theme song from Shaft: a complicated man, and no one understands him but his woman.
Or rather, his ex-woman. After 26 years of marriage, he and my mother have called it quits. It hasn’t been easy for her, adjusting to a life she didn’t envision when she exchanged vows with my father all those years ago. She’s had to leave the home where she raised her children and try to embrace, as best she can, the idea of spending her twilight years alone. These are thoughts she didn’t anticipate having to confront at 50 years old, and meeting the challenge has often been overwhelming for her.
I have no idea how my father feels about any of this. He refused the idea of therapy, though attending sessions with my mother may have saved the marriage. He would rather do things his way. Always. Even if it never works.
My mother, bless her heart, keeps me telling me I should work on my relationship with him. I’m nowhere near ready to break that bread.
The day my little brother and I helped him move out of the house, I realized it was going to take a while to get there. We got into the truck, U-Haul attached to the back, and my father took the moment to address the two of us. “I want to thank you guys for helping me out today. I know this is difficult for you,” he said, “I don’t know what to tell you other than…well, things happen. Yeah, things happen.” I looked down into my phone and lost myself in the world of Twitter, lest I start cursing at him like I was getting paid by HBO.
It had already been a long day, and it wasn’t even noon. I was operating off maybe four hours of sleep, and we had spent the morning moving my brother’s stuff out of his fourth-floor dorm room. Now we were tasked with hauling the agreed upon furniture and amenities out of what had been our family’s home for the past 18 years and into my father’s new apartment. His short speech about this being “difficult” and “things” happening was no consolation.
He appeared to be trying to project calm, but it came across as shallow, insincere aloofness. It was smug. “Things happen” is hardly an appropriate platitude when you spill Coke on a beige rug, let alone when you’ve decided to end a 26-year marriage.
I’m still not sure of the details of why they split. At this point, I don’t think I want to know. I decided, as a teenager, that their marital affairs were none of my business, and I distanced myself accordingly. I would jokingly tell them, “I don’t get involved in marital disputes,” when caught in the middle of some meaningless argument, but I meant it. Wholeheartedly.
I didn’t want to be involved, or rather, I felt like I couldn’t be involved for the sake of my sanity. In every screaming match I ever heard between the two of them, I found myself taking my mother’s side and building an incurable rage toward my father. I needed to stay out of their relationship if there was any hope to salvage our relationship.
Perhaps my ambivalence toward my parents’ marriage played a role in his vagueness. But I never needed, nor do I want, a detailed blow-by-blow. I would have been content if he had just shown some sort of emotion, if he would have let his guard down for a hot half-a-second and shown that this was “difficult” for him too, if he could, for one moment, wipe that fucking smirk off his face and recognize the gravity of the situation. I just wanted him to be human.
My father refuses to acknowledge his own feelings and consequently he also fails to recognize those of others. He has this way of making you feel small for having emotions. So even if I yelled, screamed, cursed, and cried in that moment, it’s entirely possible he would have taken my catharsis and turned it into maelstrom of misappropriated rage. And I would have walked away feeling like shit. Again.
I’m not upset my parents split up. Divorce happens, and if they honestly could not reconcile their differences, this is for the best. I’m disappointed because every chance my father has had to show me how to be a “real man,” something he always preached, he has failed to do so.
He wouldn’t say he has failed, and there’s the source of our disconnect. He views manhood in one, outdated, stifling, rigid, lacking, self-destructive way—not at all how I see it. It’s been that way for years, but only recently did I acquire the language I needed to articulate it. Maybe one of these days I’ll be able to sit down with my father and help him find a new way of expression.
Or maybe he’ll never understand.
—Photo John Steven Fernandez/Flickr