NaBloPoMo Day 14: An Overflowing Well of Emotion

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My father died twenty years ago today.

I’ve spent the last week preparing for today. It’s been our tradition that Mom and I call each other every year on this day, at around 3:30 pm Eastern, the time that my father died. I called Mom, but she was in the middle of a physical therapy session, and so the call ended a little earlier than the appointed time. When that time passed, however, my lovely wife reached for my hand and held it as I cried.

This year is harder than it’s been in the past several years. I think it being an even two decades weighs heavily on me.

But I’ve also spent the last several years thinking my dad was not a very good dad, oblivious to my own role in that relationship. This year it’s different. This year, I have a lot to apologize for.

So, just as I forgave myself two days ago, it’s time to write my dad a letter.

~ ~ ~

Dear Dad,

It’s been twenty years since you’ve been gone, and I miss you very much.

I spent the first fifteen or so years in a state of hero worship about you. I built you up on this amazingly high pedestal and there you stayed while I built it higher and higher.

And then it came crashing down around me when I put two and two together, and realized that you became a much stricter disciplinarian after my rape. You fell off that pedestal very hard, and for a time I really didn’t like you very much. I never stopped being proud of you for your professional accomplishments, but I became aware of how much more important your work seemed compared to me, I remembered the suddenly much shorter hair-trigger fuse that would lead to corporal punishment, and I blamed you for a lot of it.

You never beat me, however. I’ve always known and been clear on that point. The punishments you gave weren’t worse than they were before my rape, they were just more frequent. And I never could figure out why that was the case.

This week, it dawned on me that the reason you were the way you were was partially because you were processing your own anger, and partially because I was processing my own emotions and feelings about what happened to me that summer and fall, and I was acting out a lot more than I was beforehand.

And so I owe you an apology. Not just for blaming you when it wasn’t entirely your fault, but for all the times that I fell short of your expectations. They were high, because you knew I was capable. Because of my illnesses, I struggled to meet my potential, and still do, and always will, and I’m sorry for that. What I can tell you is that I do the best that I can, even though that changes from day to day.

At the same time, there were a lot of shortcomings you had as a father. You were absorbed in your own work and leisure activities, and while you admittedly tried to get me interested in them, I just didn’t have an interest in working on cars and with wood. (I’ve changed on those two accounts, and I wish that I’d learned from you when I could.) Our interests just didn’t see eye to eye, and while I made the attempt to join you in yours, you never made much effort to join me in mine.

I understand that your own father was out of the picture during WWII, though, even though he wasn’t drafted. Two years away in the Pacific theater with the Seabees was still two years away, and right at a time when you needed a father figure the most. I don’t blame you – I don’t blame him, either – it was just how you learned to be a father.

And so for all those shortcomings, those times when I needed you and you weren’t there, those times when I wanted you to engage and you didn’t, I forgive you.

You and I weren’t the perfect father and son team by any stretch of the imagination. I was thankful for what I got from you, though, and am still thankful to this day; I know that you were proud of me for being me, no matter what. I know that you’d still be proud of me today, despite not having a life of comfort and a successful career.

But I still forgive you.

And I love you.

And I miss you.

Steven

P.S. This is not blanket forgiveness. That time that you fed me pork brains and tried to convince me it was sausage, that time you spent two years playing a practical joke on me about what belly hair meant, those two things I don’t forgive you for. I know it wasn’t your intention, but those two incidents did a number on me – especially the one with the pork brains – that it took me years to recover from. I forgive you for not being the best father. I don’t forgive you for going out of your way to be an asshole to me on occasion. No matter how funny both stories are in hindsight.

NaBloPoMo Day 12: Learning to Forgive

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I had an appointment with my therapist today.

We reviewed the past three weeks, since it had been that long, and then I started to discuss the incidents that led to my PTSD, only to be derailed by something more timely.

Saturday is the 20th anniversary of my father’s death.

We discussed what growing up with him was like, and how he changed after my PTSD trigger. We talked about how, at the time of my father’s death, I had almost a hero worship thing going on with my dad, and as the years passed, I realized that he wasn’t the perfect dad, not by a long shot. I started to see ways in which our relationship suffered, and he fell from that impossibly high pedestal that I put him on. I am and always have been proud of him for his accomplishments in his profession – it’s not everybody that’s memorialized by having a scholarship named in their honor – but his drive to excel and improve in the workplace had an impact on our relationship when I was still living at home.

At the end of the appointment today, we’d arrived at the fact that the reason our relationship changed after the trigger events were not just due to his shortcomings, but due to my own attempts at processing what transpired. For close to two years, I never mentioned it to a soul, not even in therapy. As time passed, it became easier to talk about it, but I always did so clinically, as an observer, without ever stopping to focus on the feelings I was experiencing at the time. To this day, I still haven’t been able to really confront my feelings during this period in my life.

The point is that I’ve built this grudge against my dad for how he reacted to what happened to me, denying that I had anything to do with it, when in reality the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. He changed, but it was in part because I did too.

My next step is to forgive my father for what he did to me, which, to be clear, was nowhere near what I went through during my trigger events. My father became a much more strict disciplinarian afterwards, partially to release his own frustrations and partially because I had started acting out to process my own trauma in any way that I thought I could.

And that step, the forgiveness, is something that I’m going to struggle with, because he’s gone.

I can’t tell him to his face what I’ve learned about that time, and I can’t tell him that I forgive him. More to the point, I can’t hear him accept that forgiveness, and I don’t know how to process that yet.

Can I forgive my father? I haven’t really been willing to up until today. I had been under the impression that I was blameless until it was pointed out that he was partially reacting to my acting out, that I shoulder some of the blame for the deterioration of our relationship. Forgiving him, honestly, will be the easy part.

The trick is going to be learning to forgive myself, something that I’ve never been willing to do, ever.

That lack of self-forgiveness has held me back emotionally for as long as I can remember. I only forgive myself when I forget, and once reminded of some perceived fault, I immediately stiffen up and take the attitude that whatever I had done was an unforgivable offense, an unpardonable sin.

All the mistakes I can remember I’ve ever made weigh heavily on me tonight as I realize that the difficult part of this part of my journey is letting go for my own sake. I’ll give you an example.

When I was a young kid, I wasn’t into sports. I didn’t follow football or baseball or basketball, and I was only marginally aware there was such a thing as hockey. In fourth grade, I had a book report to do, and the book that I was assigned was on football. The report had to have a diorama accompany it, and we were to give an oral presentation on what we learned and what our diorama was.

I never read that book, but I did the diorama, thinking I could fake my way through the report.

I can’t remember what I said about the book. I have no idea how I embellished it to make it seem that I had read the thing, but I remember the explanation of my diorama as clear as it were hours ago.

“And here is my diorama of a player kicking a touchdown.”

I couldn’t have made it more plainly obvious that I hadn’t cracked the book if I stood up, announced that football was stupid and I wasn’t going to read the stupid book and you can give me a stupid zero on the assignment cause it’s a stupid assignment.

It wasn’t long before someone pulled me aside and pointed out my tactical error, so I knew I had failed the report before grades ever came back. But the shame that I felt that day still burns as hotly describing it some 35 years later as it did that day, and I’ve never been able to let that transgression go, despite the fact that everyone I was in class with has likely forgotten about me, much less the report. I’ve forgotten all of them, so it stands to reason.

The point of that story is to illustrate that, even though I am quite literally the only person keeping that incident alive, I can’t let it go, I can’t forgive myself, I can only forget it happened at times, until something happens to remind me about it, and then I’m back at square one – like now.

So here, tonight, I’m going to try something that I hear other people doing to various levels of success – I’m going to write to ten-year-old me and tell him that he can let it go.

~ ~ ~

Dear Ten-Year-Old Me,

You had an incident happen to you recently that embarrassed you greatly. You filed a book report without reading the book, and everyone knew it the moment you opened your mouth.

I want you to know that 46-year-old me understands that embarrassment. But the chances are good that the kids in that class with you forgot about that report of yours within weeks, and today, in 2015, you’re the only person that remembers that you did it.

That means that you’re the only person keeping that incident alive, and you’re keeping it alive because I won’t let it go.

You made a mistake. But you passed the class and the grade, and you moved on, just like everyone else did.

It’s okay to leave this memory behind, ten-year-old me.

You’re forgiven for what you did, and it’s okay to let it go.

If I could, 46-year-old me would go back in time and hug ten-year-old me and let you know that while the memory is fresh in your mind, it’s going to hurt, but the pain will fade with time, and eventually you’ll go years without remembering this incident.

It’s time for me to go, ten-year-old me, but I promise you that it’s okay to let this go, and let it become the amusing anecdote that time should have let this become.

You’re forgiven.

And I love you.

46-Year-Old Me

P.S. You will eventually become a sports nut and your knowledge of football will increase exponentially. You’ll also learn about hockey, which is good, because Raleigh will one day be home to the Stanley Cup and you will think this is the greatest thing that ever happened to your hometown.