My Dad Belittled My Work For Years. Then I Received An Email That Told A Very Different Story.

My Dad Belittled My Work For Years. Then I Received An Email That Told A Very Different Story.

“Stop running naked through the streets, humiliating your family!” my dad emailed.

It was the eve of my birthday, and I’d just published a well-received, emotional New York Times essay about why I regretted never having children. After many friends and female students had let me know they’d found my words illuminating and helpful, I’d considered it a triumph. Now I stared at my screen, feeling like a failure who’d hurt the person I cared about most.

I was a happily married, popular teacher in my 50s who’d spent years in therapy with a paternal figure who’d helped me quit drinking and smoking cigarettes (a vice I’d shared with my real father). Yet now I morphed back into a little girl at the Michigan dinner table offering my opinion disagreeing with my brothers, shattered when my doctor father yelled, “Shut up, you’re stupid, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He’d always favored my three younger siblings, who were conservative Midwest science brains like he was. When I was a teenager, he hated my lefty politics, Bob Dylan albums, feminism, and penchant for provocative authors like Erica Jong and Phillip Roth. When I’d moved to New York to get my graduate degree at 20, he made fun of my confessional poetry, asking, “Ya gonna sell your poems on the sidewalk?” While initially impressed when I was paid for my humorous relationship pieces in women’s magazines, he’d sniffed that I was “freelance everything.”

“Your relatives aren’t your audience,” Dr. Winters insisted when I was 43 and Random House bought “Five Men Who Broke My Heart,” my sex, drugs and marriage memoir that they’d abhorred.

We’d spent hours analyzing how my father had emulated his own gruff Dad, my Grandpa Harry, who’d never forgiven him for not being a partner at “Shapiro & Son’s Window Shades” on the Lower East Side. He was the only Jewish parent in the world who wasn’t proud that his child had become a doctor. I feared my father had recreated his tumultuous relationship with his late older sister, Shirley, with me. She and my Grandma Yetta had died of breast cancer, one of the reasons he’d become a doctor in the first place. I looked so much like a young Shirley that when I posted an old family photo of her and my father on Facebook, the algorithm tagged me.

“You can tell your Dad that he can be proud of your accomplishment without loving your book,” my shrink told me.

My parents did fly in for my Soho launch party, though I’d overheard my cousin ask, “How are you holding up?” as if they were making a shiva call. Dad took to emailing, “We’re proud of the accomplishment.” I took to sharing a rule with my classes: “The first piece you write that your loved ones can’t stand means you’ve found your voice,” and as I kept publishing, I used a bio that said, “Susan Shapiro is the author of several books her family hates.”

Two years after he’d trashed my New York Times piece, I was surprised by an email from Olaf, my father’s doctor. “Your dad says you’re a best-selling author and generous writing professor who might help me,” he wrote.

Since my father was sick with a weakened heart and kidneys, I was on a plane, rushing back to Detroit to see him. Olaf wanted help publishing an essay. Confused and floored by the flattery from my cantankerous parent, I promised: “You fix my pop, I’ll fix your pages.”

Dad hated spending his 85th birthday as a patient at his old hospital. Though we brought cake and balloons, he was gray and listless. Worried, I texted Olaf, offering an editing session if he’d rush to my father’s room. I couldn’t weigh in on his treatment like my physician brothers. But Olaf could. Indeed, he discovered my father was being given the wrong dose of medication. He adjusted as I marked up his work. Dad was tickled when he later learned his favorite doc would be publishing his first essay in a magazine edited by one of my former students.

“What did you tell Olaf about me?” I questioned Dad after everyone else had gone.

“How proud I am of my daughter,” he answered.

“Why don’t you ever tell me that?”

I stayed for a few hours; it was rare to get time alone with my dad.

Sitting at the edge of his sickbed, I asked, “Why did you always say I was just like your sister, Shirley? Because I’m opinionated and not afraid to argue with you?”

“Because you’re sharp like her,” he said. “Shirley mostly fought with your grandfather. He wouldn’t pay for her college because she was a girl. It was especially unfair because Shirley was smarter than me. That’s why your mother and I swore all our kids ― girls and boys ― would get a great education. We’d go into debt if we had to.”

I was taken aback. Despite disparaging my creative ambitions, I recalled how he’d covered my tuition while I’d studied subjects he’d loathed so that I could find work I felt passionate about, with no financial burdens.

“Shirley’s illness and death were so tragic. I thought you were saying I was, too.”

“Of course you’re not tragic,” he told me.

Was that because my father had saved me, before I was even born?

“I’m sorry I was a disappointment to you,” I said quietly.

“What are you talking about? You stuck to your guns and became a big success.”

“I wish I’d given you grandchildren,” I confessed.

“I have a lot of regrets myself,” he admitted.

He’d never said that before.

“I should have kept teaching med school. But I was stubborn and my big mouth got me fired.”

“I have your big mouth and stubbornness, too,” I admitted. “Like Shirley.”

“It took me too long to make a good living,” he conceded. “I felt like a failure, switching jobs and moving your mother around so much before my career was solid, in my 40s.”

My father, a street kid who’d spent his teenage years carrying his father’s window shades up flights of broken tenement stairs, became a chief of medicine who adored his wife of 64 years, four kids and five grandkids, caring for his relatives, medically and fiscally. Seeing Dad as a prosperous powerhouse in our family’s rags-to-riches mythology, I was amazed that we’d both had a late-in-life inferiority complex.

After 19 days as a patient, Dad was strong enough to go home. I offered to extend my stay in West Bloomfield, but he needed some time and space to get reacclimated, he said.

Before leaving for the airport, I went to his den. He was sitting at his desk on the phone, wearing the black Nike tracksuit I’d bought him for his birthday, yelling at the insurance company about a bill they hadn’t covered. He was back! Overcome with relief, I started to cry.

“Don’t be sad for me, Susie,” he said. “Look, I’m 85. My wife, kids and grandkids mean the world to me. I have no regrets.”

“But at the hospital you told me all you regretted,” I reminded him.

“Oh, don’t believe any of that crap. They had me on too many drugs,” he insisted. “I got everything I wanted. I’ve had a great life.”

Thanks to my father, I had a great life too. I loved the way he withdrew his regrets as he stood up to give me a hug, not knowing it would be our last.

A few months later, before I had the chance to visit again over the winter holidays, my mother texted me to say Dad had been rushed to intensive care, in heart failure. She told me he’d recited Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” to the nurses and physicians, delirious from medication. I remembered when he’d first taught me poetry, testing me on stanzas. At three, when I’d repeated an entire poem he’d shared by heart, he’d kissed my forehead and said, “You’re so smart,” unwittingly sealing my fate. I thought for sure he’d pull through again. I was stunned when my oldest brother called to tell me we’d lost him.

At his funeral, I flashed to the night we’d attended a cousin’s wedding, after I’d finished graduate school. Dad and I both snuck out of the synagogue for a cigarette, our shared method of self-destruction.

“Why are you so against my writing career?” I’d mustered up the courage to ask him.

Buzzed on White Russians, he’d whispered, “You’re doing what I was afraid to.”

I knew he’d be thrilled that I’d helped Olaf find a publisher for his debut novel.

Susan Shapiro, a Manhattan writing professor, is the bestselling author/coauthor of books her family hates including “Five Men Who Broke My Heartand ”American Shield.” This is an excerpt from ”The Forgiveness Tour,” out in paperback in July. You can follow her on Instagram at @profsue123.

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