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By Raidah Shah Idil
I am estranged from my father, and no, I don’t like talking about it. Why bring it up in the public sphere? Because I get too many intrusive questions about him in the private sphere, and this is my way of setting the record straight.
My parents’ love story went terribly wrong. They knew each other from school and got married when my mum was twenty-one, and my dad was twenty-four. I’ve seen the wedding photos, slightly yellowed with age. My mum looked demure and beautiful in her white dress, and my dad looked dashing in his suit. Their honeymoon took them to spectacular locations around the globe – impressive, given that this was over thirty years ago – but their marriage ended up in what I have coined “The Best Decision Ever.” My parents’ divorce, instigated by my mother, was the reprieve that gave us all the chance to heal after decades of waxing and waning heartache. I am the oldest of many siblings, and each of us has to negotiate the scars we all earned along the way.
Most parents mean well. I know mine certainly did. But the lesson I learned from was how much love can hurt. My dad warned me against the foolishness of women marrying their high school sweethearts. My mother warned me that men never change. They gave me so many warnings against love and trust. I grew up imbibing so much of what can go wrong, that it took me a very long time to be open to what can go right.
My father sent her to deportment classes to improve her confidence. My mother wanted him to be kinder to her. Neither got what they wanted. Yet, they must have been happy once. I have one vivid memory of my father giving my mother a delicate gold watch for their wedding anniversary. I was a teenager then and I felt embarrassed at how he kissed her cheek. Now, I wonder if I hallucinated the whole thing, and I wish there had been more of that, and less of the bad memories I’d rather forget.
Watching my parents’ marriage impacted on my view of men, marriage, and love in general. Love, especially the warm and fuzzy kind, was something that happened to other people. The kind of love I saw growing up looked suspiciously like the ‘Cycle of Abuse’ chart which I came across on the internet. My father always had a temper, but it felt like his anger escalated after our migration to Sydney. We were rapidly growing up in ways he didn’t approve, in a culture he didn’t understand.
Migration came at a price for us. My father wanted a better life for us and more opportunities, but he couldn’t find a suitable job and relocate with us. He chose to stay behind and work in Singapore, while the rest of us moved to Sydney, Australia. He wire transferred funds to my mum so she didn’t need to work, freeing her up to raise the six of us. She was the one who drove us to school in a second-hand white Mitsubishi van. I cannot begin to count the number of hours she spent driving us to and fro from school, swimming classes and tuition. We had an accumulation of days that turned into months and then years of shared joy and sadness; one which my father had very little to do with. His visits were initially regular, but tapered off over the years. Each time he came, the atmosphere of my home changed. We braced ourselves for the inevitable spilling over into disappointment and rage. There were always different triggers which were impossible to predict and prevent. One of my fonder memories of him was him helping me with my math homework, and of us watching an episode of Scrubs together. He laughed, and we were all happy. Sadly, these are the exceptions to the rule.
A long-distance marriage cannot withstand the strain of anger, disappointment and contempt. Long-distance parenting is even more futile. Ironically, my father was shocked when my mother wanted a divorce. He had lost control of his family. His wife had had enough. His children had become strangers to him. Strangers in a foreign land. What happened to this dream of three doctor daughters and three banker sons? His dream vaporized in the heat of our own independence, and our own dreams. It was his way, or the highway, so there could be no compromise, and no celebration of our transition to adulthood. I will never know what it would have been like, if my father had accepted us and our choices. Perhaps we would all still be on speaking terms, instead of the old, tiring monologue of us obeying his choices, and then, our ensuing radio silence. There is an ocean of silence between us, broken only by staccato emails.
Why did my own father make me feel so bad? This was a question that haunted me for most of my life. It was in my mid-twenties, after yet another emotional crisis and the reassurance of close friends, that I realized something. His anger had nothing to do with me. It had to do with him and his demons. His own mother left him when he was a young boy, leaving him and his brothers to fend for themselves. His father remarried and had more children. My father would proudly regale us with tales about how he could do the market shopping on his own when he was only ten. He was proud of his street-smarts, but I feel sad for the abandoned young boy that he was.
If he was the abandoned son, then I am the daughter he failed to mold. Perhaps he saw it as flagrant rebellion when I left medical school and abandoned his dream for me to be a doctor. But to me, I was reclaiming my lost self. I am a writer, and studying to be a counselor, so I can help others heal the hurts they carry. My words breathe meaning into years of heartache. Asking me to stop writing so I can pick up an anatomy book is equivalent to asphyxiation. Been there, done that. It took me so long to separate selfishness from self-care. It’s not selfish to have a different opinion to my father’s. It’s self-care to know when to stop forcing myself on a futile career path.
My father affected far more than my career choice. I had read about ‘father hunger’ and how easily it was for young women like me to make poor relationship choices. Right on cue, my late teens and early twenties were peppered with bad decisions when it came to men, and everything stemmed from feeling so rejected by my father. In my mid-twenties, I decided to call off all attempts at searching for love outside myself. Instead, I went on a frenzied quest to heal, and I took all possible means from therapists, to life coaches, to self-help books. Staring at the void inside myself was frightening at first, then it became uncomfortable, and then, at last, I filled it with acceptance. I am enough, as I am.
By the time I was in my late twenties and a lot more at peace with myself, being a child of divorce still impacted the trajectory of my own courtship. My husband was shy and reserved while we were engaged, and this sent me into occasional spirals of panic. Did he really want to marry me? I mean, why would he? Various other thought-vultures pecked at my insecurities, and it hurt. I complained about his reticence to my mother, who reminded me that like her, he is a person of gestures, and not words. That cracked the code. I saw his love for me in the chicken curry he cooked, the ice cream he brought, and how he picked up rice for my family when we ran out. My husband’s gestures of love had to do with food, the most primal way to nourish another person.
His parents’ love story was so different to my own. His father passed away several years ago, and that was how their marriage ended. I marveled at that. It took death to separate them. Even as a child, I knew that my parents’ volatile marriage couldn’t last. The concept of people staying married until they die still amazes me.
I was pleasantly surprised that right after we got married, my husband held my hand and didn’t let go. And he hasn’t, ever since. The first few months of our marriage were, of course, blissful. Neither of us could do any wrong. A potent combination of love, novelty and intoxicating pheromones got us through the adjustment period. Being with him felt like I’d come home. So this was what love felt like.
Real life intruded upon our self-imposed bubble. I desperately missed my girlfriends and the unfettered freedom that came with being single. Six months later, my husband and I had our first big argument. I was devastated, and so was he. We got over it, and I learned then that conflict doesn’t end up in divorce. It’s okay to disagree. Just do it nicely. No yelling, no name-calling, and no cheap stabs at each other’s family. My heart rate still spikes when I hear yelling. On the upside, over the course of my marriage, my anxiety when it comes to conflict is reducing. Fighting fair is an act of love in itself.
I asked my husband what love meant to him. “I feel it more in your absence,” he replied. He remembers our love when I’m not there, and I feel it most when I’m with him. Every day with him is an act of love, compassion, forgiveness and moving forward. Being in my own marriage makes me think of what went wrong with my parents’. Abah and Mak, even though you couldn’t make it work, you did the best you could. I’m sorry it had to be so hard.
As I navigate the ups and downs of my marriage, friendships, and my relationship with my family, I’m writing a love story of my own. I hope to have children of my own some day, so I can show them unconditional love and acceptance, and teach them that they’re already enough, as they are. I want to be kind to them and honor their dreams so that when they’re adults, I’ll still be part of their lives.
My fears about irreparably harming my own kids are lessened now, especially after the birth of my niece. She’s almost two years old, and I babysit her regularly. She’s the closest thing to a daughter to me, and I’m relieved to report that there have been no incidents, aside from my despair when I need to change her soiled diaper. The surge of love I have for her reassures me that I’ll be ready to love one of my own, some day.
The story of my life is one of resilience, and I’ve learned that no matter how much we get hurt, we are all hardwired to love, and be loved in return. Choosing to love myself was a catalyst for change in my life, and the biggest step in my healing journey. Quoting a line from The Perks Of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, “We accept the love we think we deserve.” Every child is born deserving of love and acceptance. Even if our parents fall short, we can still pull through. Some days will be hard, others will be easier, but overall, the view on the other side is spectacular.
Raidah Shah Idil is a writer and poet, based in Sydney, Australia. Her work has been published in Daily Life, Lip Mag, Bitmob and Sisters Magazine. Her double feature debut novel, Finding Jamilah and The Story of Yusuf will be published in late 2013 by MyLegacy Publications. Her poetry has been selected for publication by the Australian Muslim Artists. Visit her at www.raidahshahidil.com.