He died, between breakfast and dinner on New Year’s Day, 1954. I was almost 17, a senior in high school, so we never had a conversation as two adults. In the 1980’s a favorite form of therapy for working with dead people was called Gestalt. In it, the client moved back and forth from two pillows, one of which was the client her/him self and the other the dead person with whom s/he wanted to “speak.” I decided to enter into one of these strange dialogues and see if I could find out what my father might have thought about the person I became after he left this world. The first of these exercises focused on my telling him I was a lesbian and his telling me how deeply he hated my choice, since he hated and/or feared women in general. I remember feeling quite sad and then getting on with my life as best I could. In this second Gestalt moment, I began by reminding my father of our last “talk.” Then I told him of work I’d done with a therapist who specialized in shame work, telling him how much I had wanted to please him when I was little. I told him that I probably thought he would like my being a lesbian since it was the closest I could come to being a man. Reading over this admission now, I understand just how deeply I had internalized the psychology books that said lesbians were women who wanted to be men. So, I wonder, might my initial choice to be with a woman have come not from pro-women feelings as much as from some pro-men feelings, a way to be “like” them?
As I continued in the one-way dialogue, I asked my father what he had wanted me to be and he said “Rich and famous. I wanted you to be able to do for yourself and for me what I was not able to do for you. I thought I could be your aging chaperone, that we could be together once you were grown. When you were little I didn’t trust myself to be around you. I didn’t learn how to be around children or women or much of anyone. I knew very little about how to relate to other people in appropriate way, so I retreated into magazines and the comics when at home with you all. I wanted you and me to go abroad and to travel far away together.” Hearing such words filled me with pleasure and fear all at once. So he did want to be with me but in ways that sounded too much like a lover to be comfortable. (No wonder Judy Collins’ song about her father and her in France has always caused me to dissolve in tears.)
What I gave back to my father, once I’d gotten back on “my” pillow was anger. He had said something so vague in terms of accomplishing it. He had told me a dream of his and not a career path for me. I had no more way of doing what he said he wanted than of being the son I had always known he’d wanted. His wish may have involved my being self-sufficient but it was entirely unrealistic. I felt ripped off again by his opacity, reminding me of the helplessness I’d felt the day he died as I watched two irritated ambulance men wheel him out of our house. They were irritated because they’d been called out on a holiday–it was New Year’s after all. The last words my father said to me in his own voice were these: “The keys and my wallet are on the dresser in the bedroom.” Then he vanished into the big van and I never saw or heard him again. I was still sixteen; I couldn’t even drive alone yet’ I had a sister who was sixteen and a half years older than I; I had a perfectly capable mother even if she spent the next few years in tears of grief over losing her husband.
Once the Gestalt session ended and I returned to being just myself, I noticed and liked how differently I felt towards my father than I had after our first exchange. Instead of all that hostility before, I had some compassion this time for us both. The biggest surprise coming in “my” voice was my saying that I was glad I’d talked to him this second time be seemed to have loved me but felt unable to express that in appropriate ways. My last words to him had to do with my appreciating his warm word but that they came when I didn’t need them so much. I’d needed his tangible love when I was a little girl in my strange household made up only of adults; he hadn’t been able to give it to me in any forms I could understand. So how I felt was simply clear–not angry or self-pitying or even overly sad. I felt like a grown-up and I felt honest. The two pillows had worked their magic.