I picked up my phone one day in late September to wish my father a happy birthday. It was a soupy west coast morning and I knew the window to reach him was closing. A nine-hour time zone difference between Vancouver to Croatia added to our disconnect, but I knew summers spent by the Adriatic Sea brought joy to my parents, who were in the sunset of their lives. So from my office desk, distracted from ideas and people that really mattered, I’d expected a brief, ordinary and dispassionate birthday call with my dad, as was his way.
But during that phone call something extraordinary happened. Towards the end, my father found the courage to say three words I’d never heard from him before in my 41 years of life: “I love you.”
The moment lingered as if in slow motion, overpowering my senses, throwing me off guard. I was speechless. But I mustered up the courage to say the words back to him: “I love you too, dad.” Words I’d not been able to say to him either. Not ever.
It was a lot to process in the moment, without the time-delayed shelter of text or email. And while, according to google maps, he remained 8,967 km away, in that moment we’d never been closer. Personal growth, I realized, truly is possible at any age, even in the face of childhood trauma. This was one of my father’s many lessons.
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Our Parents Are People, Too
Long ago, in a poor eastern European village with no running water, electricity, or local stores to buy groceries, my father experienced what must be a child’s greatest fear: He, along with three young siblings aged 6 – 11, were near abandoned by their parents for several years.
My grandmother’s life-threatening illness left her in a distant hospital for more than two years. Our grandfather had become both caregiver, spending most time away from home at the hospital, and breadwinner, as he was also in charge of making an income. He was unsure of his wife’s survival, if they’d have enough money to make it through, or how damaged his children would become from the ordeal.
Eventually grandma recovered and the family reunited. But whatever damage took place remained unspoken, for almost a lifetime.
While a scenario like this was enough to damage any child, there was another form of trauma taking place during this time, and the years that followed: My father never heard the words “I love you” from his dad. Not once in the 60 plus years of his own father’s life did he hear those words. There was little to no affection shown either. “It just wasn’t in him to give, or show,” as my father tried to explain.
The cycle continued. My father’s ability to express love for his children was at best, lukewarm. Nor did he find us a priority in his life. Something he’d grow to regret later.
Sadly, at my sister’s wedding, and then my wedding a decade or more later, my father came up to speak, and included an apology to us both for not being a better father. Words he did not need to say, but felt it necessary anyway.
My sister and I have long forgiven him for the things he never did. Instead, we appreciated the fact that he chose to stick around in the days he probably wanted to leave.
Sometimes as children we forget or can’t fathom that our parents are people, too. That they have their own issues, regrets, and are still processing the life they came from, the life that never was, or the fathers they wish they could have been.
It’s Never Too Late to Express Your Feelings
My father’s childhood trauma impacted the man he became, adding stressors and handicapping his relationship with his own children. Back then, in the 80’s and 90’s when we grew up, there wasn’t much on the topic of trauma, or how to even identify its existence within a home.
But today there is an ever-growing field of research and understanding in the subtle yet repetitive impacts of trauma, shedding new light on a dark subject.
What we know today is that parents with severe trauma as children may also have an adverse behavioral impact on their children, which has the potential to continue generation after generation.
The silver lining lay in the importance of understanding that if nothing is done, trauma will repeat itself, highlighting the need to take action, to seek help, and to begin discussing those experiences with the loved ones in our lives. Because thankfully, the cycle can be broken.
In my father’s situation, his healing started just a few years ago, when he opened up about his childhood to us. This led to breakthrough moments like the extra warmth he now shows his us from time to time. And to saying things like “I love you,” which seemed impossible before.
Now, whenever I speak to my dad over the phone, I do my best to say “I love you.” I still struggle saying it every time. Breaking age-old thought patterns is never easy. Progress can feel glacial at times, but the sheet of ice is moving, and melting to warming all our hearts.
Trauma, it turns out, is not something that owns you. It is something any of us can work to first understand, and then gradually begin to overcome.
Joy Trumps Success
When I was a kid, I’d wake to the sound of my father working in the garage behind our house, every Saturday morning. Without fail, regardless of the season, we’d hear whirling, cutting, hammering, and drilling from his myriad of worn-out construction tools while the rest of us slept.
“It’s Saturday morning mom!” I’d protest regularly. But she would just calmly reply, “It’s okay. Your dad is happy. He’s doing something he loves on his day off. You’ll understand someday.”
But I didn’t understand. How could someone love hammering away in a garage on a Saturday? Where was the fun in that? What was I missing?
Years later, I’d grow into a young man, finish University, discover love and heartbreak. I’d move overseas, live and work in London, England, and settle in Vancouver, Canada. I’d become a consultant, pushing myself hard in the corporate world, placing all my energy, determination and hard work into that world. Early days and late nights. I’d created more financial wealth then I thought I ever would in my life at a relatively young age. On the surface, everything should have been perfect. But something was missing.
I remembered what my mom had said long ago over a bowl Captain Crunch Cereal, that our father, with what little free time he had, did something he loved each and every Saturday morning in the garage. Dad didn’t do it for the money. He did it because he loved it. It was a simple pleasure for him, to build and create beautiful things. And that I could understand.
So just over two years ago I started doing what I loved. In 2017 I took a break from the corporate world and I founded my own website, an online magazine of sorts, filled with real life stories, interviews, and simple life lessons that focus on personal development and career advice.
I founded the website because the world need more good in the world. But honesty, I created the website because I love to write.
Writing is my flow. It pushes my creative limits, develops my skills, and brings a feeling of joy that’s hard to describe. Time loses meaning. And after a productive session, my cup feels full for hours. Now I can’t wait for Saturday mornings, for the same reason my father did.
Goran Yerkovich is a Writer and Founder of The-Inspired.com. When he’s not writing he’s thinking about the next story he should be writing. He lives in the greater Vancouver area with his wife Sylvia and two cats Kimchi and Kauai.