After 20 Years, I Want to See My Abusive Dad for His Money
Less than two months before my high-school graduation, my father told me he never wanted to see me again. He had received a summons that week and was furious that I had known but not warned him my mom was going to file a lawsuit against him.
The conflict involved a joint bank account my parents had set up for my future college education when I was a young child. For years, they mutually contributed to the modest savings plan. Yet after their divorce, a protracted and gut-wrenching break-up that gnawed away at my insides while I was on the verge of puberty in the sixth grade, only my mother continued to direct a slice of her earnings toward my schooling. Now that I was eighteen, the account had reached maturity. But my dad was refusing to sign the form that would allow my mom to apply the money to my tuition, books, and dorm expense. Consequently, she decided to press the issue through legal measures. From my perspective it was a messy affair the grown-ups should solve—not a situation that called for the engagement of a kid whose understanding of finances consisted of little more than knowing the price of a quarter pounder with cheese. My dad, however, felt differently. As a result, I would have to wave my diploma in front of only one proud parent clapping in the audience.
My father’s rejection was definitely a blow. Still, I shouldn’t have been surprised, given his track record. After all, this was a cruel man who had tormented me throughout my childhood, generating far too many indelible, piercing memories along the way. Like the time he went on a wild tirade through an entire wash cycle because I had splashed through a few puddles on my way home from school. Or the time he threw me into the bedroom after choking me in the hall, then a few minutes later called me out of the room to ask with a syrupy voice if he had hurt me, and finally screamed after I had nodded yes through my tears, “GOOD!” Or the time, as my mother came to a halt in the driveway to take me swimming after she had vanished for days to escape my father’s unending wrath, he slugged her so hard that she bit her tongue, oozing her warm blood onto the front seat. Or the time he verbally assaulted me, then 11-years-old, for not fighting the divorce my mother had recently put in motion. Or the time, while my parents were separated before the divorce was final, my mom and I checked into a motel for the night because she had received a call from her best friend saying she had just heard from my father, who had revealed he was on his way to murder us. Or the time I came home after a pony-league baseball game to discover my battered mother shivering and huddled in a corner after my father had broken into the house through the milk shoot to greet her with physical aggression. Or the Sundays he would pick me up after the divorce, speed 60-miles-an-hour down the residential street from my house with an expression straight out of a horror film, stop in a parking lot, then viciously explain to me that my mother was a pig and a whore who hung out with other pigs and whores. Needless to say, my dad was no Ward Cleaver.
Four years into my undergraduate studies, on the advice of the therapist I had been seeing since the previous summer, I reached out to my father, hoping to reestablish a bond. Things were better for a while. As a perceptive young adult about to graduate from college, I knew how to appeal to his narcissism while avoiding anything that might set him off—although he no doubt unconsciously believed he was, as always, in charge of our affiliation, I was actually the one controlling the relationship. But about ten years after our reconciliation, it was my turn to bid adieu. Due to some twisted episode he had fabricated in his mind, he maniacally lashed out at me over the phone as though I were his mortal enemy. Soon afterward, I wrote him to announce I would no longer tolerate such abuse and, therefore, would not be in contact with him until he began to act like a father. Apparently that was a concession he has been unwilling—or unable—to make.
Two decades have passed since I dropped my poignant letter to my father in the mailbox. Today, I am married and have a seven-year-old son. Lately I have been contemplating extending an olive branch to my dad once more. No, not because I want my boy to meet his grandpa. Nor do I myself miss the man who impregnated my mother. Instead, it boils down to only one thing: I just want his money.
A few years ago, I learned through my godfather who was still in touch with my dad that he is worth over a million dollars. A high-school dropout, my father eventually went to trade school and became an electrician. Once he mastered the skill, he started his own business as an electrical commercial contractor. Throughout his career he not only performed all the duties associated with ownership—bidding jobs, purchasing materials, coordinating projects, and so on—he actually did the bulk of the day-to-day tasks as well. My father would often walk into a super-size building and singlehandedly lay the conduit, push through the wire, put in the light fixtures, assemble the giant fuse box that channeled all the power, and apply the finishing touches, such as plugs and covers, for the entire edifice. During his time as a blue-collar entrepreneur, he never hired more than one full-time employee, occasionally pulling temporary workers from the union hall (naturally, he hated unions) when he faced an especially daunting assignment. By owning and managing a large-scale operation while minimizing labor costs and running the company out of his house, he was able to accumulate significant wealth and retire young. If there is one trait I have always admired about my father, it is his amazing work ethic.
While my dad was forever motivated by the Almighty Dollar and what it could buy (“The only test of a man’s IQ is how much money he makes” he repeatedly reminded me), I have always searched for employment that I felt could bring me a sense of meaning regardless of whether it commanded an impressive salary. (I certainly wouldn’t have spent eight years pursuing a PhD and be currently serving as a college professor in the liberal arts at a small school if this weren’t the case.) Likewise, I have never been the type of person who seeks handouts or devilishly schemes ways of bilking people for personal gain. Yet here I am, today, devising a plan to suck up to my father until he dies (now 72-years-old and a three- to four-pack a day smoker for much of his life, he could take his last breath any day), for no other reason than to be included in his will.
Does this make me a scoundrel? Am I guilty of a tiny (or even large) measure of hypocrisy? I admit, I feel considerably sleazy when I entertain the idea of following through with the manipulative act of embracing my father while slipping my hand into the wallet in his back pocket. But then I ask myself, Why shouldn’t I? The least the guy could do, after a lifetime of meanness and neglect, is grant me an inheritance. Having alienated every family member except his also-aging, dysfunctionally timid second wife, who else will he leave money to—the good folks at the local Tea Party headquarters? (Always bigoted and a staunch conservative, his early political heroes included Barry Goldwater and George Wallace.) The Glenn Beck Memorial Fund? (An aunt once told me that one of my cousins, while visiting my father, was thrown out of his house for debating with him over a FOX News show.) An anti-immigration society? (Wouldn’t you know it, my father actually lives in the great state of Arizona—Sun City no less, a town in which security officers roam the grounds looking for signs of children because the little, noise-making bastards are not allowed to live there.)
The ultimate justification for my dubious undertaking, though, is that I don’t want the money for me but for my seven-year-old son. Truth be told, I wouldn’t even be thinking of contacting my father and re-establishing a relationship were it not for my boy. Should I be willed a tall stack of his bank notes, I would invest it and someday use the accumulated amount for my kid’s college education. And this time, there would be no need for my dear ol’ dad—busy nourishing maggots six feet below ground—to sign any paperwork.