Wednesday, April 27, 2011

That Which Was

I was talking to my dad the other day about business and the job search. It's strange, noticing how our relationship is in the process of changing in such a short period of time.

I've never minded working for the family business, never felt confined or desperate to prove anything completely independent of them. I've done all the things a supposedly mature adult is expected to do as a productive member of society, and I'm still young enough to look forward to being a little more selfish now that some of those obligations and responsibilities are passing. No complaints.

It wasn't always easy, especially when I was a kid. My dad is such an intense, domineering presence. Hot-tempered and sharply opinionated, not to mention highly intelligent, driven and successful, it was very easy to always feel intimidated, like I was being judged and found wanting, even though he's never been belittling. It was just something I'd sense, in the way he'd listen to something I'd say and pause for a moment before responding while staring deeply at me, as if waiting in vain for me to come up with a little something extra to truly impress him. He just exuded such a forceful, impatient persona that you felt compelled to step up or quickly scurry out of the way. Whatever I was doing never felt good enough; he would always have an idea to slightly improve anything I was doing, from schoolwork to personal choices. Trying to develop my own personality as an adolescent, especially one that directly contravened many of his values, often felt like trying to walk against a ferocious headwind. I now appreciate that it tempered me and forced me to be more sure of myself, but there were many times I didn't believe I'd ever feel confident enough to stand in front of him without feeling a compulsion to stammer or make excuses for my thoughts or actions.

My parents are taking an early retirement now. Listening to him the other day was unlike any other conversation I've had with him. Disappointed and slightly stunned at how quickly the bottom fell out of the business, he's been worrying himself sick over how he'll be able to help my brother and I if we should need it, with no regular income of his own now. He even admits that flat-out, which makes me realize that I don't ever recall seeing him act unsure or anxious about anything. Even when I reached the age where you no longer blithely assume that your parents know everything and have all the answers, even when I began to consciously disagree with him, it always seemed like he believed he had all the answers. No more. Now he just seems like any other borderline-elderly man, unsure of his bearings, who did his best and worries it wasn't good enough. I told him not to worry anymore, that he'd done fine, I appreciated it all and that I'd be okay, and I meant it. It felt like the last little bit of growing up I had to do.

Rilke:

• His caring is a nightmare to us,
and his voice a stone.

We would like to heed his words, but we only half hear them.
The big drama between us
makes too much noise
for us to understand each other.

We watch his lips moving, shaping sounds that die away.
We feel endlessly distant,
though we are endlessly bound by love.

• Does anyone love a father?
Doesn't one leave a father's worn-out words
to old books that are seldom read?

Is his heart not a watershed
from which one flows away,
toward passion and suffering?

Isn't the father always that which was?
Used-up years with their odd ways of thinking,
outmoded gestures, old-fashioned dress,
pale hands and ashen hair.

And while in his time he may have been a hero,
he is a leaf that, when we grow, falls away.