Imagine you’re standing at the edge of a canyon. The canyon is very wide, and deep, but you can make out the other side, and you can see the bottom. You really want to cross the canyon, but there’s no bridge. You can see someone across the way, and you know that if you could get something to them, a rope, that you’d be able to cross it. You’ve yelled at them your plan, you’ve thrown the rope across many times, but they don’t see it, or they can’t catch it, or they let it slip through their fingers. You keep dragging it back and throwing it across the canyon, hoping that they’ll catch it, so the two of you can try to build a bridge, even a simple one, so you can cross over and meet them, and they you. But no matter how many times you throw the rope, they can’t catch it. Sometimes it feels like they let it go on purpose, and sometimes it seems like there’s something or someone else deflecting the rope, but you don’t know. You just know that you’re getting tired of throwing the rope when they never catch it. You can see the broken remains of a bridge at the bottom of the canyon, and you remember a time when you used to be able to cross it, but that doesn’t help you now. You have people on your side of the canyon, who try to help, who sometimes throw the rope when you’re tired, who pull you back from the edge when you get too desperate or careless and almost fall. But you still want to get across the canyon, so you keep throwing the rope, over and over, hoping that this time, they’ll catch it.
This is the analogy I used this morning to talk to my therapist about my relationship with my father. It started simply, with me talking about the canyon between us and trying to throw the rope, and fleshed out quickly, every aspect of my relationship becoming part of it, the broken bridge as the remains of what our relationship was when I was a child, my feeling like I was always trying to reach him but he wouldn’t or couldn’t catch the rope, my mom and brothers on my side of the canyon, helping me. I talked about how if he’d just catch the rope, that then we could both start building a bridge. I took responsibility for my part of the bridge, saying I knew I’d have to meet him halfway. My therapist asked if I felt I could trust him to build his part. I said I don’t know, since he still won’t or can’t catch the rope. We talked about people in his life who might not want him to catch the rope, and how tired I was of trying to throw it when he wouldn’t catch it, and who might be across the canyon with him. I compared it to my relationship with my mother, a tiny but sturdy wooden footbridge over a small creak, where even if the bridge broke, I wouldn’t fall far, and it wouldn’t take much effort to fix it. She asked if my brothers ever threw the rope, and I said sometimes, although it didn’t seem that they did it as often as me. My mother couldn’t throw the rope, because he would never accept it from her, although she had tried a few times in the past. Mostly they were there to pull me back from the edge when I needed them, and to commiserate about the width and depth of the canyon. I talked about how I felt like it got wider and deeper every year, and sometimes I was just resigned to it, but other times I would start throwing the rope again, harder than ever.
The fact is, I love my father. I want to have a relationship with him. I call him regularly, far more often than he calls me. I try to visit, although the visits aren’t particularly pleasant. I invite him to come visit me, but he never has time, or never has money, or something. I want him to be part of my life, and to be part of his, even though I’m far away. But my arm gets tired, and I get discouraged. Sometimes I wish I could just stop throwing the rope. I look down at that broken bridge and remember how easy it seemed when I was a kid, how effortlessly we played, how happy I was to see him. I remember him being gone a lot and often being tired when he was home, and I remembered him yelling at me sometimes when I did something dangerous, because I’d scared him and he didn’t know how to show it except to yell. I remember playing with him and how happy we both were. I remember the nicknames he gave me.
I know that I can’t go back to my childhood. That bridge is broken, and it’s beyond repair. But I still want to build a new one. I still want to try to have a relationship with my father, because I love him. If I didn’t love him, it wouldn’t hurt so much that the canyon was between us. If I didn’t love him, it would be a lot easier to turn and walk away from the canyon. And sometimes, very briefly, when I see him or talk to him, I feel like he’s caught the rope for just a moment, things are like they were when I was a kid, and I think “maybe this time, we can build the bridge.” But then he lets it go, or it slips through his fingers, and I have to pull it back again, and every time, it seems to get a little heavier, a little harder to throw. But I haven’t given up yet. Maybe someday, he’ll be able to catch it. Maybe someday, we’ll start building the bridge, slowly. Maybe, someday, I’ll get to cross it again, and everything will be good.
All I can do is keep throwing the rope.