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My Father’s Gift


It’s been two years since we discovered my father was having an affair.

For the last 12 years, the moral center of our family had been outwardly manning the grill at backyard barbecues, treating my mother to coffee in bed every morning, whisking his grandson off to the zoo. But secretly, he’d been sending another woman roses. Telling her he loved her. Giving her nicknames none of us had ever heard, and making himself at home in a house-in a neighborhood-none of us even knew existed.

Starshine Roshell

The fallout was hideous, as you might imagine. Screaming. Pleading. Nausea. Sleeplessness. Broken po ttery. And enough tears to fill the swimming pool where we had always spent summers floating peacefully, ignorantly.

There was so much crying-four generations bawled intermittently- that we became desensitized to it and could eventually sit and watch each other sob without offering a hug, fetching a Kleenex, or trying to say something reassuring. Through blurry eyes we watched three decades of mutual reliance, respect, and devotion wash away.

My mother said the worst part is he never could tell us why he did it-and that he seemed okay with letting us wonder. Friends think the worst part was the duration of the affair; a slip of the will is forgivable, a decade of deception diabolical.

For me, the worst part was the walloping flood of disappointment that came with learning the one person I upheld as ever-giving, ever-strong, ever-true was truly selfish. Truly weak. Truly false. But there are so many “worst parts” it’s hard to rank them.

My parents divorced. My father moved away and, perhaps tragically, neither he nor I have made much effort to stay in touch. There’s too much bad water still sloshing around between us, lapping at our increasingly distant shores: shame on his end, resentment on mine.

Now that the wounds are starting to scab, and we can actually picture the rest of our lives without him, and we are able to utter things like, “I guess you never really know somebody the way you think you do” without our throats closing up in that familiar, tiresome way-now there’s a new worst part. Learning to re-love him.

As much as I prefer the burn of anger to the sting of sorrow, as much as I rather enjoy the lingering flavor of a nice beefy grudge, it turns out you can’t fully write off a parent.

There’s a weird thing that happens when you’ve been betrayed by someone you love. First you reevaluate every fond memory that enters your head: When he wrote that beautiful poem for my wedding, did he read it to her first? When he came to meet his first grandson in the hospital, was he wishing he were somewhere else?

But eventually, fond memories begin to creep in without first being run through the Hostility Filter. Things he says that make me laugh, no matter how often he says them. His magic tricks that never fail to dazzle a crowd. The way dogs, cats, and dull people always gravitate toward him, much to his dismay.

I didn’t send my dad a present for Father’s Day this year; I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Instead, perhaps I’ll celebrate the gifts he’s given me-the values he modeled so beautifully when : well, when I knew him best.

We share a passion for peanut butter, a love of driving, a reverence for Bill Cosby. His heroes are mine, and his politics. His favorite songs are mine, and his sense of humor. If dishonesty is what carved our family’s rift, then let’s be honest: My father is me. And I’m him.

I guess you never really know somebody the way you think you do.

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