The Value of My Father's Life

How should a life be measured?

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I have reflected on the question for the last few days as I ponder the passing of my father. It is easy to focus only on the end of his life and the decisions that led to his isolation and estrangement from his family but I do not think that is fair. My father was a mean and angry man who did mean and angry things, but he did not do only mean and angry things. Like all of us, he was much more complicated than that.

He was a violent man who beat my mother while they were married. When she took their three young children (we were all under 5 years old), he could have abandoned us. He could have ignored his responsibilities and refused to pay child support. He could have, but he didn’t. The checks always came.

When my mother divorced her second husband and became a single mom to three teenage boys she found herself in dire financial straits. She asked my father for more child support. He didn’t have to pay her more as there was no court order compelling him to increase the payments, but he did. As seemingly incapable as he was of giving emotional support he never wavered in his financial support.

As a father, he was often impossible to please. I have vivid memories of being a small child and him harshly criticizing me for the way I pulled on my socks, took off my shirts and even my choice of spoon when I ate my morning cereal. I was a pigeon-toed and awkward child and his biting “humor” found in me an easy target.  He called me "spastic" and when someone else was clumsy he said they had "pulled a Bart." His words were incredibly hurtful and damaging. To this day the memories of his words still bring a sense of fear and anxiety.

As mean as he was this angry man found the time to play with us. He taught us card games, played board games with us and organized football and basketball games with the kids in the neighborhood. He took us to San Diego Padres baseball games and Chargers football games and took us to the beach and taught us how to ride the waves on an inflatable raft. These moments were not idyllic, he was often impatient and critical and some initially pleasant times  degenerated into tears, but he gave us attention. He was inconsistent and unpredictable but there were times when he tried to be a dad.

His struggles with being a parent did not end when I reached adulthood. He struggled with my independence and career choices. He wanted more from me than I did for myself. He appropriately questioned my decision to drop out of college and forcefully encouraged me to re-enroll. When I did, he paid my tuition all the way through medical school. In spite of his financial support he did not have much faith in me. I will never forget his response when I told him of my perfect GPA at the end of my first year at the University of California, Irvine. He said, “I honestly didn’t think you had it in you.”

He was not a man of encouragement. He seldom gave praise and never gave hugs. Growing up I never thought he was proud of me or that he loved me for who I was. He seemed to see every flaw and catch every mistake while missing or minimizing every success. And yet, when I looked into the audience as I walked off the stage with my Medical Diploma in my hands I saw my father head and shoulders above the crowd, standing on his chair and proudly pumping his fist in the air.

For the three years I was in my Family Practice residency he was incredibly supportive of me and my family. Each month a check for $500 came in the mail, (almost $1000 in today's dollars.) He knew my resident’s salary was not enough to support a family and he did not want Lisa to have to work. It is because of him that she was able to stay home with our son.

His generosity had a profound impact on our lives, which made his decision to disown me shortly after graduation so difficult to process. I knew he was angry and had fits of temper, but I had always hoped there was some measure of good underneath. I had heard the horrible stories told by my step-brother and mother, of physical and verbal abuse, but thought that he had softened with age, and that love, especially for his grandson, would win out. It didn't.  His choice to cut off all contact with me and my family for the remaining 24 years of his life proved that anger ultimately won.

So how do I measure his life?

There is no question that his anger and inability to love left marks on me. My battles with anxiety, insecurity and anger are part of his cursed heritage. I struggle every day to overcome the damage he wrought. It is only by the grace of God that I have learned what it means to be a loving husband and father. Although I had no role model in my own family, God blessed me with a father-in-law who modeled goodness and kindness. 

In spite of the damage my father did it does not seem fair to ignore the support he gave me earlier in life. His gifts were tainted and had strings attached but they made a difference nonetheless. They had value. While the good he did is dwarfed by the harm, his warped generosity did help my family through difficult times. He was not a good man, but he was more than just a bad man.

I think this is the reality for all of us. None of us are totally good or totally evil. We are all broken people who fail and succeed to varying degrees. This truth of universal brokenness begs the question- How do we measure a life? Do we pull out a set of scales and divide up a man’s deeds and see where the balance lies? If so, do we give greater weight to more recent harms or blessings?  Many people have done terrible deeds believing in the moment that they were doing the right thing. How do we decide where to draw the line?

I do not believe that I am in a position to answer this question for others. It is not my place to decide. As I think about my father I realize there are pieces of his puzzle that are hidden from me. I have no knowledge of his childhood or of his relationship with his father. I do not know if he was abused or scorned, loved or hated. I do not know his mental history. As an experienced physician I see in his behavior hints of mental illness that were not visible to me when I was young. I do not know if he battled his demons or embraced them. I do not know if he was even capable of love. 

What I do know is that he paid a price for his sins in this life. I have wonderful children who fill the world with love, joy and laughter. My father never knew them. Theirs is a joy he never shared. In my relationship with my father-in-law I experienced the incredibly rich blessing of shared respect between two grown men. I received the wisdom of his years of life experience and he received the joy of seeing his wisdom shape me into a better person. My father never experienced this blessing, the joy of adult friendship with a son. My father lived the pain of loneliness.

Sadly for my father, the pain of this life pales in comparison to the pain that may await. My father rejected faith many years ago. To my knowledge he never turned to God. For the rest of eternity he will give account to His creator for his choice. It is God who will judge.

As it is God who will ultimately judge there is little to be gained expending energy judging my father. My time is better spent judging my own heart. When I turn my gaze inward I see incredible room for improvement. I have more bad in me than can be expunged in one lifetime. While true goodness eludes me I nevertheless intend to spend the rest of my life striving to be a better man.

The success of my self improvement efforts will be measured after I am gone. I often tell others that I have two goals in life, both to be fulfilled when I die. The first is that when I stand before my God I will hear Him say, “Well done.” The second is that my children will tell others on my passing that I was the greatest man they ever knew. I do not know if I will ever achieve these goals but I am certain that they will not be achieved without continuous intentional effort on my part.

I am also certain that the pursuit of these goals will bring peace and joy in this lifetime, and confident hope for the next.

- Bart

 

Breaking Families with an iPhone

Illuminated screens are harming children. One study estimated that children between the ages of 2-5 spend 32 hours a week in front of a TV, an average of over 4 hours a day. Kids between 6-11 spend 28 hours a week watching TV, as well as additional hours on hand held devices and video consoles.

It is felt that the screen epidemic is the causative factor in a multitude of health issues, from ADHD to childhood obesity. Additional concerns have been raised about the content of what children watch. Television programs can reinforce negative stereotypes and contradict the values parents want to teach their children. Even when parents install internet filters, handheld devices with internet access can lead to children being exposed to adult content.

In response to these and other concerns the American Academy of Pediatrics has come out strongly in favor of limiting the amount of time children spend looking at screens. Recommendations are that the total time looking at screens of all types should be less than two hours daily. This is a good start but may not go far enough.

In spite of all of the data and research there is one aspect of children and screens that is frequently overlooked. Their parents are spending too much time looking at screens when they should be looking at their children. I saw this first hand this week while walking in the park near my home.

I was walking near the playground when I came across a father with a young boy. A bicycle on the ground near them revealed how they had arrived at the park for their Sunday afternoon outing. The child, who looked to be about 4 years old, was playing at the edge of the sand near where the playground equipment was located, drawing in the sand in the stick. The father was 6 feet away, lying on his stomach in the grass, thoroughly engrossed in his iPhone, paying no attention to what his child was doing. He was more interested in what was on the screen then he was in what his son was doing.

The father reminded me of how much we have lost to our screen obsessions. I wonder how many conversations have been skipped, how many stories gone untold, how many jokes unshared, because either the parent or the child was looking at a screen. It seems that the American Academy of Pediatrics is on the right track with their recommendations but it is too narrow. The limit should be extended to parents as well!

- Bart

When Marriage is About Winning, Everyone Loses

His marriage was in trouble. He and his wife had not spoken for over a month. He left the house early and come home late in order to avoid any interaction. I asked him what the cause of the problem was and he told me a story of his wife’s unreasonableness, vindictiveness and spite. He had made a small mistake, broken a small promise and his wife had labeled him as a terrible person. He was not considering divorce but he did not see any way forward. His wife was immovable in her anger.

What he did not know was that his wife had been in to see me a few weeks earlier and she had told me an entirely different story. As he described it he had intentionally deceived her, not broken a small promise. She told a story of incredible deceit and malice which culminated in terrible heartbreak.

As I listened to him relate his version of the story I found myself wondering what the truth was. The stories were so directly contradictory that reconciling them into one consistent narrative was impossible. As I did not know who to believe I struggled to give him advice. I ended up giving him generic advice to pursue counseling and to love his wife as best as he could.

Our conversation lingered in my mind after he left the office. I had known the family for years and was the doctor who delivered their youngest daughter. They had always seemed like nice people, she was the sweet wife and mom and he was the hard working business man. They both had talked of church and faith and a happy home life. I wondered how much of what I had been told in the past was true and what was false.

I thought of how in each of their stories there was clearly an effort to paint the other in a negative light. In the areas where their stories aligned they had each emphasized the parts that made themselves look good and the other look bad. It was as if they were more concerned with looking good in my eyes than they were about resolving their differences and solving the problem. I was certain that they had both made serious mistakes, had both been vindictive and both needed professional help, but neither of them were interested in dealing with these issues. They wanted the other person to change.

It seemed that the one thing neither of them was thinking about was how their actions were impacting their daughter. I wondered how she was doing, what damaging lessons she was learning about love and marriage. I wondered if, like me, she was hearing partial truths and and partial lies from each of her parents, if she was being asked to take a side in the dysfunction. She was the only innocent party in the dispute yet she was the one who was going to be harmed the most.

I wonder how many of the families I see are similarly damaged. We live in a world where few people are willing to first look at themselves when conflict arises. Sacrificial love, which should be the foundation of every marriage, is becoming increasingly rare. Winning has become the essential marital value in America.

Sadly, when winning is the value, everyone loses, especially the children.

Bart

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Good Dad, Bad Dad, Disowned by Dad. Happy Father's Day.

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I was a little nervous as I walked to the bulletin board outside my professor’s office. The final grades had just been posted for his class, the last grade of my first year at UCI as a biology major, and I desperately wanted an “A”. I was one “A” away from what had seemed to me an impossible achievement, a 4.0 grade average for my first year in University.

I grew up in an abusive home where I was repeatedly reminded of every awkward deed and innocent mistake. The persistent put downs and constant mocking had left a mark. I constantly doubted myself.  I started university hoping against hope that I had what it took to make it into medical school, not at all confident I did. Straight “A’s” had not even entered my mind.

I reached the bulletin board. My eyes found my student ID number and scanned across to the grade column. “A”. I had done it. I let out a yell and hurried to find a pay phone to call my wife. (This was 1984 after all) “I did it!” I yelled into the phone, fighting back the tears. The conversation was brief as I wanted to share my joy with others. I hung up and dialed my father’s number to give him the news, certain he would be proud. I blurted out, “I just got my last grade! I got a 4.0 for the year!”

His words were a punch to my stomach, “Wow. I honestly didn’t think you had it in you.” My father didn’t believe in me. I hung up the phone deflated and hurt.

7 years later I graduated from medical school. All of my family, including my father, were in the audience as I walked across the stage to receive my degree. I received my diploma from the dean and turned out to the audience to search for my family. I saw my dad first. He was standing on his chair, head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd. He was pumping his fist in the air, a huge smile on his face, overwhelmed with pride for me.

These stories are two of my most vivid memories of my father and illustrate the enigma that he is. On many occasions he was a viciously and abusively mean, reducing me to fearful tears. At other times he could be incredibly generous and supportive. For the three years I was in residency he gave us $500 each month so we could afford to have Lisa stay home with our infant son. My final year of residency he gave our almost three-year-old son an empty box for Christmas, telling him that Santa said he was a bad boy. When I questioned him about it he disowned me.

As father’s day approaches all of these memories come flooding back. I have not seen my father in over 23 years but he still impacts my life. I work every day to overcome the negative traits I inherited from him and the abuse wrought insecurity that remains.

I am not alone in my struggles. A while back I wrote a blog post entitled “The Day my Dad Disowned Me.” Although it was posted two years ago, each day brings new readers who have been similarly disowned. Almost every month I receive a message or comment from someone dealing with issues of abandonment. The stories of pain and rejection shared by strangers are heartbreakingly sad. Dysfunctional and absent father’s damage their children in unimaginable ways.

I pray for these hurting people every Father’s Day.

There is nothing I can do for them, and there is nothing I can do to about the damage done by my father in the past. All I can do is be the best father I can be for my children and encourage others to do the same.

On this day that we celebrate dads, my prayer is to be a good one. 

- Bart

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Love and an Irrational Fear of Alcohol

I have never had a drink. I have taken a few sips to see how something tasted but I have never downed a complete beverage. Alcohol wreaked havoc on my family so I have lived my life as if I was an alcoholic. I will not drink. I have a strong aversion to it and avoid it completely to the point of irrationality.

My wife learned about my irrationality early in our marriage. We had been married only a few months when she went to the wedding of a friend. I worked Saturdays at a market and was unable to attend so she went alone. When I came home late that evening she told me about the ceremony and reception. As a part of the story she mentioned having a glass of champagne for the toast. This bothered me terribly and I did not hide the fact well (I would never make it as a poker player, my face tells all).

She asked me what the problem was, it had only been a single glass of champagne. I told her that while there was nothing wrong with anyone drinking a glass of champagne, that the image of the woman I loved with a drink in her hand was terribly upsetting to me. I knew it was silly, but it really bothered me.

Lisa hasn’t had a drink since. Not because it is wrong for her to drink and definitely not because my argument was powerful and persuasive. She decided to never have a drink because she loves me. My revulsion to alcohol is irrational and extreme, but it is real and based on real hurt from my childhood. Alcohol is nothing more than a beverage to her and she gladly set it aside to ease my pain.

I thought of this story recently in counseling a patient. He is in the process of working a 12-step program after 30 years of an alcoholic life. He has fully embraced his recovery, going to counseling and hosting meetings for those he met in rehab. While he has been doing well with sobriety his relationship with his wife has struggled. One of the areas of conflict has been the coed nature of the meetings he hosts. His wife is not comfortable with him having friendships with women, even though he does not meet with them one on one.

“So don’t have friendships with women,” I interrupted. He defended the practice and explained that he was never alone with the women and that it was all centered around recovery. He told me he had invited his wife to the meetings so she could chaperone and see that there was nothing untoward going on, but she did not want to go. He could not understand why his wife was as bothered as she was. No explanation or protestation of innocence could sway her. He felt trapped, as he felt the meetings were important but wanted to respect his wife as well.

“Don’t have women at the meetings,” I said, “Make them men only.” I told him that his wife’s fears and concerns did not have to be rational to be respected. His wife had endured decades of his alcoholism and was no doubt deeply wounded. She did not owe him an explanation and did not need to defend her position. Instead of arguing with her, he should choose an act of love by telling her, “I understand,” and changing his meetings to men only.

I shared with him the story of my wife and the wedding champagne. I explained that while my request that she not drink was irrational and absurd, my wife honored it because she could. She loved me that much. My wife did not need to be persuaded by logic or convinced by argument. She needed only to understand my heart and my fears. After a little more conversation with the patient he decided that he would honor his wife’s request. He had been selfish in his drinking for years, he could now do this one thing for her.

As he left I thought of the incredible example of love my wife has been for the last 34 years. She has accommodated so much. Raised toilet seats, cupboards and drawers NEVER closed, as well as my fears, anger and anxieties. I thought of the hundreds of failed marriages I have seen over the years and how many times a marriage might have been saved if someone had let go of “being right” and simply given in out of love.

I went home that night and told my wife that she is wonderful and amazing. Because she is.

- Bart

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