How I Learned to Lead My Family

A Freudian Tale of How I Symbolically Killed My Father By Supplanting Him as De Facto Patriarch

I call them “fights,” but of course an eight-year-old child doesn’t “fight” with his father. His father yells at him, and the child retreats to his room and cries.

The real fights didn’t start until I was about fifteen.

He’d be dead and I’d be fine. And it would all be over.

I confessed this fantasy to a friend once. I had enough self-knowledge even then to know that this meant that I’d never actually do it. That I’d told my friend specifically to make sure I’d never do it. Now that I’d said it out loud, if I actually did it it would be premeditated. It would be murder. I must not have meant to do it.

I was a little older and a little smarter by now and I knew that shouting was unlikely to get me what I wanted.

What I wanted was for this stupid thing to be resolved without Rachel having to choose which parent to side with. I called my Dad up and told him what I’d heard from Rachel and from Mom and asked him to confirm his side of it. He did and offered the opinion that my mother was being controlling. I ignored this.

Mom got her way again. Then my brother Kenny died.

My mother arrived, saw my father’s second wife, burst into tears, shouted “I can’t believe you would do this to me,” turned around and drove off.

My father, already standing near the front, turned toward the assembled family and friends. He started to say something that began, “It’s sad how some people — ”

I buried my face in my hands and wept as she held me.

Shit. I’d just finished angrily accusing our parents of failing to consider our wishes, and I’d done the exact same thing to my sisters. Never asked them what they thought, just assumed that they agreed with me because I was so obviously right.

I apologized to them. We hugged, and we reaffirmed that our first loyalty was to each other. We had different agendas, and we would pursue them separately, but we would not turn on each other the way our parents had.

I took what he said next as a self-serving excuse, but in retrospect it might have been the most genuine thing he said in the entire conversation.

I remember there being real anguish in his voice when he said, “I don’t know how to do that!”

Why had I been able to set boundaries with her calmly, but not with Dad?

Because, I realized, I was guilty of everything I’d accused Dad of. I’d hoped that my parents had magically learned how to get along for the sake of their children. Hoped that despite the intense stress and grief they were under, that they’d somehow grown as people. Hoped for it like hell… but what did I expect? What was it realistic for me to expect?

I’d hoped that the two people who had already shown themselves incapable of handling a situation like this in the best of times would suddenly prove themselves capable in the worst of times.

What did I expect?

There was only one thing that would get me what I wanted: going about the business of leading well.

All that stuff I’d told Tom about how I’d said it for me and not to get a response — bullshit. I wanted a response. Of course I did.

Dad apologized, and we talked for hours. He told me stories from his life. I told him about the things that were stressing me out at work. We talked about Kenny, the things I wish I’d told him while he was alive, the ways we were each processing our grief.

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