It’s often difficult to imagine that your parents had an entire life before starting a family of their own. And, honestly, we rarely ever find ourselves in a position where this would have to be considered. Life has an impersonal way of having us go from someone’s child to someone’s spouse to someone’s parent,
without considering the vignettes that lead into such roles. The former self is less magnified; however, it’s still there. Perhaps this explains those things about our parents we just don’t understand. We note them as qualities they have always had. We are not conditioned to see them beyond being parents. We are not conditioned to see them at all. We do not see their humanity. And maybe this impacts our relationship with them before we even begin to understand that (typically) our parents have at least 2+ decades of experience prior to becoming mothers and/or fathers. Experience that would both shape and limit what kind of parents they would be.
I found myself in this vein of thought after my father passed. I knew my father. I loved my father; but, I wondered if the man I knew and loved was really who I thought he was. After his death, for whatever reason, my mom started opening up to me more about their younger selves. Maybe the teacher appeared because I was showing that I was ready to be a student. Maybe she felt that would help me process my grief. Maybe it helped her process hers – grief she never admitted to having. Whatever the reason, her openness did two things for me: 1. helped me start my process of viewing my father as a whole human with past experiences and 2. Allowed me to trust my mother in a new way that is not solely based on what she does for me (as a mother).
Learning new things about my father’s younger self helped me to make sense of things I could never quite explain about myself. Something as simple as learning that he loved country music, or that he was always very quiet and kept to himself. Just knowing there are things I share with him keeps elements of him alive through me. However, not enough to diminish the many haunting questions I have had over the years pertaining to what kind of father he was. Tougher questions like that still lingered, even with all the positive things my mother was now disclosing after his death. What makes someone not be the best parent they can be? What makes them seem so distant? What was responsible for this distance – was it me?
Through more conversations with my mother, I learned that it was not me at all. A twenty year old questioned was answered after one story: my father’s father had died when he and his siblings were extremely young. It was believed that he was murdered by a white (racist) man via a hit and run. So, not only did he have to deal with the loss of his father, he now had to help his mother take care of his siblings in whatever way he could. Now, understand this story does not dismiss the times I have felt he failed as a father; however, it paints a clearer, more human picture of who my father was before he was my father. It helps to make sense of a man who inherited an extreme amount of grief and responsibility, at such a young age.
For some, this level of responsibility makes you the ideal caretaker, indefinitely. For my father – at least from what I have reconciled – he would process his grief (and bitterness) in other ways. These ways were not always the best way to be while trying to be a father. But no one gets the luxury of going around with a “life hurt me” sign on their forehead. I had to wait over two decades for an answer to his often absence as a parent, to understand that maybe he had been depressed about his father’s murder since he was a child and turned to drugs as a way to cope. Whatever the answer was, having possibilities that did not include me being the problem helped to free me in ways unimaginable.
I could not get back the time lost, but I could forgive my father for impositions beyond his control. I could forgive myself for being so angry all these years. And, most importantly, I could start a new journey that takes into consideration that the people who gave me life had entire lives before I came along. Who they were matters, and is just as important to my self-discovery than anything I ever considered before. Therefore, I continue to journey!