My father died about six years ago. He was then 90 years old, and he had never shown love or positive feelings towards me. So from early childhood I had this feeling that he did not like me. I carried this feeling through most of my life; I never had any kind of love, any kind of warm relationship with my father. It was always a perfunctory: “Hello son, good to see you.”
And he seemed to feel threatened by me. I remember whenever I came home as a Buddhist monk he would say, “Remember, this is my house, you’ve got to do as I say.” This was his greeting – and I was almost 50 years old at the time! I don’t know what he thought I was going to do!
In the last decade of his life, he was quite miserable and became very resentful. He had terrible arthritis and was in constant pain, and he had Parkinson’s disease and everything was going wrong. Eventually he had to be put in a nursing home. He was completely paralysed. He could move his eyes and talk, but the rest of his body was rigid, totally still. He hated this. He was resentful of what had happened to him because before he had been a strong, independent, virile man. He had been able to control and manage everything in his life. So he hated and resented having to depend on nurses to feed him and so on.
My first year here I remember discussing my parents with my sister. She pointed out to me that my father was a very considerate man. He was very considerate and thoughtful towards my mother. He was always eager to help her when she was tired or unwell – a very supportive husband. Because I came from a family where it was normal for a man to be like that, I had never recognised those qualities. My sister pointed out that it is not often that a husband is supportive or helpful to his wife. For my father’s generation, women’s rights and feminism were not the issue. “I bring in the money, and you do the cooking and washing,” was the attitude then. I realised then that I had not only completely overlooked these good qualities, I had not even noticed them.
The last time I went to see him, I decided that I would try to get some kind of warmth going between us before he died. It was quite difficult to even think this because I had gone through life feeling that he didn’t like me. It is very hard to break through that kind of thing.
Anyway, his body needed to be stimulated, so I said, “Let me massage your leg.” And he said, “No, no, you don’t need to do that.” And I said, “You’ll get bedsores; you really have to have your skin massaged.” And he still said, “No, you don’t have to do it.” Then I said, “I would really like to do it.” And he said, “You don’t have to do it.” But I could tell that he was considering it. Then I said, “I think it’ll be a good thing and I’d really like to do it,” and he said, “So, you’d really like to do it?” and I said, “Yes.”
I started massaging his feet, his legs, his neck and shoulders, his hands and his face, and he really enjoyed the physical contact. It was the first time he had been touched like that… And I began to realise that my father really loved me, but he didn’t know how to say it because of his upbringing. He’d been brought up in an Edwardian time in a very formal environment. His had been a “don’t touch, don’t get emotional” sort of a family. They had no great emotional explosions; feelings were always controlled. Now I realised that my father was quite a loving sort of man, but he could not express his feelings because of his background. And I had this great sense of relief.
I couldn’t understand him when I was young because I did not understand his upbringing and what he had been through. It was only when I grew older that I began to understand the consequences of having such an upbringing. Once you are conditioned in that way, it is difficult to break out of it. I could see when I looked back that behind the behaviour of my father there was love, but it always came out in a commanding or demanding way because that is the only way he knew how to talk. Like the way he said, “Remember, this is my house, and you have to do what I say.” If I was going to be offended by that, I would have had a miserable time. But I decided not to pay any attention to that statement and not make a problem of it…
This reflection by Luang Por Sumedho is from the book, Gratitude, (pdf) pp. 45-48.