My dad has issues. For a three year stint, he didn’t talk to me, for unknown reasons. I tried reaching out the olive branch on several occasions, through letters and email, but these attempts were met with absolute silence. It wasn’t until a pending trip to Chicago, that he responded to an email of mine. His response was pretty much, “What’s the problem. You know I’m not a good conversationalist.”
This is what scares me….neither am I.
When it comes down to it, my fear is that this legacy of emotional and communicative disconnect is going to bleed into my relationship with my own son.
My dad has his own set of problems. Born in the 1940’s and shipped to Viet Nam in his 20’s, I always knew my dad as the guy who “doesn’t like to talk about things.” This was the family narrative. You didn’t ask my dad about his life. The war was off limits. Discussions about his parents, especially his father, were out of bounds because his dad was institutionalized after a bout of incapacitating meningitis. Talk about his extended family was out of the question because he just hated the bastards. Aside from that, his only real interests seemed to be hunting and electronics, leaving few common interests between him and me (or most people).
“Alexithymic” is probably also a good way of describing my dad. It’s a word I picked up in grad school, which characterizes a person who is neither able to name his/her emotions or describe them in words. My dad and I have never had a single conversation about his feelings, nor has he ever offered up a description of them. In spite of his divorce, the death of his mother, his own cancer, none of these things enlivened a single visible emotion or mention of his feelings.
These two issues make it nearly impossible for me to talk with my dad, outside of topics such as the weather, traffic, or consumer electronics. We’ve never had the ability to talk. There were times in my life when my father and I just did more things together, and therefore spent more with one another. And yet, we weren’t necessarily close. So, as an adult man, separated from my father by half the country, there’s no way of connecting. We don’t live close enough to do things together, and conversations fall short, so our relationship languishes.
And so, each time I sit across from my son at the breakfast table in silence, or drive home with him in a quiet car, I project 20 years into a future in which we have nothing to say to one another. No bond.
There are times when conversations with my son really fall flat. My son is a relatively quiet kid. I’ve spent time with kids who provide a running narration or their thoughts or actions. Kids that are always talking. Or for some kids, once their interest is peaked, they can talk a mile a minute. This isn’t my son. He’s shy most of the time, and even when someone inquires about something he knows well, he gets self-conscious, or hesitant, preventing him from share what he knows. This is true whether it’s a stranger at a cash register, or even his parents at home.
Somehow, my wife has a magic with him, and they can have the longest conversations. I find that when I try, I’m pulling teeth. I get feedback that it’s my style. Sometimes I come across like an interviewer when having a discussion. I can pelt a person with endless questions. For my son, that doesn’t work, and he turns into a deer in headlights. I’ve tried easing up, and inquiring or opening up conversations in an inquisitive, non-threatening way. And yet I find these conversations still falter.
These scenarios bring up two things for me: anger and fear. The anger is directed at my own father. When I find myself stuck in conversation, I can’t help but think part of the reason is that I never got good modeling as a kid. If my dad was a bit more skilled, or for that matter, simply tried just a little bit harder, I might have some vocabulary for father-son dialogue. I feel robbed of some kind of formative experience that would have taught me the skills for connecting with my own son.
The second feeling is the fear I mentioned: that fear that in a few years or decades, my son and I won’t know what to say to one another. He’ll live far away and I won’t have any way of building in-roads with him, his family, or his life. Perhaps it’s a bit catastrophic, but nonetheless, it’s where my mind goes. I so desperately want a better relationship with my son, but when face-to-face, I sometimes feel incapacitated.
I substitute with time, activity, interest. When he’s around, I try to do things with him, or take an interest in the things he likes. For now, I think this works. But as he emerges into his teenage years and doesn’t want to spend time with me, or when he goes off to college, what am I to do? It’s something that I constantly grapple with, and need to keep facing head-on, before the years slip away.