I withdrew from my father when I was young, long before I was aware of what I was doing, long before I was conscious of fear. I do not remember the moment it began. I do not remember if it was because of something that happened, or something that I imagined. I do know that it continued by degrees intermittently through every year that followed and that every degree perpetuated the next. Some moments are memorable and others are forgotten. Most of them happened quietly within my own perceptions. I believe that all of them left my father feeling partly confused and saddened. I believe that it was my silence that created the most distance. I became less available and maybe he did too. My father is a deeply loving man. I always admired him and was always grateful to have a father that was both consistently present and consistently kind. My withdrawal from him was not warranted, and I do not fully understand it. But I can say with confidence that we have continually loved one another unconditionally despite our varying degrees of separation. At the heart of our feelings for one another I know there is perfect love. And yet, there is this quiet distance, as if we remain unsure of one another.
When I was young I loved being in the woods. I had dreams of living in the country where I could take myself on adventures through wild fields and across shallow creeks to encounter creatures in the trees and climb up to meet them. I had dreams of breathing life into my own natural spirit, which felt cloistered and out of place in the city. I had dreams of a feeling of freedom I so rarely encountered amidst the bungalows and the hum of streetlights, the cars driving by and the pavement beneath them. The closest I came to experiencing my vision of idyllic boyhood was along the length of an old railroad line at the outskirts of my neighbourhood. In the summertime my father would wake me early Saturday mornings, while my sisters still slept, to ride our bikes down the trails between the trees, through the cool air and the shadows cast by the dancing leaves that consumed my vision. These were quiet moments. These were the moments when my father and I were closest to being one, the moments when our presences were most intertwined.
I cannot say that my father has failed me without admitting that I have also failed him. In our twenty-nine years there have been times when I felt disappointed and even hurt. There have been times when he was not the father that I wanted him to be. But there were also times when he felt disappointed and hurt by me – long before I knew I even had the power to disappoint or hurt him. There have been times when I was not the son he wanted me to be. I can say that he failed to be a perfect father and that I failed to be a perfect son, but that would be to accept the perspective that we are both inherently flawed. More truthfully we, who – stripped of all our egos and our fears and our false perceptions – are inherently perfect, share a relationship that has not always reflected our deepest truth. He and I are, most truly, perfect. And our true desire, and our true nature, is to express perfect love to one another without reserve, without anything getting in the way. I try to remember this.
When I was sixteen, I spent a day with my father in London. He had invited me to travel with him to Bulgaria where he had been asked to sing with a group of musicians. He invited me with an expectation and a hope that this shared experience would bring us closer together and restore us to the father-son relationship we had both so often wished for. He envisioned companionship and closeness. I imagine he prayed for these things. I had my own selfish vision, born of my growing sense of seclusion. After a day of walking through London, jet-lagged and desiring solitude, independence, and freedom, I felt my father’s hand on my shoulder and heard his saddened voice asking me to stop. I had been walking ahead of him all day and when I turned to meet his eyes I could see his disappointment and his hurt. I felt tears rising in my own throat, but more than the compassion that was then welling up within me, I felt afraid. I was tired and in a strange and busy place. I have never liked crowds and Trafalgar Square is far from sparse. I was overwhelmed and I knew that he was too, but in that moment, when my own exposed vulnerability could have been an opportunity for love to unfold, I chose to harden myself again, despite my tears, and withdraw even further. We walked the rest of the evening side by side, but I was apart from him. We were no longer standing within one another’s presences.
I love my father. I am blessed to have grown up with a man that has been present and available, caring and thoughtful, and ultimately loving. I have seen his weaknesses and his strengths and know that I can still embrace him. When I reflect on our relationship I am aware of all the times when our relationship has suffered from delusions of separation. I see the times when I have needlessly withdrawn from him. I remember the disappointments that I have felt, of which there are many that are completely unfair. Maybe all of them are ultimately unfair. I remember the way I looked up to him as a child. I think of the ways I have not become the man I imagine he wanted me to be.
A father is a powerful thing and we must have all, in some deep-rooted way, in our earliest years and maybe even now, expected something divine from them. Whether they are in our lives or not, the idea of a father carries an archetypal weight that promises strength, authority, love, kindness, wisdom, integrity, and steady goodness. We want a man in our lives that models divinity, one that will teach us perfect truth, guide us away from every danger, and love us without fail. We want a man we can look up to, a man we can aspire to be, and a man who fills us with awe. We want a god. Some part of us expects it, or did once. But what we have is inconsistent. We have felt their love, and seen something god-like in many of their actions. We have heard the deepest truths in their words and we have admired them in moments. But we have also felt disappointed in the moments when they have not been god-like. They have not always understood us. At times, they have not truly seen us. As much as we have held them hostage to some idyllic version of what it means to be a father, we have sensed the times when they have tried to impress upon us their own idyllic version of what they imagine it means to be a son, or a daughter. We feel disappointed, and we believe they are disappointed in us, and we push one another away sadly, angrily at times, failing to realize that our disappointments are born not of failure but of expectation.
My father and I spent two weeks together in Bulgaria. It was memorable and impacting and I will never forget it. But although I walked beside my father down the same streets, although I saw the same things he did, and although we smelled the same unfamiliar smells and heard the same unfamiliar language, I remained silently insistent on having my own experience apart from him. I was taught, subversively and without accountability, to believe that it was natural for me as a young man, coming of age, to intentionally set out on my own, to become a man independent of my father and begin to develop an understanding of my own identity apart from him. I was taught to believe that at a certain age, boys become men and everything must change, that distance must be maintained, and vulnerabilities protected, that other men represent the threat of disappointment, and pain, and competition, and that to be a man, I must stand alone, firmly, defiantly at times, without wavering. What I have learned now, is that on that day, looking into my father’s eyes, standing in the middle of Trafalgar Square, seeing his pain and knowing that my years of distance had caused it, I should have let down every guard, released every fear and false perception, and yielded to the love of a man who wanted nothing more than to be in the presence of his son. I should have wept in his arms and known his closeness.
Nothing is lost. Moments pass and are swept back beyond my reach. Trafalgar Square is far from me and it is unlikely I will ever stand there again with my father, seeing in his eyes the pain of separation and knowing the same pain in my own heart. It was a missed opportunity, and when I think of it now I feel saddened by my failure to respond in love. I imagine what could have been. I imagine how every moment since then could have been different. But nothing is lost. Every missed opportunity remains in safekeeping. Circumstances change and opportunities take new forms, but whatever it is that could have been; the love that we failed to reveal; the closeness we failed to return to, remains held for us within gentle and willing hands, waiting for the moment when we finally discard our fear and embrace the love we truly believe in.