One of my earlier childhood memories is being scolded by my mother and grandmother for not being excited about going with my dad to do some errands. I was 3 or 4 years old. The thrust of both scoldings was that I should be grateful that Dad wanted to spend some time with me at all, and didn’t I realize that being nice to Dad might make him less likely to be mean to me? I hadn’t wanted to go with him because I could never remember a time that I wasn’t afraid to be alone with him. I reluctantly agreed to pretend to be excited to spend time with him, but only because I was afraid of what he might do if I didn’t please him. Nothing terrible happened on that particular trip.
Contrast this with my first memory of a hospital emergency room. It was about a year later and I was 4 or 5 years old. I had lost consciousness after Dad smacked me around because I had cried when one of his friends that were attending a barbecue in our back yard had scared me. Later, after I woke up, one of the other adults (I think it was one of the wives who was refraining from alcohol so my mother, who was very pregnant at the time, wouldn’t be the only one sober) had realized that I wasn’t kidding when I said there was something wrong with my eyes. The others were eventually convinced that I needed to be taken to a hospital. During the ride to the emergency room, Dad drilled me with the story that I had been running around in the dark playing hide and seek and had climbed somewhere I shouldn’t have, I had been surprised when someone shone a bright light in my eyes, so I fell down and landed on my head. It was made very clear that if I did not stick to this story, not only would I get an even more severe beating when I got home, but that my mother would also suffer…
At the hospital, I dutifully told the story I had been fed. They kept me overnight. I remember a nurse who kept squeezing my hand and telling me how brave I was being while they did tests. I don’t remember the tests themselves. I don’t remember what anything looked like. My recollection was that I couldn’t see anything. The next day, the doctor explained that the swelling from the concussion had messed with the signals in the nerves going to and from my eyes. Since by morning the internal swelling had been relieved, and I could see normally again, they were confident there was no permanent damage. If I avoided any further head trauma, I would be fine. I solemnly promised the doctor that I would never climb on things I wasn’t supposed to again.
Even though I had stuck to the story as I was told, I got another beating after Dad saw the hospital bill. I suppose I should be grateful that he was very careful only to hit me below the waist that time, so there wouldn’t be any brain damage.
Years later family members (who had not been present) would tell the story of how I had fallen on my head and was lucky that it was only a concussion. Sometimes they would talk about how shortly after the accident I had started having nightmares and would wake up crying about not being able to see. The incident was used as an example of how clumsy and unathletic I was, and especially proof that I was a fearful sissy.
I haven’t told this specific story often. I have more frequently written about a much more severe beating five years later that also led to a hospital visit. I talk about that one because the incident was worse, and it illustrates more clearly just how complicit society and the law used to be in the routine abuse of children; a fact of which many people are unaware.
But I’ve been reminded about these incidents because several relatives have been regaling me in the last day or so with tales of what a happy and loving man my father was when he was young. How overjoyed he had been when I was born that he was now a father. How I should do my best to try to remember happy times with him, “before the troubles started.” That I should focus on the good in him, because otherwise I will feel no comfort in my grief.
They are saying these things because late last week Dad was moved into hospice care, and in the wee small hours of Sunday morning, he died.
They are wrong on a number of counts, but I should start with the big one: I’m not grieving. I don’t need any comfort. And it is not because I’m in denial. Nor am I in shock.
The only damper on my happiness right now is the knowledge that some people I love are very distraught over his death. Also the certainty that if I let them know how un-grieved I’m feeling it would upset them even more.
I can’t tell you what an overwhelming relief it was, 41 years ago, when Dad told Mom he wanted a divorce and he moved out of the house. That relief was short-lived, because not long afterward Dad had demanded sole custody of me (but not my sister). He actually expected me to want to go live with him and the woman he’d been having an affair with for at least six years before that. Dad thought I would jump at the chance to live with him. And for a while I thought I was going to be forced to do just that.
I did have to meet with the judge overseeing the divorce to convince him that it was my own idea not to go live with Dad. The judge believed me, and I was allowed to live with my mom and sister, and more importantly, move away with them to a place far away. I have been extremely grateful for the last 40 years to live more than a thousand miles from Dad.
But to get back to the family members urging me to focus on the good times with him: I have almost no memories of such times. There are one or two incidents where he was on his best behavior and showed glimmers of humanity, but when I said earlier that as a child I could never remember a time when I wasn’t terrified to be left alone with him, I meant it. I also don’t remember a time when he wasn’t an angry, abusive man who terrorized his wife and children with physical, verbal, and emotional assaults.
I’ve written before about the various narratives in both families making excuses for Dad. While the rationalizations vary (examples: he became bitter because of a specific incident of betrayal involving the pastor of his church, he stopped going to church because of that and “fell away from god,” his drinking became an addiction, he was driven crazy by my mom, he was driven crazy by his mother’s hatred of my mom, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera), one thing they all have in common is an insistence that deep down he was a good, loving man, while the anger and sadistic manipulation (not to mention the blatant racism and hatred of just about everyone) were a minor deviation from his true nature. It is portrayed as a tragedy, but as his tragedy; as if I should feel sorry for him and that it is selfish of me not to have wanted him in my life.
It’s back to that scolding when I was three years old! I should feel grateful! Don’t I realize that his bad behavior toward me was actually my fault?
Others make the argument that for my own mental well-being I must forgive him. No. For my own well-being I must try not to let grudges fester inside me, turning me into a toxic person who damages myself and everyone around me. That doesn’t mean I have to forgive him. Particularly since never—not once in my entire life—did he ask for forgiveness. He never said he was sorry. If you read articles about cycles of abuse, they always talk about the abuser coming back and making apologies and promises that he will never do that again—convincing the abused person to give them another chance and stay in the relationship. Dad never did that with me.
Maybe he said things like that to Mom. Maybe he said things like that to his second wife. But to me and at least one of my sisters, he seldom even admitted that anything had happened at all. He would insist we were lying or exaggerating. Sure, he would admit to punishing us, but nothing that we didn’t deserve, and certainly nothing that crossed the line into abuse! I had to go to the hospital because I fell down during the punishment, he would claim, not because the punishment was excessive. Or because I wasn’t tough enough, again, not because there was anything wrong with the punishment.
I haven’t spoken to him in about six years. And then it had been at least five years since our previous talk. I cut my last conversation with him short because I was getting tired of him peppering every sentence with crude racial slurs. Many years earlier—some time in my mid-twenties—I had had the realization that if I was going to own my own life, I had to leave Dad out of it. I drew a deliberate, intentional distinction that it wasn’t a mere accident of circumstance that we were 1200 miles apart; it was a choice that I was making. I have tried not to let the memories of the abuse poison the rest of my life. I have tried to let go of my anger and resentment. I have tried to let my past be an object lesson of the kind of person I don’t want to be.
Given the immense relief I felt when I got the call Sunday telling me that Dad was actually dead, I know that I haven’t completely excised all of that pain and the resultant anger. Maybe it isn’t possible to do so.
I am not going to beat myself up over it. And I’m swiftly running out of patience with those who are trying to tell me that I should.