I loved my dad. I almost always felt safe with him while I was growing up. My earliest memories of being his daughter were… mostly wonderful. As little girls, my sisters and I often fought over whose turn it was to sit in his lap while he watched TV or listened to music. When it was my turn I relished every minute of it. I loved curling up against his warm body and feeling his strong arm wrapped around me. With my head leaned against his chest, I could hear his heart beat. I loved hearing his heart beat. It was loud and strong and inexplicably soothing. I also loved hearing him sing. My dad had a beautiful voice. As much as I loved leaning against his chest, it was hard to do that while he was singing. The percussion of his booming voice inside his chest was almost enough to burst my eardrum. But rather than get off of his lap I would just raise my head an inch or so, so I could still feel the love and warmth of sitting in his embrace.
When I was a little girl, my daddy was my hero. I adored everything about him. I happily spent hours outside watching him work on the family car. I tried not to notice that he didn’t seem to be very good at it. No matter how much time and effort he invested in “fixing” or “tuning up” our cars they still sounded like tanks, still spewed black smoke like a locomotive and were still prone to stalling out at stop signs and traffic lights. But if the amount of grease and oil on his hands and face were the measure, my dad was a great mechanic. In my eyes, he was great at everything!
If you asked me to describe my dad when I was a child I would have told you he was the smartest and greatest man on earth. He was loving, tender, thoughtful and handsome. He seemed to genuinely care about us and what made us happy. But that wasn’t all that was true about my father. It was also true that he had been a violent alcoholic who suffered prolonged bouts of depression. The darker side of my father cut a swath of destruction that crippled the people in my family. No matter how tightly I held onto the highlights reel, the truth is that who he was as a father set a tragic trajectory for our lives.
There was no escaping the truth or the consequences. There were eight children in my family. Four are already dead and one will spend the rest of his life in prison.
I tried to understand my dad and give him grace. I suppose it would be fair to say that what I was really doing was looking for excuses for him. I simply couldn’t reconcile the things that broke my heart with the greatness I wanted to ascribe to him. Long after my mother divorced him and my siblings gave up on him, I still tried to hold on.
It was when I became a parent that I stopped making excuses for him. Knowing that there was nothing I wouldn’t do for the benefit and welfare of my own children I could no longer reconcile the many ways that he let us all down. Ultimately, I gave up on him too.
Though we had been estranged for several years, I was with him when he died in 2002. I held his hand and wept as he slipped away. Not only because he was dying, but because his dying meant that there was no more time for him to change. No more chances for him to become the father we always wanted and needed him to be. No more chances for reconciliation. In a way his death was his biggest abandonment of all. I wasn’t bitter but I was bereft.
Grief is a terrible thing. When coupled with so much brokenness … the grief is never ending.
Over the years, a larger picture of my dad came into focus. He was one of five children. Losing his father in a lumbering accident when he was only four years old was just the first of the many tragedies my dad would endure.
I don’t know my grandmother’s story very well, but I do know that she drove her five young children to the outskirts of town and left them under a tree. She said she was going into town and would come back for them later. She didn’t. The five children were all alone without food and with only the shelter a maple tree could provide. The oldest, my aunt, was only eleven or twelve. My dad was four years younger than her. The youngest was a six month old baby girl. For days the oldest two did what they could to care for the rest. They took turns going into to town to steal what they could to eat. Ultimately someone noticed and called child welfare. My father and his siblings were rescued…only to be sent to live in orphanages. The youngest were taken in by families but the older kids languished in an institution for years. He had lost his father and now he had no mother. He decided there could be no God either.
When he was barely sixteen, to escape the orphanage, my father lied about his age, forged some papers and joined the army. After a few weeks of basic training he was off to kill or be killed in war. He may have been physically able but in the ways that mattered most, he was too young to go to war. So young that even though he survived it physically, he was devastated psychologically.
My dad told us a lot of stories about his time in the military. Most featured himself as a great soldier but there was one that was awful to hear. Every time he told it there was a shadow that filled his eyes. I sensed that he was seeing the scene play out in his mind as he spoke. His squad had stopped for some rest and a quick bite to eat. He and his best buddy sat next to each other on a barricade made of sand bags. Halfway through his sandwich the sound of a distant rifle blast and the whooshing sound of a bullet flew right past his nose. He turned to see if his buddy had heard it too. But his friend was slumped over and dead. The bullet that had so narrowly missed my father had hit his friend right between the eyes.
No one knew what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was back then. I’m not sure our society would have offered the appropriate sympathy even if they had. Men were only allowed to be strong and brave. No other emotions allowed. Real men sucked it up and carried on.
It was only in putting my father’s history in context with my own that I found out what I needed to know. What can the world expect from a person traumatized at an early age and robbed of all connection and emotional support families are meant to provide? What does family even mean to someone who has no framework or foundation for understanding it? Add to that the crippling psychological pain of PTSD… and Depression… and copious amounts of alcohol to wash it all away. Wrap it all up in the belief that there is no God and no redemption and no purpose in any of it. What kind of a husband is he capable of being? What sort of Father can we expect a man like that to make? The one I got.
I know in my heart that my father would have been the great man my 5 year old self believed him to be…if he was able to. But how can I harbor anything against him now? I can’t. I grieve for both of us. Neither one of us got what we needed in our childhood. Neither one of us got the Father we deserved.
Maybe you had an awesome childhood with a wonderful father. If you did I’m genuinely glad. But maybe there is someone else in your life that makes you relate to my story. Who is it that broke your heart? Who let you down? Who have you given up on? I bet if you could know how and why they came to be such a person your anger might be replaced with compassion.
We all carry both light and darkness within us. Unless someone is actually evil (and that is hardly EVER true) the things they do to hurt others comes from a deep well of insecurities, gaping wounds and pain we don’t understand. The same holds true for all of us. Whether we realize it or not, it’s those broken places in us that cause us to hurt others.
“Hurt people, hurt people” as someone once said.
In Luke 6:37 Jesus said, Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
I suppose the saddest thing about my dad was that he never knew the healing power of the Holy Spirit in his life like I do. It’s hard for me to not anguish over what could have been.I know it was the Grace of God that changed the trajectory of my life. And by His Grace I was given the time to share that with my dad just before he passed away.
I held my father’s hand and did my best to lead him to our Lord. I have talked to a lot of people about Jesus over the years. I don’t know if I’d ever win awards for eloquence but I always try to make the moment as beautiful as it feels in my soul. This time the words were all tangled up in the heart of my five year old self. “Jesus is here for you dad. Nothing else matters anymore! He loves you and He wants to forgive you. Do you want that, Dad?” …By this time my father was no longer able to speak or open his eyes; but he could still respond with facial expressions. “I want you to go to heaven, Dad. I want to see you there some day. Do you want to go to heaven, Dad?” I watched him raise his eyebrows and form an expression I’d seen a thousand times before. ‘Well, why not?’ Of course I don’t know that for sure. I do hope though. I pray that I’ll have the chance to celebrate Father’s Day with a father who’s been healed, made perfect and filled to overflowing with joy.
In His love and service,