(Blogger’s note: “Life Change Week” rolls on …)
And after I called my mom on Sunday, Father’s Day, I managed to reach my dad.
Now, some background is in order here, lest one misunderstand. My dad has been a drunk – not an alcoholic; alcoholics go to meetings – since he was a teenager. He was also extremely violent, running with gangs as a teen and getting thrown out of a Catholic high school in San Francisco for punching a monk. All of this he managed to hide from my mom while they were dating – and stopped hiding once they were on their honeymoon. (As Mom once put it, “I still love the man I married … I just never saw him again.”)
I mentioned yesterday that my mom was basically a single parent even when my parents were married; my dad made very little positive input into my life growing up. Not only that, but he was verbally and emotionally abusive toward the rest of the family. And a grade-A control freak – I received a bicycle when I turned seven, but was told I was only allowed to ride it on the eight-by-fifteen-foot concrete back porch of the house. (This is but one example.) Shortly before my ninth birthday, my mom asked me how I’d feel if we (she, my brother Steve and I) moved somewhere else … without Dad. I actually cheered. (Kids know more about what’s going on in their families than adults often think they do.) We did leave, and Dad made no effort to change, to win her back, or to hold the family together.
Nor did it improve after the divorce was finalized (I was 11 by then). Steve and I spent periodic weekends with my dad that became less and less frequent, by our choice. Mine ended altogether when I was 16 and Dad, in his usual drunken stupor and as the culmination of dozens of similar incidents, came after me with a metal softball bat. By this time I was taller than him and able to fight him off, but I still got thrown out of the house (in the middle of the night, thirty miles from home). I think I saw him once in the decade to follow, and didn’t say a word to him then.
Since then, two things have happened that have changed the situation:
- Dad has mellowed, not so much due to a change of attitude as to ill health and old age (he turns 70 this year).
- Steve has been following in his footsteps.
Dad has slowed down some, but his basic attitude – that he’s the center of the universe and everyone should do things his way, under his control – has not changed. Suffice to say that he has seen his two grandchildren, my daughter and son, once in their lives (my daughter turns eight in two weeks) and only because we came over to his house briefly. Even though any parent can tell you the headaches involved in transporting a child for more than twenty minutes anywhere, he has never made an effort to come see them, even though he only lives 70 miles away. By contrast, Mom and both my in-laws have visited multiple times, including within 24 hours of my daughter’s birth, and we have returned the favor. We’re still waiting for a favor of his to return, but he only seems interested in griping about it, not doing anything about it.
And Steve? Well, Steve and I had both learned the “values” of violence from Dad, but while I worked to suppress it (eventually, after many false starts and a lot of serious counseling, becoming the semi-pacifist I am today), he seemed to revel in it. After numerous incidents at home of threatening people and throwing appliances, Mom finally had to give him up to juvenile court and let them put him in a group home around his fifteenth birthday. He went through two of them in three years and seemed to improve … for a while. But he’s never really dealt with his issues, and has never been willing to accept responsibility for his actions or their consequences. He is now a convicted felon, with two DUIs and a weapons charge on his record, all of which he blames on the police.
Until Sunday, I hadn’t spoken to him since Thanksgiving 2005 when, while giving him a ride to Mom’s for the day (he’d already lost his license due to the first DUI) his attitude toward me and my wife and kids was so horrid that I pulled over to the side of the road and told him that either it had to go or he did. He proceeded to get out of the car and walk the five miles home, during which he called Mom, told her what a terrible person I was and that my wife and I were going to divorce because of this (having no idea that the Supermodel and I, having seen his act before, had agreed weeks in advance that this was how we’d handle it if it came up again). Later that day, while Mom was showing some old pictures to my daughter (four years old at the time), she came across one of Steve and my daughter blurted out, “He’s a really angry guy!” And the three of us adults just staaaaared at each other … (Did I mention that kids know more about what’s going on in their families than adults often think they do?)
Nor was this the bottom of his dive. Last year, he stopped drinking alcohol – though not by choice. He’d destroyed his liver by following up several beers with (according to emergency room personnel) about 150 Tylenol. He claims that it wasn’t a suicide attempt, which I’d like to believe, but … how the heck do you down basically a whole bottle of Tylenol by accident? A few months ago, his violent rages unchanged, my mom had to finally throw him out of her apartment where he’d been staying – but ran into difficulties when she called all of his recent friends and found out that they’d rather line up to beat his brains out. Apparently, he’d been burning bridges left and right while she wasn’t looking. She tossed him anyway, whereupon he headed for the only remaining option: Dad’s house. He’s still there as of a few days ago.
Okay, we’re up to the present day now. For the last several years, I’ve spoken to my dad twice a year, calling him on Father’s Day and on his birthday in September. Dealing with him is fraught with danger in the best of circumstances, so I’m not going to press my luck. I’d already heard from Mom that Steve had cussed her out and hung up on her once when she had tried to reach Dad last month – she’s basically become Dad’s medical advocate in the last year due to both his health problems and his unwillingness to deal with them himself. So I was prepared for difficulties. I mean, I’m about to make a phone call to a place inhabited by father-and-son sociopaths, and try to have a civil conversation with at least one of them. The odds were against me, I knew.
So I called, Steve answered the phone, I asked for Frank (my dad), and was told he was asleep. It was one in the afternoon, but I thought, okay, he’s older, he could be taking a nap – I said I’d call back later. I called again around four, was told he was still sleeping (now it began to seem unlikely) and asked that he be woken up. Steve claimed he tried, but that Dad wouldn’t wake up … and then he cussed me out and hung up. Now the alarms are going off in my mind. Steve has a long history of indiscriminate violence; he assaulted my mom at least once, not to mention what he’s done to cars, furniture and stereo equipment over the years. And he’s got … let’s say, a casual relationship with the truth. It’s eminently possible that he has done something to Dad – not likely, but certainly possible. So what would you do?
Maybe you’d do what I did, which was to call the sheriff’s department in that county and ask for what’s called a “welfare check.” That means a deputy stops by and makes sure that an elderly person is okay, nothing more. Dad is almost seventy, he is living with a convicted felon; it seemed wise to take no chances. After that, I let it go and took my wife and kids to the library.
When I came home, there was an answering machine message from Dad – who almost never leaves messages (that control thing, I guess). But at least he’s alive, I thought, and returned the call.
You ready for this? He proceeds to chew me out for calling the cops to make sure that he was all right! He spouted off a lot of other nonsense – that Mom was “pissed off” at him (right, that’s why she’s helping you so much), that Steve was more trustworthy than I (suffice to say he wasn’t saying that nine months ago when we last spoke), that he didn’t know what problem I had with Steve (when did Steve’s personality become my problem?) and a lot of other things that didn’t have any relationship to the facts. I guess I shouldn’t have expected any less, but still, it was disappointing.
So where to from here? My mom had a theory about Steve that he didn’t consider himself worthy of being loved, therefore he punished anyone who tried to love him. That makes sense, and I guess it could explain Dad too. Dad, who abused us, was abused by his father, who had been abused by his father, so that’s probably a factor. (We don’t have any idea before that because all the previous family records were in Italy and got destroyed during World War II.) Plus there’s the booze, which has never been known to make people rational. And who knows what kid of (natural, not induced) chemical imbalances might come into play for either or both of them. But none of that helps me to figure out how to deal with it – to deal with them – on June 24, 2009 and following. Dad especially; how is one supposed to “honor your father” when the only honor he will accept is blind obedience and complete acceptance of his imaginary worldview?
I’ve only come up with one answer. Forgive and move on.
Martha Beck once said that forgiveness means giving up all hope of a different past. I think it goes beyond that – I think it also means giving up hope of a different future. Otherwise you can’t forgive, because you’ll be constantly bracing yourself for the next time “they” do “that.” I think it means surrendering everything about that person – past, present and future – to God, and letting go of any related expectations. I’m not claiming for a moment that it’s easy; in fact, without the work of the Holy Spirit behind it, it’s flipping impossible. Even with the Holy Spirit involved, it’s really hard.
But then, as Chesterton once said, Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult, and left untried. And few things are closer to the heart of the Christian faith than forgiveness. After all, that was the whole point of the Crucifixion – God incarnate offering forgiveness to us for our sin, wiping the slate clean and building a bridge whereby we could have relationship with Him. It becomes hard for us not because the other person doesn’t deserve it (they never deserve it – and neither do we), or because we’ve been wounded too badly (because forgiving someone costs us nothing). It’s because we keep hanging on to the possibility that things might change … and then get bent out of shape when they don’t. That’s the real hurdle I’ve faced, and I suspect I’m not the only one.
So that’s what I’m dealing with, and what I need to learn. My brother is now 37, and the chances of his personality changing dramatically, while not zero, is extremely low barring the introduction of some serious medication. (This is also unlikely, since he’s as paranoid against doctors as he is against cops.) My dad, who’s almost 70? Even lower. I’m not going to stop praying for them – God can do anything – but if they never change, if they never get any better, I have to keep living. I can’t afford to drag around a bunch of resentment and broken promises. It’s not the most emotionally satisfying solution, but it’s all I’ve got.
Dad, Steve, I forgive you. You didn’t know what you were doing. Maybe you’ll never know. But I’m releasing you from any expectations of mine. Do with your lives what you will.
And when September and my dad’s birthday comes around, I think I’ll just skip the phone call and send a card instead. Simplify my life a little.