Thinking about my tiger dad makes me cry

betty ming liu Art, Relationships 15 Comments

Dad’s been dead for 36 years — a lifetime during which I’ve finally salvaged the real me from his control freak destructiveness. And as a recovering daughter, I’m starting to reflect on the good stuff he gave me.

So I recently took a good look at a photo of us that’s been hanging in my bedroom for ages. A very sweet shot of us in the backyard of the New Jersey house we lived in when I was very young. By then, he was already quick to bark disapproving orders but it wasn’t too bad yet. There were still opportunities to sit in his lap and share the gardening that he loved.

Thinking about all this made me feel too raw.

I took the picture off the wall.

Made me feel too much.

If my dad, the first man in my life, had been easier to talk to, would my relationships with men have gone differently? Would I be divorced…and still single?

Part of me wants to banish the picture to the attic. Then again, if I am really my own person now, there’s no need to punish him anymore — or me, especially since Bad Dad is dead. No more of his yelling. No more soul-crushing demands that I study medicine or accounting or marry within my race.  No more tiptoeing around to avoid his temper tantrums.

The other morning, I was admiring my backyard. While I am not into gardening, I like pretty plantings (and hired people to do the work. Haha!) No doubt, hanging out with my father in his beloved rose beds had something to do with my appreciation for natural beauty.

Writing about this here has given me a new thought….maybe I’ll hang the photo in the downstairs spare bedroom which I turned into my art studio. Since starting my new digital reporting job on Jan. 1, I have NOT picked up a paint brush even once. Maybe it’s time to do that soon, and to bring Dad with me.

At last, we’re ready to begin a new relationship that includes my terms.

P.S. — If you want some help working through issues about your dad, please check out my post about Peggy Drexler’s book, “Our Father’s, Ourselves.”   :)


Comments 15

  1. I’m sorry your relationship with your dad was so painful. I can relate. My relationship with my chinese mom has always been strained. While we have been in somewhat of a peaceful place for many years, the fact is for much of my life, I wished her dead. She seemed to want nothing but to spread her misery to her family, so I figured if she hates life so much, she might as well not even live.

    I’m sorry you were never able to resolve things with your father while he was alive, but that certainly wasn’t your fault. It takes two, and he didn’t seem to be able to have any other kind of relationship. The good thing is that we can do things differently. That’s what I’m doing with my son. I am in tune with his feelings, I validate him, I correct him, but also let him know often that I love him. All the things I wish I had, I can do for him, and the rewards are amazing. That’s how I’m getting closure on the pain of my past, by making my present and my future MY terms. xoxo to you!

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    Kim, how wonderful that you can do things differently with your son. I’m also trying to break with the past in raising my daughter and it certainly feels better than doing things the old way.

    I always thought that I had resolved things with my dad in his final days — until your observation here. In the days right before he died, I tried really hard to hold my tongue and not to fight with him, which resulted in one brief final chat where he told me that I was good. But I never thought he was good. I’m still not sure he was good. He did his best, though. And now that I’m recovering, maybe I can finally get resolved!

  3. Your reflections on your parents are so poignant. I always feel like I have someone to relate to when I read them. Like I’ve told you, I go back to them many times. This one made me want to cry too.

    Speaking of pictures, the ones of you and your father made me melt. For a second, they offer a glimpse of how things could have been with him had he lived up to the small smile in the photos. In the part of me that has yet to grow up, it goes to the imaginary place I created for my own father, and imagines your father to have the potential of a great man and ignore what shortcomings he had.
    I can’t say that is a healthy escape, the imagining, but it allows to have one good strong memory that you can hope is more powerful than the tons of heartbreaking ones.

    I grew up without any pictures of my father. I was raised in Brooklyn and he was on Long Island, not too far away, but too far for him to do anything about that. I searched him out as a child after finding out his brother lived closeby. My mother gave me his phone number, but he wasn’t ever there. I looked up his relatives in the phone book and they gave me his job number. I was six. I tried on my own to establish a relationship with him, and that was hard to do since he justified leaving our family and said he never did wrong. I begged to spend a summer with him and finally did when I was 8. I selfishly didn’t ask for my brothers to come along; he had finally agreed to let me see him and I wasn’t thinking about anyone else. I wanted pictures with him like the ones my friends had with their fathers in their living room, but didn’t get one. My older sister (who was his stepdaughter) had a picture with him where she was all dressed up and sitting on his lap. I wanted one like that so bad.

    I ignored that he did not visit or send child support. I made an image in my headd of him that he was like Superman, and the best dad ever. I imagined him many times coming to rescue me. As a child, it gave me something to look forward to and escape in. I
    wasn’t hurt that way…I always imagined he would be there any day now. As a teenager, reality hit hard and I cried my eyes out over and over. I would speak with him, but never felt he understood what I meant or wanted. He refused to accept responsibility for his actions or my feelings. We had some pretty strained moments combined with the rejection he gave to my younger brothers, who I was fiercely protective of. I found oout lies he spread about us and my mother, and that made me see why his family treated us the way they did. I fought to win a place in their lives when I wasn’t welcome. We weren’t seen of as his kids, we were just

  4. ”Her children” (referring to my mother).

    Adding insult to injury, he wanted to take us out to dinner to get to know us when we were teens and he suffered through the abandonment of his oldest son, from his first marriage. His son cut off all ties with him (he didn’t even bother to come to his funeral) and the loneliness sent my father into a deep depression. Mind you, I felt insulted by this but went along anyway. This happened a few times then stopped. I saw him times throughout my 20s, but always at events his nieces and nephews invited us to. They looked past his behavior and even their own parents’ and befriended us.

    His last attempt to get to know me came in my late 20s, after he developed dementia and then Alzheimer’s. What a conflicting time for me! He wanted me around when he barely remembered or knew who I was. I couldn’t get to know him, except as a patient, because there wasn’t anything left for him to share or pass on. There were other insults we suffered after his death as well, and we discovered that the relationship I tried to forge and the honor I tried to give…it wasn’t complete on his part, even then, and he virtually ignored the existence of my brothers, right down to his life insurance and other things. He never told the truth to certain people about his lies that they were not his children, although he mentioned who they were in a will. At his funeral, we sat through a speech that painted my mother as a horrible woman who kept him from seeing us. But no one acknowledged that he denied paternity.

    He died on Christmas Day, 2009. On Christmas Day 2008, I convinced my brothers to come with me to see him. They drove my son and I out there and he gave us a gift. Our father was glad we were there, even though it took time for us to see if he recognized us or not. I brought a camera with me. I took several pictures with all of us and some with just my father and I alone. These were the first and last pictures we took together. We never saw him after that day and he died exactly one year later. I developed the pictures and thought about making him a collage, but never did. I still have the photos, but don’t know where to hang them. While your father’s presence is still present after 36 years, I can say the same for my father. We never lived together, but his absence was with me every day. I finally have the pics I wanted for so long, but don’t know what to imagine about him or them. I try to think of people in a positive light-this hurts less than punishing them or me forever. But I draw a blank when it comes to him, until I read a post like yours (ha ha!) Or when I think that my life is a pretty special thing he chose to miss and I resolve to never treat my own kid like that. But I don’t parent from a plaace of bitterness or to get him back. I love my kid so hard because I think he deserves that, every kid does. And sometimes, I think I still do, too.

  5. (*Correction: I meant on Christmas that we gave him a gift. Also, I had some pictures of him as a child, but none with him. I was typing too fast. Emotions.)

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    Let it all out, girl! I wish I could give you a hug right now. I’m so sorry that your dad caused you such pain. Kids don’t deserve anything the adult world puts them through. Maybe some day you’ll get Peggy Drexler’s book? Her book helped me so much.

    And thank you for helping me appreciate the photos I have. You hit the nail right on the head….I wish the warmth suggested by the photos had been a reality that we built on, year after year. If only, right?

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  7. I have read so often such stories of dealing with the pain caused by a cruel or neglectful or insensitive parent that I sometimes wonder if my own father could truly have been as kind, loving and supportive as I remember him to be. Then, I think of all the details of life with him and I know that yes – he was all of that and more and whatever I know today about how to be a decent human being and a gentleman, I learned from observing him. He once said “raising children may be sometimes difficult but it isn’t complicated. All you have to do is give them love, no matter what – ALWAYS give them love.”
    With the boys in our gay family, I see often the terrible pain caused by fathers who did not understand that simple principal – fathers who reject them because the boys do not fit the preordained model those fathers had created. Now, we aren’t talking here about kids who are stupid or destructive or wastrels. We are in every case talking about boys who are brilliant and beautiful and gifted and good-hearted and who are accomplishing wonderful things in their lives – things that SHOULD make any parent glow with pride. But they aren’t the things those parents had envisioned and so they do not serve to bridge the gap. Yes, I am in the audience applauding wildly when they take their bows – I am at their graduations and I am the one that hugs them when love goes wrong or gets happily teary eyed with them when they do find the right one to fall in love with – but it is not the same as if I was really their father who gave them birth and whose blood flows in their veins – I am merely a poor surrogate and in their hearts there is always that pain caused by what should have been. Perhaps learning how to deal with that has made them stronger. I hope there is at least that much of a positive result -and certainly when they are raising children, as many of them will some day, they will do better – much, much better. I know they will because they have such good hearts. You know one of the boys yourself, Betty, and you know I speak the truth.

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    Toby, you are among the very lucky ones. I totally envy you because getting that kind of love from your dad just wires you differently from the rest of us — in a good way.

    And while you might not be the same as a biological father to these boys, you are better. You are someone who didn’t have to care but who does. I’ve always appreciated my father — and mother — figures. You are important anchors in a person’s life.

    So don’t EVER talk about yourself again as “merely a poor surrogate.” If you have taken these boys and housed them, fed them, disciplined them, shared joy with them, spent your hard-earned dollars on them — then by golly, they are your sons. And if they embrace you as a father figure, then drop that surrogate crap and wear your role with confidence and pride!

  9. They are all in their early 20s now and mostly beginning to make their own way in life – already experiencing success. One lives with us but will finish college this coming semester, then who knows? The path before him is full of wonderful possibilities. It is such a joy to watch them establish their own lives, their own new homes (and not least of the pleasure is being able to finally unload some of the spare furniture and china that has accumulated in the garage ! LOL!) The greatest pleasure of all though is seeing them reach out to help others. One is already doing social work in NY with young, poor, HIV victims. Another designs holistic health care programs for inner city young men of color at risk for HIV/AIDS in Philadelphia, working for a major hospital. His work has already attracted the serious attention of the CDC in Atlanta, where he has been asked to come to address a seminar. Another is the subject of a documentary validating same sex affection, being released next month by the huge TLA Releasing Corp (Title: “Our Lips Are Sealed” I’ve even got a walk-on, bit part! Ha! ). Seeing these developments and others like them is a joy and a happiness beyond measure. The accomplishments of young people with whose lives one is involved become so much more important and satisfying than anything one has done by one’s self. The secret, which I learned from observing my father, is to give without expecting or desiring any sort of return whatever. If one can do that, the returns will be overwhelming. It requires a mental and moral discipline to achieve that and we all fall short – I know I do – but it is the goal and it embodies the maxim stated in the Bible and in other works of wisdom: “cast your bread upon the waters and it will return ten fold.” There is much in the Bible that is silly, of course, but that injunction is absolutely true (cautionary note – my grandmother commented “just make sure you have house room for all that bread,” LOL)

  10. Bettty,
    I fell blessed and sad after reading these stories.
    First, that there was not time somehow to build good strong llinks from generation to generation. When my brother was your age in the picture, we have a picture of 5 generations living on my mouthers side.(We currently have four) My dad went watersking saturday and I got a picture of him on one ski (at 75 years old!)
    It is hard for me to comprehend having relative die so young.

    The other thing is that if your father died before you were 19 then did you know your grand parents? Or Great Grand parents? I think this has an effect too. Actually it has many effects. I remeber grandparents getting after my parents if they thought they were out of line. Or in the summer or weekends , going to my grand parents (and even great grandma Simmons, who lived in a tiny house in my grandparents yard.

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