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Modern Love

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Modern love: Trauma, neglect, forgiveness

By Heather Sellers
New York Times

My computer screen filled with bosom. The bosom belonged to Dawn, the activities director at the care center in Florida where my father was living. She leaned over her laptop and shouted, “Can you hear us?”

I leapt out of my chair and closed my office door. I was shaking. When Dawn stepped aside, I would see the father I hadn’t seen in years.

And never sober. My father smoked and drank around the clock. And he didn’t just chase women – he lunged for them. He met any intervention with violent rage.

The money he inherited slipped away to homeless drifters and lady friends from bars. He missed my graduations, my wedding, every birthday, every need. I was in my late 30s when I realized this relationship might be too hard.

So I let him go. From afar, I orchestrated assisted living, paperwork and medical power of attorney.

I didn’t see him. Until now.

In the background, I heard an old man saying, “Wah, wah, wah,” as if asking for water. How happy my father would be, I thought, if he were the one seeing the cleavage up close on the screen.

Recently, I had decided he had most likely suffered from mental illness. But I had never found a way to know him or understand his rage.

Now, here he was, Fred Sellers, at 80. I hadn’t seen him in so many years. His bright eyes roved around the screen, intensely curious. He still had his thick white hair and gigantic eyebrows. His stroke-frozen claw hand was clutched over his heart. He worked his good hand to the keyboard.

“Daddy,” I said. I sounded so small. My throat hurt. I did not want to cry. I was at work, wearing mascara and a white blouse; I had to teach class in less than an hour. “You look so good.”

“Well, hell,” he said, peering at the screen. “Where you been, girl child?”

His stroke-affected speech was heavy on vowels, light on consonants. But every word was as clear to me as always. He looked better than ever. Was this the first time I had seen him sober?

“Can you see me, Daddy?”

“No!” he shouted, banging his good hand on the keyboard.

Then I remembered: Since his stroke, when he said “no” he meant “yes,” and “yes” meant “no.” He did see me. “Isn’t this great?” I said, pressing tissues to my face.

“No!” he shouted. “No, no.”

I smiled.

A safe way to visit

Over the years, friends, clergy members and relatives urged me to visit my father, while others urged me to never see him again. When I visited, I always regretted it. When I didn’t, I regretted that too.

But children of negligent parents have complicated needs. Now that my father was in a nursing home and couldn’t drink, hurt anyone or destroy himself, I felt overwhelmed in a good way by the love that rushed in.

My father and I started talking, thanks to Dawn, every Friday afternoon. Online video calls gave me my father, gave him to me in a safe, manageable format. Here, in a box, was a man I could love.

“Dawn says you’re doing pretty good,” I said.

“No!” he said, his whole body nodding yes. “No!”

He beamed. I had never seen my father really happy before. I had never seen his love for me shine through. But here it was.

At this safe distance, I couldn’t get enough of him. We spent a lot of time just staring at each other. He peered hard into the screen, trying to capture every bit of information, looking happily overwhelmed, and fiercely confused. One day, I was pleased he was wearing a green striped shirt I had mailed, and I told him how nice he looked.

He looked down at himself and back up at me, shaking his head, as if to say, “Life’s a mystery.” We had been estranged forever, yet now we were having the best relationship we ever had.

Often he asked me, in his garbled way, how my house was, and my teaching. Finally he was asking me questions about my life, noticing I had one. My dad was with me, there was just less of him. Which turned out to be a good thing.

After Christmas that year, my father went to the activities room less and less. Then in February he didn’t go at all.

Finally Dawn broke the news to me: lung cancer. I flew to Orlando and spent three days with him. We held hands and laughed a lot. I showed him old photos. I read him a book I’d salvaged from my childhood.

That evening, after dinner, he pointed to his chest.

“Does it hurt?” I asked.

He nodded. “Is it bad?” he asked me.

“It’s not good,” I said.

“Damn it.”

Trauma, neglect, forgiveness

I held his hand while he slept. The laptop calls had given me a new template for my father. I couldn’t have just come down and seen him otherwise. We’d made a new relationship online, me and the smaller Fred.

Two weeks later, he was dead. Pneumonia.

We had just barely a year. But I got what I wanted: to be a normal daughter. And after he died, I got to have some profoundly normal grief. The last words he heard me say were “I love you,” and his last to me, said in his way, were “I love you, too.”

Forgiveness is a heavy-duty word. I don’t know that I forgave my father. I’m not even sure what that means. What happened between us at the end of his life feels more simple and complex than forgiveness.

Those conversations don’t cancel out the years of trauma and neglect. But neither does the bad cancel out those final moments of grace. Both are true. I hold both in my heart, and I am grateful.

In the year before he died, I got to love my father – some.

Heather Sellers, author of “You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know,” is working on a memoir.
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