Child of an Alcoholic: How I Finally Forgave My Father
I was eight when I understood exactly what divorce was and I considered myself very lucky to have both parents. I was proud showing them off at my school's open houses and at parent-teacher conferences. My mother wore long skirts, red lipstick and she was always wearing her hair in a ponytail which bounced and swung as she talked. My dad was tall and handsome, had skin the color of cafe-au-lait, and wore his wavy hair at shoulder length. He always dressed sharply, and smelled like Brute cologne. When he would come to pick me up from school, my friends would whisper, “he has Michael Jackson's hairdo!” I was especially proud of my dad.
My family seemed perfect, normal, and healthy - that is until a teacher or classmate asked “What does you father do for work?” My mother instructed me to say, “he's a mechanic” and that's the answer I would give, but the truth was that he was frequently unemployed. My mother supported our then family of four.
Bottom of the Bottle
My dad was a Vietnam veteran drafted right out of high school in the late '60s. He did the “right thing” and married his high school sweetheart (not my mother) when she discovered she was pregnant. When he returned from Vietnam nearly two years later and was honorably discharged from the U.S Army, he came home to a toddler and a new baby. Needless to say, the marriage ended, and his life began its slow decline into alcohol addiction.
He and my mother met and became a couple in the early '80s and made it official when they married in '92, in spite of his drinking problem. I discovered much later that, as an infant, I learned to walk while scooting down the halls of a rehab center in my baby walker. My mom threatened to leave with me unless he cleaned up, and he did so. However, his “dry spells,” as we came to call them, would predictably last just three or four months before the downward spiral would begin again.
The drinking affected my dad's working tremendously; as a result, my family was deep in poverty. He would get work, usually painting houses, day labor, working in factories, and lose the job within weeks. Because of my dad's alcoholism, my mom, then pregnant with my brother, left her dream job at the library in order to make more money. A year later, she certified as a Nurse's Assistant and began working in nursing homes. Even still, we were on and off welfare and foodstamps and lived in subsidized housing.
After school, my dad would often take my brother and I to his friend's homes to drink before it was time to pick my mother up from the nursing home. We were incredibly fortunate that none of his friends were dangerous people, and that my dad was never arrested for a DUI. As far as I know, he never possessed a driver's license, and my brother and I survived many a curb crash and totally smashed drive home.
My mom, brother and I were part of a fairly large church (you might call it a mega-church), and we were involved in the midweek kid's clubs. I can't count how many times I left burning with shame when my dad arrived to take us home hardly able to stand up.
In 1997, my parents separated, but when faced with the threat of losing the three of us forever, my dad re-entered rehab, this time at a Veteran's Hospital and under the counsel of many women from our church, my mother decided not to seek a divorce.
In 1998, my parents reunited and my family once again had a new lease on life. At the time, I really believed that his sobriety would last. He seemed sincere and ready to start over. My sister Chloe was born on April Fool's day a year later, and my mom was forced to stop working to protect her health and look after the baby. My dad took up work at a McDonald's across town to support us and though we were poor, we were happy. Then he started coming home later and later every night, and I discovered eavesdropping on a telephone conversation that there was no way my brother and I would be students there the following school year, our tuition was more than a year late. The rent-to-own furniture in our living room was repossessed. The car ceased to exist, and the phone was turned off. The cabinets and refrigerator were bare except for a few lonely cans of lima beans.
Up until that point, I was willing to accept the poverty, and I was willing to accept the hardship as long as there was no one to blame. I was angry that my dad would drink what money we did have, and that he wasn't normal.The thing that pushed my resentment of him over the edge was discovering hundreds of empty bottles of various sizes hidden in the cushions of chairs and behind the wall coverings of our basement den. My mother was heavily pregnant with my youngest sister when I discovered them. There are no words for the levels of hurt and confusion that flickered in my 11 year-old heart. How was it possible for a man, a father, to betray his family for the lure of a drink? It wasn't fair, and in my eyes, everything was destroyed because of him.
We survived on welfare and the kindness of families within our church. With almost no resources of any kind, my mom began homeschooling my brother and I. Meanwhile, my father went on binge after binge. He retreated into himself, never speaking to any of us when he was at home, not even my mother. He would sit on the couch in front of the television everyday, lost. His personality completely changed. Even more strange, he would at times appear to be drunk and have difficulty walking, even when I knew that there was no beer in the house and he hadn't left to buy any. I would still disgustedly help him to the bedroom and lay him down so my mother wouldn't have to put up with him. A few months later, it was revealed that he was having mini-strokes, and in August 2001, he had a massive stroke that paralyzed his right side and left him wheelchair bound.
Kids in the neighborhood who witnessed the ambulance whisk my father away to the hospital asked me if I was scared for him. I answered yes, but truly, I felt that the stroke was a consequence of his actions. Above all else, the event ended his alcoholism.
Before the stroke, I felt I had a secret power that no one could take away from me. I had a list, a long list, of everything that was his fault. I held my father prisoner in my mind with The List. Every time he had come home or driven us drunk, all the mean things he said to my brother and made him cry. All the times my mother sat at the kitchen table forlornly feeding a baby. I held that list close to my heart. It gave me a sense of control. I boiled under the surface, and I was ready to let him have it when the time was right. When I was young I told myself, when I was older, I would stand in front of him and recite this list of disappointments. I would make him feel as bad as I did; I would make him feel our pain.
But as I grew older and began to understand what was wrong with my father, it became harder and harder to hang on to my anger and resentment. The power began to destroy me. It was no longer righteous indignation, it was burden that made me physically heavier. I became overweight and depressed, and I felt that there was nothing that would end the isolation I felt from my peers because I was home-schooled.
Something Had to Change
I took a look at what had happened to me, I wasn't happy anymore. Even in spite of the obvious problems that existed when I was younger, I managed to find happiness then, but that was no longer the case. I came to realize it was The List I made against my father of everything he had done wrong. It was time to let go. I wrestled with the fact that he would never truly understand how I felt and the false idea that by forgiving him, I was giving him a free pass.
I was sixteen when I decided to once and for all mentally incinerate The List and release him from my penitentiary, never to use it against him again. I observed my father's life, everything I knew of it anyway, and realized that his problems never had anything to do with us, nor were they made intentionally to hurt us. I had completely written off and misunderstood what was happening to him. He had been silently suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for the better part of almost forty years.
“Wake me up, when September ends”
After being taken to the hospital for chest x-rays to confirm suspected pneumonia in early May 2011, he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Several large tumors had grown around his lungs and heart, paralyzing his vocal cords and restricting his ability to swallow. It was determined that surgery was impossible and his already fragile 100 lb. body would not be able to survive the side effects associated with chemotherapy. I watched a team of doctors argue outside his hospital room door before finally allowing twelve rounds of radiation therapy. The radiation was a success and shrunk the tumors, he got his voice back and could eat with no danger of aspiration. But the verdict still stood, at the age of 64, he was dying.
In the last months of his life, I was glad to have ended my issues with him. Though he never said it, I could see it in the way he looked at my sisters and even my mother, he was genuinely sorry for the years he had wasted drinking. My father never addressed his depression or PTSD, but he was able to find peace. He died on a Sunday evening in September surrounded by all five of us, including our cat, at the same nursing home he recovered in after his stroke a decade earlier. Though I was sad for him to be gone, my grief would have been even more profound had I not forgiven him.
The main complaint I had against my father was that he did not financially take care of us. Several months after he died, a representative from Veteran's Affairs contacted my mom and let her know that she would be receiving a monthly widow's stipend for the rest of her life. Following the paperwork involved, it was discovered that my dad had bought a house with only a piece of his G.I Bill and gave it to the daughter he did not father as a means to take care of her. The remaining portions of it were for the rest of his survivors. Myself, my brother, and my mom are each receiving educational benefits from the VA on behalf of my dad to help pay for college. When my sisters are ready for college, they will be eligible for the same benefits.
As I continue to look back over my life with my father, I understand things even more clearly as an adult. I'm glad to say that I was able to say goodbye to him with no regrets, and a completely unburdened heart.