Because of the emotional abuse I endured from my father, affection hasn’t been something that’s easily shared between us.
Over the years I learned that the problem wasn’t with me. He’s not the fuzzy teddy bear sort, according to my mother. He embodied his favorite thing to say to me and my brothers: “I am your father. Not your friend.”
I’ve never received a “happy birthday” from him. And on his birthday, I usually just treat him the way I do on any other day and leave him to his own business. He’s happy with that.
But one year on his birthday, I tried to do something anyone might do for a family member—I gave him a hug and wished him a happy birthday. His response? He pushed me away. It left me feeling hollow, like I was no better than a piece of furniture that was in the way.
His response to any serious show of affection is either to push it away—as he did me on his birthday—or to answer with a cynical, sarcastic comment. It makes me never want to show him any affection, and so most of the time I just don’t. He’s not one who can open himself up in the first place, and frankly I’m too scared to try.
How could I share affection with someone who can’t? As his daughter, though, I’ve craved his love. Yet, there has been one bizarre way he and I have bonded over the years.
Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve had these two large stuffed animals: an orca and a Raggedy Ann doll. My father dubbed them “Willy Whale” and “Princess Sophie the Great,” and every now and then my dad would set them up around the house in funny situations.
It began with a tea set. I had set it up in my room only to be distracted by something or other. When I returned, there was Willy Whale, sitting as if he were sipping tea. It was such a bizarre moment, to see my big orca doing something he never would have—at least to my young mind—and it made me laugh to see it.
More bizarre still was the discovery that it was my father who put him there. In that moment, my father wasn’t the frightening person I always saw him as, but, surprisingly, someone I could be friendly with. I responded in kind a few days later with my own Willy Whale joke for my father to find. After that, Willy’s saga continued around the house, a joke shared only by my father and me.
Later on, Princess Sophie was introduced to the scene. Their escapades followed a sort of storyline much like that of Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog: Willy Whale was in love with Princess Sophie, but she would have none of him; some of the scenes my father and I created involved Willy Whale trying to win her. In one scene my father created Willy Whale was wearing a bow tie and Princess Sophie was in one of my frillier baby dresses—it was their wedding. The final installment was one of mine: The two of them with a little stuffed baby orca and a note that read: “And then there were three.”
The orca became a symbol of the bond between my father and me. When I turned thirteen, my mom gave me a charm bracelet, and one of the charms was a little orca. In this way, despite the emotional abuse and pain, Willy Whale and Princess Sophie the Great became a way in which my father and I were able to share affection.
My lack of an affectionate relationship with my father is still very painful, and there have been lasting effects that I’ve had to work to overcome and heal from. But the escapades of Willy Whale and Princess Sophie the Great showed me that despite his own shortcomings and inability to show me the love I craved, he did in fact care about me.