I blinked. “What?”
Abbu nodded. What could only be described as a bashful grin split his face in two. “Lytton,” he confirmed.
I furrowed my brow, incredulous.
Visiting Dad several times a week was high on my “To-Do” list these days, particularly if I wished to remain on his good side. In an effort to avoid mundane discourse between myself and the man who I’d always considered an enigma, I began shamelessly probing into his childhood, prying into his former life with long-standing questions. To my surprise, I was on the receiving end of rather long-winded responses.
It was bizarre to be handed the answers to things I had hopelessly concluded years ago that I would never learn — and effortlessly at that.
Today, I learned that my father’s childhood nickname had been Lytton. His parents affectionately referred to him as “Littu” after the former Viceroy of India, who governed the nation while it was still under British rule.
I looked at him. He had shaved his head recently. The first time I saw how brightly the top of his head shone was two years ago after he returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia having performing Hajj for the first time.
During Hajj, men are to shave off all hair clean off of their scalps. That trip was the first time in three decades that my dad left the country since arriving to the United States three decades ago. An odd undertaking for someone who spent the better part of his adult life working in the travel industry as a middleman for large businesses who sold airline tickets, serving as the agency’s most steadfast bookkeeper.
I couldn’t think of a more suitable career for someone like Abbu. He was quite possibly one of the most knowledgeable people I’ve ever known; even now, I often joke that the man is a walking encyclopedia. Yet most of what he knew came from literature, from media and conversation with those who had explored first-hand, not personal experience. He stood, an invisible line dividing book smarts with first-hand anecdotes
I had struggled with coming to terms with the stubborn attitude that he maintained as long as I knew, a finality that painted my own mental walls and one in which I fought against my entire life, determined to break free during “adulthood.” But the funny thing about this elusive adult life that we yearn for, the carefree stage in which we are convinced that we can finally be “free” of whatever prison came before it is that…we never quite transition into it the way we imagine it to.
At 27, I am, for better or worse, an adult. But I never foresaw that this period of time that I once believed would be free from the chains of childhood, would be spent deconstructing my past in vain.
My phone buzzed for the umpteenth time. I glanced at it impatiently: another missed call from Abbu.
Never mind that we had already spoken earlier that morning and that I had mentally crossed “talk to Dad” off my To-Do list; to my father, every new idea that popped into his head called for an urgent conversation, my personal responsibilities notwithstanding.
The adult relationship between South Asian parent and child is a curious one, if you presume that “boundaries” or “responsibilities” play any sort of role in the picture. This is usually due to unhealthy dynamics established that carry on long after childhood. Even after marriage or having children (neither of which I can attest to) many are still bound to their families in unhealthy ways unless they can successfully maintain a firm distance
The concept of adulthood is one that I’m beginning to realize that I never truly grasped the reality of, now that I’m on the other side. When I was still a child trapped by the decisions made by adults around me, I longed for a way to remove myself. For a chance to be my own person, independent of nonsensical norms and lifestyles. For a “normal” life, which is something I’ve always found myself quoting, never fully understanding what it meant.
There’s a massive difference between what we believe to be “normal” behavior and “healthy” behavior — yet they are co-dependent, the way a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle cannot be square.
Normal is nearly always subjective, fluidly evolving to align with the whims of whomever you’re asking.
Healthy, on the other hand, is rather fixed by definition — and I implore you not to argue otherwise. It can be tricky to understand healthy behavior, however, because of the vast valleys of gray area here. What’s normal to one person could be totally bizarre to another, but healthy? It all depends on what you normalized as you made your way through this world. Here’s a few ways unhealthy behaviors or coping mechanisms that build up over time only to manifest in adulthood, thereby become normalized because to some, they are normal:
Fight-or-flight reaction to perceived stress
Enmeshed boundaries/codependency in relationships (romance, family, friends)
Sometimes it gets confusing because a strange byproduct of these behaviors is that they can allow us to achieve the goals we set for ourselves. What if perfectionism forces someone to set unrealistically high standards that enable them to achieve one milestone after another? Do the ends justify the means? Are these things okay as long as we find some way to tame them so that it works for us? The lines start getting blurry when we ponder the ethics and end results.
You really can’t run from your past. In adulthood, boundary setting is important if you’re looking to be a well-rounded person. But before that comes recognizing which traits require a boundary to be set.
The relationship between parent and child is a particularly unique one, especially if boundaries were never real. That being said, suddenly becoming an “adult” by law — going off to college, getting a real job, becoming financially independent–doesn’t necessarily translate to our parents.
So the codependency is still there, but since are no longer the same people we knew each other to be, I find myself fumbling my way through this new relationship.
After achieving financial freedom, I no longer “needed” my dad. It’s what I yearned for my entire life — freedom. But I mistakenly believed that financial freedom translated to individual freedom. This is when the ramifications of a tumultuous upbringing — and codependent family relationships–steal back the spotlight.
Around this turning point in life is when my father experienced a slew of misfortunes: forced to retire early after his industry went bankrupt, had a massive stroke that led his health and motor functions to quickly deteriorate.
We’ve grown into two different people — and yet I found myself back at square one. I was finally at the finish line, only to realize that I’d been pushing against an invisible rubber band that snapped me right back to where I started: except this time around, my father was the one relying on me.
Talk about a role reversal.