My father and I had a lifelong argument over whether or not a person can change their outlook and feelings in any meaningful way. This is a pretty fundamental question, it seems to me, and how you feel about the possibility of change, and your willingness to work toward it, is the difference between hope and resignation.
The argument apparently started when I was less than ten weeks old, which really freaked my father out and started us off on the wrong foot. It was a big mistake, I realize now, to challenge my father at such an early age, and if I had it to do over again, I probably would have tried to have been more conciliatory.
At ten weeks, it seems, I’d reached my limit and went into a prolonged temper tantrum. While this immature show of red-faced, fist-clenched rage greatly frightened my parents, it also pissed both of them off. The pediatrician laughed it off, but my parents could not.
It didn’t help things when, a few months later, my first precocious words were “go fuck yourself.” I admit that didn’t help a bit, as it only confirmed what they were already pretty sure of.
“Well, you’re trying to be funny about it, but some babies just are born fucking pricks; it’s medical fact,” said the skeleton of my father from his hilltop grave in Cortlandt, New York, annoyed to have to state the obvious so soon in this account. “You were born with a fucking hard-on against the world.”
Now the only question was ‘can a person change their nature?’ I approached the subject with a certain optimism. My father’s position was an emphatic ‘no’.
“You can change only the most superficial things about yourself, the deeper feelings, the impulses, those things remain hard-wired,” my father always insisted.
But you yourself are living proof that people can change, dad, I told him, toward the end of our last argument.
After I told you I would no longer tolerate abuse disguised as fatherly advice, after I told you I wouldn’t stick around to be mistreated, you changed your behavior. Things have been much better the last fifteen years or so. How can you discount the salubrious effect your changed behavior has had on our relationship?
My father was old at this time, almost eighty. He had less than two years left, though, of course, neither of us knew it as we argued that day in his den in Coconut Creek, Florida. He was probably already well into the undiagnosed liver cancer that he’d find out about six days before his death, shortly after the E.R. doctor gave my sister that instant, meaningful look. My old man was tired, he was desperate. Things had not worked out for him, he was choking on disappointment, frustration, unslakable anger. His son, already in his late forties, was still trying to make his infernal point, still senselessly hammering away at his father’s shield. My father smiled, but it was a horrible smile.
“Hah!” he said without mirth, with the opposite of mirth, really. “I merely changed my superficial reactions. My deeper feelings never changed at all, they cannot change or be changed, as much as you might try to convince yourself they can be. I always felt the same way, my feelings never changed, I just honored your request not to speak of my true feelings about you.” He saw that he had not yet said enough, I was still standing, not even sweating, really.
“If I ever told you how I really felt about you, it would do such irreparable harm we could never have any kind of relationship at all. I recommend we keep our conversation to sports, and politics, and books, the kind of civil pleasantries I exchange with Roy.”
You want to keep our conversation to the kind of civil pleasantries you exchange with somebody you just told me again how much you despise?
He nodded, unwilling to admit the grotesqueness of his desperation to somehow win this argument.
I took a breath, shook my head.
OK, I guess you win, dad. People can’t change. I go back to my original position then. Why don’t you go fuck yourself?
Two years later, in spite of the fact that we cannot change our essential natures, I stood mildly in my father’s hospital room the last night of his life. I was there to listen, to help however I could in the difficult transition he had to make. I was like an old family priest taking a very sophisticated white collar criminal’s final confession.
“You know,” the dying man said in an incredibly strained voice he wouldn’t be using much longer, “I felt you reaching out many times over the years… I was just too fucked up to have the kind of relationship I should have had with you. I was always afraid it was going to be a fight. I think now how much richer my life would have been if I hadn’t seen everything as a zero-sum battle to the death. That’s my fault, you’re supposed to have some fucking insight…”
I nodded, what could I say?
“I wish we could have had this kind of talk fifteen years ago,” he said, his voice weaker still.
We both knew he’d be gone now in a very short time, he was like a candle burned down to the very end, his light becoming dim.
Fifteen years? I remember thinking. A senseless, brutal war for almost thirty-five years and fifteen years of peace at the end? It didn’t seem like a very good proportion.
Some time after he died the next day I realized, shit, fifteen years would have been pretty good. I’d take fifteen years.