Sunday, September 16, 2012

Happy birthday dad. I hate you, I love you.

A couple of days ago, I was talking to a reporter who is writing about the Great Ape Trust debacle. She had read a couple of my blog posts, and she wanted to know why I got involved, why I was blogging about the bonobos. "Are you concerned about conditions for captive apes?" she asked. Yes I am... just like the readers who come to the blog to catch up on the latest news out of Iowa. We all care. We all remember the first time we looked into an ape's eyes and recognized the depth of intelligence looking back at us. At that moment, we felt our kinship.

My moment happened because of my father. I fight for the apes because of what he taught me, good and bad. So I hope you'll forgive me for taking a day to reflect on the contradictions that still define my relationship with him. Even though he died 45 years ago, I want to send him this letter:

Happy birthday, dad. If you were still living, you’d be 88 years old tomorrow. Maybe it’s time you and I sorted out some things. Like how I hate you. And love you.
I hate you for your cruelty to animals, and how you would kill them for no reason. The snapping turtle in the bog, my kitten, probably my Easter chick… I hate you for using violence to “train” who knows how many of the 70+ Detroit Zoo chimps who came through the program while you were there. Did you enjoy hitting them, or was that just the accepted practice?… I hate you for your alcoholism, and for your drug use. I especially hate you for how I didn’t understand what booze and pills were doing to you, and because I didn’t know how to stop it... I hate you for the raging arguments at home. There was so much hatred between you and mom, and it wasn't fair that we kids had to suffer for it… I hate you for punching my kid brother and hitting mom, and for terrorizing the rest of us. I hate that I had to try to stop you, and that I rarely succeeded... Most of all, I hate you for killing yourself, and for doing it in front of me. That was proof to me, once and for all time, that you hated me back.
I love you for bringing chimpanzees into my life. Being the daughter of a chimp trainer, and being with you and the chimps at the Detroit Zoo, was magical. Despite your brutal training methods, I know you loved those chimpanzees… I love you for encouraging my love of animals. Do you remember the tiny tree toad that I took with us on a trip up north? You built a cross of Popsicle sticks for its funeral when it died… I love you for the times you stood up for me. No second grade teacher was going to turn me into a right-hander… I love you for being fun. My ribs hurt, just remembering the tickle sessions. And dancing the Twist with you on New Year’s Eve made me feel special... I love you because I am beginning to understand your childhood with alcoholic parents. Something happened to you, so that the Marines refused to take you in 1942 because, they said, you had PTSD. You were only 17 years old, and life was working against you from the beginning… Strangely, I have even learned to love you – mournfully but truly – for choosing your own escape from whatever demons were tormenting you. You finally and forever stopped your pain and, no matter how much it hurt me, I really can’t hate you for that.
Dad, there’s no one left who remembers your birthday. Your sisters are all dead. Mom never forgave you, and now she is gone, too. Art, the son you loved and abused, is gone – following in your dark footsteps. The other kids hardly remember you, and most of their memories are bad ones. I have those memories too, but, this year, I choose to remember the love. I want to honor that love. The best way I can think to do that, is to help the chimps you would have loved if you were still here. So, in your memory, I am making a contribution to the Center for Great Apes, a sanctuary for rescued chimpanzees and orangutans.
Happy birthday, dad. After all is said and done, I love you.


1 comment:

  1. WOW Dawn...
    Thanks for publishing that letter to your Dad.
    Very moving.
    I'm glad you have found some serenity in your life.