I didn’t have a great relationship with my father when I was growing up. He was emotionally unavailable and he intimidated me. He was a scholar and I was always afraid to say anything to him for fear he’d think I was stupid. I am the only one of his children who likes to fish and so, often when we were on vacation in Canada, we’d get in the little motorboat and go out fishing together. I think one of the reasons he loved fishing is that it is such a solitary pursuit. Having me along didn’t change that. We didn’t talk. To me, the silence was uncomfortable. I’m sure to him, the silence was just fine.
I didn’t believe my father loved me. He had a relationship with my older brother and sister, but when I was born, my mother swooped in to claim me and my father and I never really had a chance of building a relationship. About a year before he died from complications of Parkinson’s disease, I went to visit him in his nursing home. It was a bad day for him – his Parkinson’s-related dementia was in full flower by then and he was in his own world the day of my visit. But I knew I had to tell him what was in my heart – and I did. I told him how I had always struggled with our relationship and never believed he loved me. And, as I talked, my words seemed to lift his fog. When I was finished, he looked at me and said, with total clarity, “You can’t honestly believe that.” I don’t remember the rest of our visit, but I knew it was a turning point for me. A few months later, not long before he died, during a visit to my hometown, my brother and I went to pick him up at the nursing home. As I walked in the door, he looked at me and said, “hi, honey; I love you very much.” He remembered our earlier visit and had made the connection back to a daughter’s need.
This is not to say that the anger and resentment I felt towards him dissipated. I would run into his former students and they would talk about how he changed their lives and I would think, “But what about me? Why wasn’t he there to change my life?” As a college president, my father had many students he nurtured and mentored. I think that was easy for him; harder for him was doing those things for his own children.
Several years ago, I visited my hometown for the rededication of the college’s performing arts center named for him. During both the black tie dinner and the formal convocation, nothing was said in any of the official remarks about my father, leading me to wonder why I, as his surviving child, was even invited. I was angry at the oversight but, for the first time in my life, my anger wasn’t about me and the fact that I, as my father’s daughter, was being overlooked; I was angry at the way my father was being ignored. Fortunately, the President of the Alumni Association, a former student of my father, realized what was happening and at both events made impromptu, but eloquent, remarks about my dad. After the rededication ceremony, I was speaking with a group of students and I thought, “How sad that these students didn’t have the benefit of Daniel Zachary Gibson as their President.” I started to feel love and pride for who my father was, instead of resentment for who he wasn’t.
This past weekend, I was in my hometown for a retreat with my fellow DC-based Unitarians and, while there, organized a joint luncheon with members of the local Unitarian church. One of the people in their group was a former professor at the college who began his teaching career 2 years before my father retired more than 40 years ago.
As we were sitting enjoying lunch, he turned to me and said, “Your father was a wonderful man. I served with seven presidents during my tenure at the college, and no one came close to your father. He was kind, loving and generous but decisive. Presidents have been loved or respected but your father was both loved and respected.” My eyes filled with tears – for my father, for whom I have never felt such love and pride, and for me, because I had finally purged myself of the old anger and resentment.
These days, I feel my father with me all the time. I know he is smiling down on me and calling me Punkin, just as he did when he was alive.