You hate my father-in-law.
I hate to say it, but it’s true. All those days you were offering me thoughts and prayers and holding my family in your virtual arms as we worked through his illness and death, you were hating him too. You didn’t know it, because you didn’t know him; you know me, and that was good enough for you. And I appreciate that. I truly do. The love and support of the internet communities around me have been invaluable to me throughout my adult life, and these most difficult times are no different.
But it’s true. And how do I know it’s true? Because I’ve seen what you say about him. I’ve seen the vitriol you level at him whenever he does, well, anything. Pontificates. Votes. Has opinions. Dismisses the opinion of those around him. Walks down the street wearing political attire. You’re really not a fan, to put it mildly, of anything about him. You sent your love to me, but even as he took his dying breaths you were hating him, and I think you should know that.
How do I know that?
Let me tell you about my father-in-law.
My father-in-law was born in 1946, a true baby boomer whose father had just returned home from WWII. He fought in Vietnam in 1968 and bought a Corvette when he returned that he lovingly maintained until the end of his life. He served in the Army for 23 years, and when he retired he took various Department of Defense contractor jobs with some of the biggest names in the business. He lived a comfortable white suburban life, leading booster clubs, filming every one of his sons’ sports competitions, going to the beach every summer. In retirement he played golf twice a week and spent the rest of the time renovating his house. He ran twice for state congress and was a diehard Republican. He was the head of his household in every respect except the rearing of children. He was rich. He was important within his circles. In his dying days, he wanted to watch Fox News.
Let me know if that’s not enough for you.
Let me tell you — it’s okay that you hate him. Let me tell you about someone I — well, hate is a strong word, but I really, really, really don’t like him.
He’s a professor at a local university. My husband has taken multiple classes from him because he’s the only one who teaches my husband’s subfield. He’s almost always late for class and has no regard for time management or class duration. The very last session of the very last class my husband took with him ran one hour and ten minutes over its proscribed end time. His grading is vague and unhelpful and nearly always late, to the point where the dean told him he had to enter at least one grade in the gradebook before the drop date so that students could make an informed decision about whether or not to drop. He never returns the papers he grades, so it’s impossible to know what he looks for in a paper. He constantly pressures students to do research with him. And of course he has tenure, so there’s nothing anyone can do about him. And did I mention his complete disregard for time? For a wife at home with two small children, dealing with bedtime on her own twice a week, reading “still here” in a text message twenty minutes after class ended is enough to send me face-first into a pillow of despair while my children use me as a trampoline.
But let me tell you about my husband’s professor.
He’s an old, old, old man. He loves his work. He loves his field of study. He constantly tells his students, “There is just so much to do! There is just so much to learn! We must talk about this because it is so interesting!” He’s a widow. His only child lives a thousand miles away. He lives alone in a little house in my corner of suburbia with his books and his stacks and stacks of eventually-to-be-graded papers, but he spends most of his waking hours at the university. His work is his life, and he just has a little trouble understanding that it is not the lives of everyone around him. He might be lonely; I don’t know. I just know he loves what he does, to the point that he will probably drop dead doing it.
I tease my husband about Stockholm syndrome when he talks fondly about this man, but the truth is we are all imperfect, all have our vices and habits that make us unlovable if not downright hate-able. I can choose to be endlessly annoyed with a professor or I can choose to adjust my expectations and greet my husband’s half-hour-late “on my way” text with gratitude that he’s only half an hour late, that he’s coming home at all. I can spend my energy disliking a man for inconveniencing me or I can do. . .well, literally anything else. And I have two small children and a lot of loving to do, after all.
I understand that my father-in-law’s sins are far greater in your eyes. I myself struggle with his decisions, his way of approaching the world, the truths he considered inviolable. Ours was a mutual affection based more in its having a mutual object, namely my husband, than any understanding we reached during our comparatively short relationship in this world. He forced me to confront, again and again, the reality that simply because someone does something differently does not mean they are wrong — but I very often considered him wrong, as well. He did and supported things I find intolerable and occasionally dismissed me in a way that I could only construe as being based upon my gender, which especially infuriated me. And I spent the first half of 2017 struggling between my desire to keep family peace and my desire to shout about recent national elections until he apologized on behalf of his entire generation.
- 6th Annual Young Alumni Essay Contest
- 1st Place: “Mendelssohn on the beach," Edward Jacobson '13
- 2nd Place: “Rodent," Gretel Kauffman '16
- 2nd Place: “I just happened to be there," Rachel Plassmeyer Bené '10
- HM: "Playspace," Laura Andrews '10
- HM: "Wherever we are," Jacqueline Cassidy '15, '16MSM
- HM: "A love letter to the internet," Johanna Kirsch Wilson '10
- HM: "Summer magic," Victoria McQuarrie '12
- HM: "Father-daughter time," Stephanie Nguyen '09
You hate him. I get it. I do. But when we hate people who do hate-able things we change nothing. We learn nothing. We fail to be vulnerable and lose the opportunity to perhaps provoke vulnerability in the ones we most hope to change. And as much as the internet claims to value vulnerability — as much as we all seek to consume each other, to be devoured so long as it also means we are loved — the internet prefers simplicity, prefers one-dimensional caricatures to be loved or hated and then dismissed as it drifts towards the next meal. We hide behind transitory affection and combustible hatred and we pat our backs for liking the right people and we revel in hating the wrong people; and at the end of the day we hide from the reality of what that hatred does to us and we hide from the shameful reality that the objects of our self-congratulation are not objects but people — and if people, then people we ought to love.
Let me tell you about my father-in-law.
He loved his wife, deeply, tenderly, protectively. He loved his sons, was proud of them, devoted his not-inconsiderable resources to providing for them any and every thing they might need to be successful in this life. He loved not only his country but also the soldiers of the country in which he served, fighting side-by-side with them as a brother-in-arms as they tried to save their country from the communists. He loved his four siblings, though states apart, who were all as close as they’d been as children, supporting each other through the trials of life and loving each other’s children and grandchildren as their own. He loved classic science fiction and Westerns for their stories, and he loved golf because it’s one of the few sports where the only person you’re playing against is yourself. He loved steak and potatoes and Schnäpse and sausage gravy. He loved improving his home because he loved welcoming people into it, creating a space where they might enjoy good food and good liquor and good company, where they might find community and love.
And in the end, when he was thin, and weak, and voiceless; when others had to serve him, as he’d always served them; when he lay snug and warm beneath the quilt his mother had made him some sixty-odd years before; he was a human being, as all of us are human beings. He passed from this life as we all must, in the space between one breath and — none. And we prayed him home to heaven, where all our petty earthly differences won’t matter (and how hard that is to accept, when they still matter so much to me); where I hope to see him again someday; where we will love perfectly, as we are perfectly loved.
All my love,
Johanna Kirsch Wilson's essay received an honorable mention in this magazine's 2018 Young Alumni Essay Contest. Kirsch Wilson is a wife, mom and writer living in Huntsville, Alabama (and in various corners of the internet).