“Others call me a mystique Marxist; I call myself a Marxist mystique.”
To depict my father justly seems like an impossible task. Anyone who likes categorizing people into boxes is up for a challenge.
He was strong and weak, humorous and harsh, trivial and profound, charismatic and hermetic, sensitive and callous, ideological and philosophical, enticing and grouchy, perfectionistic and complacent, always fighting for a greater cause and self-absorbed.
He could also be described as intractable. He was like a child, albeit an insightful one, that never quite grew up.
I could easily depict him as a dark and unalluring figure; I could easily depict him as a charming and perspicacious one.
There’s a saying in Spanish, “Todos somos malos en una historia mal contada.” We’re all bad in a story badly told. I don’t wish to tell a bad story of him, but a nuanced one, one that includes bringing his darkness to the light.
After his death, I suffered a desperate need to know more about him. And so, I started collecting stories. A bit of a challenge due to his hermetic nature.
Stories I didn’t know from before: from his childhood, from his youth, from the village and community he grew up in, which I knew so very little of. The time when his idealistic spirit was formed.
All he aspired for, all that he wished and longed for — from the beginning to the end — is what I choose to mostly define him for. He was a dreamer and a searcher. And he was one of those who lost himself on the way.
He was a storyteller, with an eye for the details of life. In his youth, he was a much-beloved uncle, someone who preferred the wild imagination of the kids to the dry adult conversations.
I was fortunate to come in touch with branches of the family I never knew before. My father cut off contact with most of them when I was six — due to a long-going inheritance conflict, seemingly unjustly distributed after his father’s death — and I didn’t see any one of them again after the age of eight or so.
After his death, my estranged relatives helped to fill in a few of the many missing pieces to his life. Stories, photographs, and some old letters of his. Letters that stirred me to the core. He may have failed brutally, but he was a writer at heart, a singular writer, which meant he hadn’t been all talk.
Besides that, my uncle had written a book about the little village and peculiar community they grew up in. Which I fortuitously was given by my father before he died.
Lessons learned from my father
Already as a kid, he was an avid reader and an astute mind, who liked to keep to himself. Of his eight other siblings, he was closest to his subsequent younger brother, who tended to follow his every step.
He was a loner but also a playful person. And he loved to play tricks on others, especially on a few selected [victim] siblings. There was never a lack of imagination.
And that part of him never faded. That made him exciting to be around. I always longed for him, his stories, and our little forest adventures on our fortnights’ meetings.
His mischievous side made him somewhat unpredictable and perhaps that’s part of why women often found him alluring. (Even in his most unkempt and degraded state…)
He adored his mother, but he couldn’t get her recognition to the extent he needed and craved. She was busy maintaining all the housework, as well as the barn, the cows (whom she all had named), and other animals.
Only the family cooking would take up many of the daylight hours. She was kind and loved her children deeply, yet she was always a bit emotionally distant. From everyone, really. The other women of the village several times made great efforts to get her included in their activities: but even when she did join, she would keep herself apart.
His father was aloof and distant from his children. As a local politician, he was always working and often away. The only thing he ever thought about was politics. When he was there — at home and with the family — he wasn’t really there. He couldn’t bond with them. I think he never once hugged any of his nine children. (At least, I’m pretty certain, not my father.)
It seems he didn’t care or did he just not know how to care?
Was it related to his own mother’s death, perhaps? Who died when he was only six. Did he not get that emotional safety, and thus never learn to provide it to anyone other? I don’t know.
My father despised his own father. He often spoke about him and his narcissistic self-obsession. Nothing he did to get his attention was sufficient: he always seemed indifferent.
The absence of early-age attention ingrained a sense of lack in my father. He was intelligent and had a quite tough outer shell, but underneath it, he was clueless about his own emotions and his emotional needs.
He didn’t know how to trust or rely on others. And he couldn’t give to others what he himself was lacking.
Without Trust Nothing Stable Can be Built
How he contended with his own highly sensitive and intense emotions was shying away. It was easier to be angry when others left. Thus, things and relationships withered away, even the one with his only child.
He sought “the solution” to life—from an adolescent age and thenceforth—in politics, in communism, to be more specific. (His father’s politics was pragmatic and locally focused, while my father was always idealistic. Their political views were, indeed, divergent.)
He was radically indignant with all the injustice in the world. He fought for the poor and vulnerable. What I most admired him for as a child. But the woes and miseries slowly accumulated in his own life.
There were ever more injustices to fight. Deceptions, hypocrisy, corruption, and all the other bad things people did (especially the rich and powerful): became stories running on repeat within him. They became like mantras echoed in his mind (and to me). He was quick to judge others but slow to forgive. He didn’t know how to let go of things: so they grew to monsters within. He thought he fought for a better world by blaming people and society for their flaws.
Though his incentives were overwhelmingly genuine, he paid little heed to his own actions and behavior.
His political ideology increasingly absorbed him, while his own life was crumbling apart as he couldn’t maintain either personal relationships or his own health. The inflammatory bowel was a life-long bother, though, I believe, but a fraction as painful as his more diffuse mental struggles.
He was a writer and thinker since juvenility and on, but he didn’t dedicate himself to that seriously until around middle age or so. There was a bitterness for having started off on the wrong track. He’d increasingly self-isolate to focus on his writing. Though too much of only one thing [and only one mind] can become detrimental.
He knew he was talented but missed the guidance he needed to hone his gift. He’d oscillate between grandiosity and helplessness. The creative’s battle to overcome himself, only another creative can understand, I suppose. He tried hard, really hard, but his own darker emotions consumed him evermore. He sought escape and he sought to blame. And the narcissism he condemned his father for, he failed to look for, also within.
The harshest I will say might be this: he made himself a victim. Perhaps it’s not fair to say. Perhaps his environment attributed him that role. Perhaps it was his (our) sensitive genes. Perhaps life just isn’t all that fair. Or perhaps it’s a mix of many factors, one of which — big or small as it may — would be his own volition. Really, I don’t know. But I feel like he could have taken his life in another direction, but it was easier sticking with the anger and blame. Then he wasn’t responsible, someone or something else always was. And he kept searching for that which was to blame, till the end of his days.
I will also say that he was unaware of what he was doing. And he didn’t mean to cause anyone harm in his obsession. He was clueless about how to deal with his own emotions. He never got the guidance he needed and he never learned it later on. So even if he indeed loved, he didn’t know how to express that love. He was afraid of love. He was afraid to be vulnerable with others. He didn’t know how to trust.
He showed me affection by giving me the little he had. Had he had more, he would have given me much more. But what I craved and desperately needed was the same as he needed from his own father: his attention and fatherly role. Someone who also had expectations of me. Someone who demanded of me to do better and try harder. Someone who believed in and encouraged me. And someone I could turn to and rely on.
We carry — and are guided by — our wounds and traumas, generation after generation until we become aware of them. They weigh down our backpacks and hinder us from becoming our true potential. Destructive patterns rule us, as long we don’t understand them. That can go all the way to the grave, as the case was with my father.
On the day of his 71st birthday, I found out he was sick [you may guess with what]. This was January 19th of this year, 2021. He had only just been vaccinated.
It came from nowhere.
I Was Left In Shock and Feelings of Impotence
All of a sudden I found out not only that he was sick, but that he was in the ICU and unconscious. While I was furthest away, in another continent.
Again I wouldn’t be there when he needed me.
It was something I had feared for so long. His health was so fragile.
I had to prepare for the worst (not that I knew how to specifically). I couldn’t hope that he would make it. But I also foresaw it was unlikely his body would be strong enough to fight. His, by then, so frail body and mind. So tired. Only a 15-minute conversation would exhaust him. I feared he wouldn’t have the will or power to fight to continue.
Feelings of shock and despair were intermixed with gratitude. Because only a year earlier had we reunited, after more than a decade apart.
I’d been terrified of seeing him again. It’s hard to explain, even to myself. I wasn’t afraid of him as a person. I knew he wouldn’t intentionally hurt me. He never did. He always only did so unintentionally.
I was afraid of seeing my weakened father. I was afraid of him needing me. And that I couldn’t [or wouldn’t] take care of him. I had indirectly decided to “save myself” instead; though, the guilt that came with that I could never rid myself of.
I was afraid of his anger and resentments. I was afraid he hadn’t changed. I was afraid his indignation would also [still] be directed towards me.
I had overcome so many things I couldn’t imagine I’d ever do: and here I was more frightened than ever, for meeting with my own father.
I thought I could escape. Start over. Forget my wounds. But I noticed a returning pattern in my life, especially in my romantic relationships: which I didn’t want to own up to. So I blamed them. I felt like a victim to this cruel world. Then I realized … I was doing the same as he: blaming others.
Not looking at myself, and the hole I was trying to fill. And the sort of people I was clinging to, people who were rather (grandiosely) self-absorbed. Those were the ones I desperately wanted to be loved by. (You unconsciously seek what is familiar.)
Things are repeating themselves. Roles we play over and over again, while only changing the masks we wear. We fool ourselves that it’s different this time or will be next time. But it never is.
Not until we also look at and within ourselves.
What am I searching for? What am I lacking? What am I running from [and to]? What is my role in the drama?
Until we become aware of our unhealed wounds, they’ll clandestinely govern us. And there’s rarely any scarcity of the rationalizations we tell ourselves.
At least, that’s what I found within myself.
I could stop repeating my patterns only when I confronted my unhealed wounds, instead of trying to run from them.
A meeting was planned with my father. The fearful voices in my head were speculating widely about what could go wrong and they doubted my capacity of handling it. I was looking for an excuse or escape, but this time I wouldn’t let these voices control me.
As it turned out, my father couldn’t be more grateful when the moment arrived. I called him to let him know I was coming, only to be overwhelmed to hear the sheer joy in his voice when he knew he was really going to see me. And when we met, he even asked to hug me.
He, like his father, hadn’t been very good at displaying affection. To be fair, it wasn’t only them: it was also related to the culture of upper Norrland [the most northern part of Sweden], which is overall quite emotionally distant.
Though, as I remember, when I was a little child he was much more affectionate and I used to thrive in his presence. It was around my early adolescence, for different reasons, we successively started growing more and more apart.
Nothing is more uncanny than meeting your father who’s become a stranger. Even his voice was unfamiliar. I heard his salient Finish-Swedish accent, and I remember wondering to myself, was it like that before, had I forgotten, or had it returned in his later years?
Even at the age of 70, his hair remained flaxen blonde. He looked in better condition than I had imagined. His inflated, bulging waistline, precipitated from his drinking, was now only a slight bump. He said he had quit drinking. Almost quit.
Only a few beers then and again. Actually, I believed him. Despite the familiar slight odor of his body. He still drank, but not much. I wanted to be lenient with him; I imagined him to be nervous enough to meet with his estranged daughter after more than a decade apart. I was terribly nervous too. So much so I almost wished he would have canceled like he so often would before. (Then it wouldn’t be my fault…)
His body was weak and tired, his mind was intense but rapidly exhausted, his memory fading and lapsing (they called it alcohol-related dementia), but what was sorely remaining was the fierce spark in his eyes and his unique sense of humor and will to make jokes at his own expense.
He apologized for the lack of father he had been. He already had in his letters.
We had been writing to one another for a few months. With the help of his younger brother, as I was far away on another continent and he didn’t have, nor could handle, a computer. He sent handwritten letters to his brother who transcribed them into emails. Then I, in turn, wrote him emails via his brother, who, by “normal mail”, sent them on to him.
It’s amazing how powerful a genuine apology can be. I needed that acknowledgment. I can’t explain why. As it seems, for my sanity, perhaps. Perhaps it meant that my pain had been valid too. That he wasn’t the only victim in the drama. That he recognized that also he had responsibilities.
So he did what his own father never did: he owned up to his mistakes. Not easy for a proud and stubborn enough man, but he did.
And that apology made it possible for us to reconnect. Not in a sense that it was all roses and heavenly blue sky, but in a sense that — however incredibly imperfect our situation was — somehow he and I were ok. And that is something I will be grateful for till the end of my days.
The day after his 71st birthday I was thinking and writing about him. I wished I could have been there by his side, hold his hand, and let him know he wasn’t alone.
Then I found out that that was the moment he passed away.
In a hospital bed, from an unconscious state, alone.
Did he feel my presence? Did he feel that he and I were in peace? Did he leave in peace?
I wish he wouldn’t have to have died alone. But maybe, just maybe, he felt my presence.
Maybe it was his time to go, to rest.
My father once said, “ There is only one must in this life, and that is that we must die.”
And so I learn from him, from the good and the bad, and try to make the most of this short life. I want to honor his memory, and also learn from his mistakes.
Tack pappa, för, trots allt, var det du, till sist, den som såg mig, och den första som trodde på mig och mitt skrivande. Du blev min gnista till att ta språnget.