Maybe just a bit more honest.
Meet my dad. I call him “Papa.”
This blog is about just some of my Papa’s story.
I hope you love him as much as I do.
All of these lines across my face
Tell you the story of who I am
So many stories of where I’ve been
And how I got to where I am
But these stories don’t mean anything
If you’ve got no one to tell them to,
I was made for you . . .
The Story, Brandi Carlile
The lyrics above are from one of my all time favorite songs by a songwriter you may have heard of, Brandi Carlile. “Grey’s Anatomy” likes to play lots of her songs on its show because of the amazingly raw strength of her voice, somehow perfect for when people are caught in moments of quiet desperation (or bleeding out on an operating table). Despite the wisdom of her words and the stories she speaks of, I think she is only about 27 years old with no visible lines that I see.
Every time I hear this song, I think about my father.
My father has a lot of lines on his face. And each line is a beautiful line. My father has a lot of stories to tell, and over the years, I don’t know how closely I have listened.
You see, I have been angry. Angry about many things that came about in my life because of some decisions he made decades ago. For years, I have held deep resentments about pains for things that cannot be undone.
So, though we are close, I have often been very defensive, sometimes even aggressive towards him. It is hard for me to admit this, but I think I need to be honest that my own deep resentments have made their way to the surface and my behavior has been less than stellar.
I mean, if you think of being an asshole sometimes as less than stellar that is. If not, well then I have just been perfect.
So I stopped listening to some of his stories. So fixated on the negative that I did not allow myself to always focus on the truly amazing things my lovely father has accomplished.
This is what I wish:
I wish I had paid more attention to the stories he has of growing up in a poor village in India, the eldest of ten siblings. I wish I had listened to the many stories he had about each of his siblings, my aunts and uncles, some of whom have passed away, and others whom I have not seen in years.
I wish I had paid more attention to his own stories of growing up in poverty but having the love of an amazing mother and father, whom he still speaks of with emotion in his voice, pushing them through.
I wish I had stopped being distracted by these resentments I had, sometimes which I was not even consciously aware of, so maybe I could listen to the inflection in his voice when he talked about what it was like to be so malnourished that he did not walk until he was four years old. Or stop to think about how some of the health issues he experienced later in life, like premature blindness, may have been related to that rocky start in life.
Of how he made it out of the village to earn scholarships to get an education at some of the better schools in India. So that he could help be a provider for his family, as the eldest of so many children.
Sometimes I want to go back and ask him to tell me in more detail about how he came to this country with no money but with the support of a strong band of friends who were like brothers, many of whom I call Uncle today. How these men came with nothing to this country except some petty cash and their hard earned degrees, and stayed at a YMCA in NYC until they were able to get jobs, rent places and set up shop in a country that was so new and foreign to them. How they supported each other till each was able to stand on his own feet.
Where was that YMCA? Did I ever even think to ask? Queens? Brooklyn?
What did he feel like, leaving everything he knew behind in India?
Leaving his first wife and children behind in India, while he tried to start a life for them. Was that scary?
Being in the United States when his first wife got sick and passed away and returning to India to four grieving children, my brothers and sisters.
Of being arranged to marry my mother, a young woman herself, and returning to the United States with her and his four kids. And carrying not just their luggage, but what must have felt like the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Of what it was like to have me years later, years after he thought he was probably done, to welcome a fifth child into the world. Of the relief he felt the day his last child was married, long after he had given hope that anyone would have me.
And his undying gratitude to John for taking me off his hands. (see that smile below. priceless). **
Of the pressure he may have felt as a young man, knowing so many people in India still were counting on him for money while trying to build his own family in a new country. Of knowing that life would be so much easier if half of his paychecks were not going to India, but were instead used to make our lives more comfortable in the United States. Those choices must have been so hard.
Of the mistakes that he thinks he has made – maybe in his career, maybe in his marriage, and even sometimes in raising us. Because while he is a wonderful man, everybody does make mistakes.
I wrote a few weeks ago about the decision my parents made to marry my eldest sister when she was 16 and to send my eldest brother to India when he was 13 for years to live without his other siblings here. I sometimes wonder why my father thought these were the right decisions to make.
Like most families we are not very good at dealing with these wounds. Not one of us.
But I can’t be angry at my father. Not anymore and not at this point in our lives. He made mistakes but he also made a lot of brave decisions along the way. Decisions that made the life I live possible today and I can’t thank him enough for that.
Thank you, Papa.
The way I see it, our parents start our story. And each of us has the ability to complete it. Changing authors in the middle of the book can be wildly chaotic or it can be a relatively simple transition based on how well the characters were developed before your parents passed off the big heavy book they had been writing over to you. “Take this,” they think, as they hand over a book larger than any textbook you can ever read, but full of important facts about why you are the way you are.
So our parents start that initial book. They might really get the characters dead wrong in the beginning and put them in some shitty situations. Hopefully, you get out alive and without as few scars as possible. But you are forced to work with the characters. On some level you know your parents created these characters with the intent to help them develop, though they don’t always make the best choices on incorporating that direction into the storyline.
Ultimately, the story becomes yours. Your parents hand the book over to write your chapters in. They may think, “God I really hope he doesn’t screw this one up – we did such a great job,” even though you feel like a damn, hot mess. Sometimes you can just go from where their chapters ended and coast along, with the paragraphs flowing and no writer’s block to prevent you from moving forward.
Other times you have to go back and re-write what your parents may have written. And it’s hard. It’s hard to acknowledge that you carry baggage and that maybe how your character developed needs to be tweaked just a “little bit” so that the story can ultimately have a better ending. Maybe they started it as a “psychological drama” where you wanted more of a “romantic comedy.”
In that case, you are just totally screwed and destined for many years of therapy to re-write that one. Good luck and I hope you have decent insurance.
Life is far from perfect, but the way I see it is this: it is my responsibility to turn my story around now. It’s not my parents’ story anymore. The chapters with my name on it are my own to re-write now.
But I will always acknowledge that my story is intrinsically tied to my father’s story, and all the subplots that unfolded within it.
I don’t want or need to be angry anymore. I just want to accept. I don’t want perfection and I can’t hold my parents to that standard. Lord knows I am far from perfect and at this stage in my life, I accept responsibility for that. I don’t want resent my father for anything anymore. I just want to embrace reality and write the next few chapters without the weight of my anger. An anger that seems to be dissipating the more that I can look it in the face and acknowledge it.
It’s not too late for me to ask my father to tell me these stories again, and for me to really listen this time. Without the lens of pain and hurt tarnishing the richness of his amazing stories.
And one day, when I am helping my children write their own stories, I hope I can tell my own children the roots of their grandparents and how much helped lay the early chapters of their books.
“But these stories don’t mean anything. When you’ve got no one, to tell them to.
It’s true. I was made for you.”
I love you, Papa.