Daddy’s face peers at me through the yellowing plastic covering his 1968 U.S. Armed Forces ID card. A father twice over when the picture was taken, I see in his serious, intelligent eyes a resolve to meet the challenges of the mid-century American fairy tale of maleness and fatherhood as a benevolent overlord and dispenser of righteous and wise justice.
I was Daddy’s Little Girl and just shy of my two-year birthday when the picture was taken. Daddy was everything when I was little. He tucked me in at night, literally pushing the sheets under the mattress so I was snugged up before spending a few minutes telling me a story that he made up on the spot. I was always the princess. He had a magical, musical voice, one that I heard with my ears and my heart. He was my hero when I was a child. He was once again when I was an adult.
My unexpectedly fertile Catholic parents had no sense of rhythm. The four of us were born within four years and a change began to take over my father by the time my three younger siblings reached an awareness beyond infanthood. The sweet father I knew at times would disappear; transforming into a rage-filled and dangerous Jekyll/Hyde darkness. The sweetness seemed to battle with the darkness. His early attempts to self-medicate and drown the beast transformed into a steady feeding with what would become floods of vodka.
Families with dysfunction are appallingly similar: my parents followed the pattern, hiding their issues while maintaining a happy façade, moving to out of the way places where they could raise us away from prying eyes. Like other sick families, we swallowed and denied our secrets, each ingesting a portion of pain and shame that made nasty nests in the dark corners of the soul.
Dad moved out when I was 18. He remarried when I was 20. Now a monster raging in pain, he sued Mom in an attempt to bankrupt her and refused to talk to us.
He divorced again a few years later and claimed innocence due to a Machiavellian wife. We reconnected. I forgave and asked him to give me away at my wedding. At the last minute, he refused to come.
The pattern continued twice more. Jekyll lost and Hyde frequently picked up a pen spiked with malice. While I was undergoing radiation for breast cancer, he sent another nasty letter and I cut him loose, I thought, forever.
During those days of opening and closing doors, I took a soul-cleansing journey alone for a 10,000 mile around the country, seeking insight and relief from life’s confusions. One sunny June day, I watched a man clean fish from a deep-sea expedition in a Monterey Bay marina boat slip. We chatted as he butchered and threw bits to the pelicans.
Then, surprised, he reached into a stomach and pulled something out. He put it in his palm and reached across.
“Know what that is?”
It was a mass of purplish tissue, full of blood vessels, but was strangely shaped and rigid. Certainly not organic. I shrugged.
“These things are illegal,” he said, pulling it back. He gazed again, flipping it over in his palm. “It’s an iron hook.” He stretched it out to me again. “Fish swallowed it… body couldn’t live with it, so he covered it in tissue, and fed it with his own blood.” He pulled his hand back, then dumped it with a dull thud in the chum bucket.
Shocked, I recognized it. I’d also swallowed hooks. One of them was my father’s. I’d swallowed it during the years of fighting to rescue him from the darkness. Instead, I was pulled in after him. Every encounter, hurtful word, hopeful moment, threat of suicide, years of silence pulled on the invisible line between us, with the barbed end ripping my heart with guilt, anger, and aching, echoing loss until I’d grown dull and numb.
A card appeared in the mailbox five years later. It sat for days before I found the courage to open it.
It was sweet and apologetic, but not overly so. Dad gently asked for one more chance.
It took a while, but I risked a call and heard more: he’d finally been diagnosed as bi-polar. It was, Dad said, miraculous; for the first time since he was 10, he finally managed the violent waves of emotions and no longer had an urge to drink.
He was living just north of Atlanta with his wife Patricia. They’d gotten back together after separating before he was diagnosed and reconnected with her children. He was finally spending time with their kids, the only grandchildren he ever had contact with.
He invited me to Georgia. I could stay with him or at a hotel, he said. He totally understood if I chose the hotel.
I arrived a few months later and booked the hotel room. Three days later, while we explored the north Georgia countryside, he asked me to pull over at a local greasy-spoon for a hamburger.
While we waited, he described finding a VA psychiatrist who finally diagnosed his disease. He said he knew with the first few doses of the medication they’d found the answer. The drugs, paired with intense talk therapy, brought him to the point where, finally, at the age of 65, he began to trust himself and could confront some of the terrible things done to him as a child. He also had the courage to finally face how his disease translated into actions and choices as an adult that damaged the lives of people he loved.
I was quiet while I listened and, after a few moments of silence, Dad said, “My father would go into a rage when I was 10 and come after me with a belt wrapped around his fist, buckle out.”
He said, “I swore I’d someday kill my father.”
And then, “I bet you felt the same way, too.”
I only remember a still silence after the words slammed into the space between us. It was as if my father, me, and our stained linoleum table were enclosed in an impermeable bubble.
Daddy was born with a magical voice, that was deep and resonant with the power to grab and hold the listener. His voice changed when he was in pain, but that’s not what I was hearing across the table. I sensed sanity.
“Cecelia,” he said, leaning into the silence, “you can trust me.” He watched me, then, “I want you to tell me for your sake, not mine. You can’t hurt me. I’ve already faced this and you can’t hurt me. It’s ok.”
A few beats passed.
I said, “Yes, I thought I’d someday kill you. One night, I told you to hit me so I’d have the excuse to.”
I watched him. Neither of us flinched.
As a child, no one was honest about the reality of what the four of us were forced to endure. We had strategies for deflecting and blaming and I remember hearing “get over it”, or when I protested injustice, I was told it was my fault and “what did you do to cause it?”
He leaned in again.
“Tell me more,” he said. “Tell me exactly what happened. Don’t hold anything back.” That beautiful, resonant voice – the one I remembered telling me stories, helping me learn how to ride a bike, urging me to look closer at the world and make my own decisions – echoed in my heart and vibrated through my soul.
He’d finally faced the wreckage created by his choices. He was willing to see, own, and repair that damage.
In a greasy hamburger stand outside Dahlonega, Daddy owned his darkness, moved into the light, and was once again my hero.
There are no saints or demons in this piece, only humans.
Dad was a husband, father, uncle, brother, and friend and he was loved, even at his worst. My grandfather, who served in the Pacific Theater during World War II, came home angry, perhaps with PTSD like so many who fought did. The anger aimed at my father finally abated when Dad was 12 and their relationship improved. I too spent many years angry and resentful until, finally, I was confronted with the damage I was doing to myself and those I love. As a family, we have demonstrated the maxim that people who are hurt often hurt other people. Or, as the anonymous wise person says, “crap rolls downhill.”
But it is never too late to be, like my father, heroic: own the wrong, allow the victim to say what they need, openly acknowledge the pain, allow the other person to have their feelings, and ask – not expect – forgiveness.