A story of healing the soul of my family and turning fear and resentment into love
The happiest memories of my Dad and I are the first ones that I can recall. They involve apples, a yellow jackknife and a bench in the park. Dad used to hold me on his knees, and feed me apple slices freshly carved out – the sweetest apples I have ever eaten. I also remember him protectively teaching me my name, age and address, just in case I ever got lost; he also taught me which is left and which is right, and how to ride a bike. Then I grew up a bit, enough to be reproached things I that do wrong, or that I should, or shouldn’t do – and be punished for it.
I was a bed wetter. I didn’t want to wet the bed, and used the best of my will and imagination to make myself wake up for bathroom – and I did, each time, only, one minute too late. Mom took me to a hypnotherapist.
The hypnotherapist wore a doctor’s white robe, and had a deep, calming voice. He had me lie down on the consultation bed, asked me to close my eyes, and, with his deep, calming voice, he proceeded to say: “It’s night time, the sky is dark blue, and all the stars are out. The crickets are singing and the moon shines over the land. It’s peaceful and quiet...” His voice stopped after a while, and it was all silent. Not sure what to expect, I asked Doctor Hypnotherapy: “Do I have to lie like this for much longer?”. The Doctor took a deep breath, and started all over again: “It’s night time. It’s dark, the stars are out, and the crickets are singing “. After a while, he stopped. I was bored: “What else?” I asked. The Doctor shrugged, looked at my Mom and said: “I’m sorry, Ma’am, I can’t hypnotise your daughter.” And that was that.
Dad had another approach. He’d send me to pee before bed time (‘But Dad, it’s not coming!’) and he’d consistently punish me after the bed wetting, admonishing me on a harsh voice, demanding that I stand facing a corner of the room for a few minutes, or – my worst one – locking away my favorite doll or toy. I tried to please him but I couldn’t help it. Little by little, I started fearing him.
Both my parents were employed professionals, Dad an electrical engineer, and Mom an economist, and university assisting professor. We always had house help that lived with us in our small one-bedroom apartment, a woman who’d be both housekeeper and Nanny for me, their only child. I grew jealous of the Nannies, who would come and go, and yet, every new face in our home was invested with the authority to discipline me. In one bout of resentment, I called my Nanny “Cow”. Dad removed his leather belt and beat me with it. He didn’t have to do it often: one stern look piercing through my eyes was enough to silence me, together with his severe voice: “You should be ashamed of yourself!”; “Don’t you talk back to me, you cheeky girl!” and, when I’d lower my eyes in shame, he’d thunder: “You look at me when I’m talking to you!”
Mom added to my fear of Dad by either threatening to tell him about anything I’d do that she’d deem unacceptable, or encouraging me to hide things from him that she’d approve of but he wouldn’t, like when I’d accompany her to the beauty salon and get my nails polished with red. Eventually, Dad would get a glimpse of my painted nails, when I’d forget to keep them behind my back, and yell at Mom: “Go get that shit removed from the child’s nails right now!”. I think my mother feared him as well.
When I was in school, and I’d bring home a low mark, I’d pretend to be sleepy and take a long afternoon nap around the time my father would return home from work, just to postpone the dire confrontation. By the time I was a student, all I felt towards Dad was fear, the frustration of failing to please him, and the resentment for his control over my decisions and for his put-downs and reproaches. In my family, there was no tradition of expressing appreciation or acknowledgment, but there always was a generous and daily expression of blaming, shaming and reproaching. When my mother became mentally ill, and after a few years died, I felt lost and alone, and could hardly wait to turn eighteen and get the hell out of my father’s home and of the country, to make sure that I was free.
I was, in fact, twenty four when I finally left, and left my father behind, but what I wasn’t aware that I packed and brought with me was the fear, frustration, rejection and resentments. That was my personal import into my new, adoptive country; and it was so heavy, they should have taxed it and made a fortune from it.
But neither the State of Israel, nor I, were aware of this baggage, because it was unconscious. I slowly became aware of it with reading self-help books and getting therapy which helped me flash a light inside my mind. I went from feeling not-good-enough to feeling righteously angry at my parents, especially my father. Every time we visited each other, I was triggered by things he would say, and could hardly wait to get away from him, again, and again.
The healing began when I decided to inquire into my father’s experiences as a child. I was visiting Romania, and on a balmy evening, we were sitting on a bench in the Herastrau park, in Bucharest: me, my Dad, and Eliza, my stepmom.
I found out that my grandmother was not generous with affection or appreciation, but rather strict with her boys, Dad and his older brother, who was her favorite. My Dad’s father was a kind, compassionate man, softer than his wife – a well-reputed obstetrician with a heart bigger than the pocket, nicknamed the Doctor of the poor in his town of Bacau, because he would not charge the patients who couldn’t afford him, and if they didn’t afford the prescribed medicine, he would dispense it to them at no charge.
Dad was twelve when his father died of a stroke. My grandmother had worked as her husband’s assistant, and now that he was gone, the family had no more income to subsist. At twelve, my father saw the end of his childhood, when he took on a physically demanding job carrying heavy bags on his still developing body. He lost his childhood, his joy of life, and the health of his spine. He became as strict as his mother, a severe, controlling but loyal provider for his chosen family – my mother and I.
Listening to his story, my heart softened a bit: I felt for him, and sitting on that bench in the evening dark, I looked at my father, and for the first time I saw, instead of a scary control freak, a sad, scared, tired little boy.
Around the year 1999 I embarked on my journey as a healer, leaving a nine-year career in banking and the corporate world, for the ethereal and not-so-well-paid, but deeply rewarding world of inner exploration and transformation – the world of the healing arts and therapies. I started connecting the dots between my couple relationship dysfunction and my childhood experiences, and began to understand more and more how to make amends.
One of my teachers, the German systemic therapist Bert Hellinger, observed that the flow of love has its own hidden order in each family system: love flows naturally from the old ones to the young ones, from grandparents, to parents, to children; and when somebody swims upstream, like a child who gives emotional support to a parent, or a parent who uses his or her child for emotional support, the flow of love is impaired and everyone in that family system is affected.
I decided to apply this observation in the healing of my own soul, and in my own family, and proceeded to request for emotional support from my surviving parent, my Dad.
One day I was on the phone with my father when he pushed a button on a Valentine plush toy that I had gifted him, which said, in English, ‘I love you’. I said: ‘Dad, I need to hear this from your own voice!’.
‘I love you’ said my father in English, imitating the voice of the toy.
‘Dad, not like this. I need to hear it from you in Romanian.’
Dead silence at the other end. After a long while, I heard my father taking a deep breath and saying, in Romanian; ‘I love you more than I could ever put in words’. With hearing his statement, I felt the rush of a mighty current up my spine. I was in my forties, and blown away by this declaration from Dad, which I hadn’t hoped to hear, and was now healing my mind and emotions. No psychotherapy could mend a pained psyche like my father declaring me love.
When I moved to Canada, putting an Ocean between him and me, Dad bought a PC and downloaded Skype to be able to be in touch with me. One day, after a Polish airplane full of dignitaries crashed, I was talking on Skype with my father and stepmother, who had been shaken by this piece of news. Dad wanted to talk about the recent events, which at that hour I was still oblivious of. I was used with Dad’s little reproaches when we talked: ‘What? You don’t have a comb to comb your fuzzy hair?’. This day it was: ‘What? You don’t read the news?’
‘But how is it possible to live like this, not knowing what’s happening in the world?’
‘I read other aspects of what’s happening in the world, Dad’
Dad wouldn’t let go: ‘But what kind of living is this, what kind of world is it that you live in, without reading or listening to the news?’
And on and on it went, until I got so triggered emotionally, I became again Dad’s little good-for-nothing girl. And I cried, and cried.
Then I remembered to make amends, and asked my father: ‘Dad, I need to hear from you what you like and appreciate about me.’
Eliza jumped in with a few compliments, and I stopped her, and continued to address my father: ‘Dad, from all the people in the world, I need to hear it from you, for my own mental health. I’ll make it easy for you: it can be physical, character or behaviour. I just need to hear something – anything - that you like about me.’
I saw my father wipe a tear at the corner of his eye. Easy it was not, and if I asked him to move a mountain an inch to the left, it would have been as easy for him.
Next time I spoke to him on Skype, he looked at me and said: ‘I like your pendant’.
It was a start.
By the end of 2010 when I visited Romania again, I was further equipped for healing my relationship with Dad: I was practicing Shadow Work and Self-Inquiry. Shadow Work allowed me to identify and own any trait that I recognized in my father or step-mother, which bothered and triggered me. The moment I would go through the silent mental process of integration, I’d look at my father and tell myself: ‘Here we are, two critical, or judgmental complainers’ – and any fear or resentment would just drop away. I was turning fifty and for the first time ever, I could feel warm affection towards and from him. I used the ‘Who am I?’ self-inquiry practice to expand my identity beyond the boundaries of the separate self; so whenever Dad would utter another complaint or reproach, and after owning the same trait and behavior in myself, I’d expand to recognize a general human suffering taking the shape and form of my father’s pain; and this recognition blew my heart open in the compassionate desire to alleviate this pain not only in myself and in my family, but in this entire world that I am a part of.
So one day during that visit, something most unexpected happened. I was in the living room with Eliza, chatting, while Dad was in the bedroom. I yelled from the living room to my father: ‘So Dad, what is it that you like about me, as a person?
Walking towards me, Dad replied: ‘That you have evolved so much, more than I ever thought possible. And that you are able to help people the way you do.’
I felt my chest open like a warm flow of red-hot lava, a kind of affectionate love I had not known for my father. The language I had just heard was made of words that I hadn’t thought my Dad would have the ability to utter. For the first time ever, I felt my father’s love for me, and even more surprising and healing: I felt my own love for him. During the months to come, I’d periodically rub my eyes in disbelief, wondering whether this love would last. So far, so good, and it gets better.
I saw my Dad last month, after a long suffering and difficult surgery that he went through. I was afraid I wouldn’t get to see him alive, and I prayed day and night for his health. I spent two weeks with him and Eliza, and the imminent loss shaping up with old age and illness magnified the affection I felt for him. I found a hunched, weak, pale and depressed old man who had lost his zest for life – still controlling and problem oriented, but too weak to scare me. Somehow my childhood Dad and my now-Dad became two people, one to heal from, and the other to love. Or perhaps I had distinguished within my mind between the doing and the doer, and while I still refer to ‘doing’ in my mental care practice, I have forgiven and embrace the ‘doer’. Inspired by Hellinger, I had mentally told Dad what I often invite my clients to say to their parents in a family constellation session: ‘I am your daughter, and you are my father. If you only gave me life, and nothing more, it would have been enough. I say YES to this life, and I promise to make something good of it.’
But Dad, you gave me so much more than life: you provided and made sure that I had all the food, shelter, clothing, health care and education I needed. You instilled in me the love of education and learning. You taught me practical tools for survival when I was a child, and you taught me how to ride a bicycle. You never left sight of me, and when my mother passed away, you cooked all my meals, and fed me. I am who I am today thanks to you, Dad.
This time I hugged my father like never before. We used to have brief hugs, with Dad patting my back in his awkwardness with displays of affection. Blame it on my Biodanza practice, but this time around I held my father tight in my arms, running my hands around his hunched, tight back until I could feel it softening and warming up a bit. And we kissed each other’s cheeks, and held on each other until we’d melt in each embrace, until my father’s pale cheeks turned a bit rosy, until I saw a smile on his face and even his famous smirk when cracking a wise-ass joke.
Screw-ups and suffering runs in my family for who-knows how many generations, and in all this long line of ancestors, I am the youngest one, and the most privileged one as well, because I am able to bring healing to the soul of my family, and alleviate this long lineage of suffering. My sister-like friend Dana always says: ‘Those who have give to those who don’t have’. She mostly talks about money. But the ability to heal and make amends is more precious than gold, and those who have it give it to those who don’t. I am the lucky one to turn fear and resentment into love, and to hear my father say to me upon hugging for our good-byes: ‘Au fost doua saptamani de vis’ – ‘These were two fabulous weeks’.
And they were, indeed. I love you, Dad, with all my heart and soul!