While I’m away, readers give the advice.
On growing up with a toxic parent:
My father was, in retrospect, amazingly insecure and passively abusive. If I misbehaved or otherwise gained his ire, he would sometimes not speak to me for a week. When I was about 9, I remember I had done something that really angered him. He threatened to take me to a psychiatrist! I wasn’t quite sure what that was, but I said, “Let’s go now.” He was stumped, with nothing to say. It was the first time I remember, in a naive way, prevailing. I never heard this threat again.
I feel I chose my issues, those where I stood up to him, by accident. In my first university term, I plotted to visit a girl who lived out of state. My parents did not approve of her family. I carefully organized guys on my dorm floor to have a consistent story for my parents if they called. It was a great trip, but my parents figured out what I had done, and my father informed me that I was coming home to finish my education.
I immediately went to the dean, who opened the scholarship/work door to my staying at the university. I wrote to my parents that I was not returning home.
After earning my degree and being accepted to grad school, and with about $1,300 to my name, I decided to join two other grads on their European trip. My father’s reaction was predictable: If I went, I was financially cut off.
I accepted the “offer.” Cut off, I went to Europe for 12 weeks. It was life-changing.
My father’s ever-present weakness pushed me to be independent and accept risk. I learned to get along on my own and to do what I could to achieve my own goals.
On people’s varying responses to a death:
When I returned to work after my dad’s funeral, everybody avoided me like crazy. I guess they thought I would burst into tears if they even said hello. Who knows, maybe I would have. I felt so sad, so alone, and isolated. His obituary had been e-mailed to everyone, so all the details were known.
After lunch on my first day back, I slipped off to an empty conference room to collect my thoughts, and a man I only know marginally saw me go in. He came to me and started this conversation: “I was so sorry to hear about your dad. I didn’t know he was a music teacher! Tell me about him!” I was so happy to have someone to talk to about him. We talked for about 20 minutes about my dad. Yes, I cried a little. But at that moment, that was what I needed so much.
After a funeral, everyone goes back to their lives, what they were doing before — and the family who has lost their loved one is completely lost and directionless. This man, who hardly knew me, reached out for just a moment and cared. I still run in to him periodically at work and can’t tell you how much his gesture, at that moment on that day, helped me to cope.