Friday, August 10, 2012

Better late than never

(Note: A version of this blog post appears on The Huffington Post's blog site as "Forgiving My Alcoholic Father: Better Late Than Never.")


Of all the blog posts I've sat down to write, this one might very well be the toughest. But I'm going to try and get through it. Ironically, this post has absolutely nothing to do with my son--who, by the way, seems to be doing fine right now. This post has to do with my 86-year-old father. I've mentioned my father in this blog a few times before, but I've never really discussed him in depth. So here's some background information.

For as long as I can remember, my father has been an alcoholic. Pretty much all of my childhood memories of him revolve around his drinking. I remember countless car rides where I was scared to death, wondering if I'd make it home alive because my dad was driving drunk. I remember running and hiding in my room when my dad came home from work because I knew that he would be drunk. I remember worrying that he would burn the house down when he passed out on the living room couch with a burning cigarette in his hand. (If I had a dollar for every time I tiptoed into the living room and very carefully took that cigarette out of his hand, I'd be rich.) I remember the multiple DUIs and the multiple parked cars he hit while driving drunk. (Thank God he never hurt anyone.) And I remember him calling me and asking me to come bail him out of jail after his last DUI (which I did).

I remember never being able to have friends sleep over at my house as a kid because of the potential embarrassment and humiliation I would feel if my dad came home drunk and passed out in the living room, snoring and gurgling and coughing like he did. I remember the time friends dropped me off at home late one night and we found my dad sitting in his car in the driveway. The driver's door was open, the car was running, and my dad had one leg out of the car. But he was passed out. I remember telling my friends that night that my dad must have been really tired from a long day at work. I don't know if they bought that explanation or not.

I remember being in restaurants and watching my dad down two or three Club Manhattans on the rocks before he even opened a menu. I remember one particular instance when my dad got into a shouting match with my mom at a restaurant. He actually stood up at the table and started yelling, creating quite a scene. My mom and I got up and left. We took a cab home.

I remember the giant bottles of Canadian Club whiskey my dad used to buy. And the office lamps he had them made into after they were empty. There was also the "OUT FOR A GLASS OF LUNCH" sign on his desk. And the fact that he spent a good portion of his work day--he owned his own business--at the bar down the street, where his secretary would call him if anything came up.

I remember when my wife-to-be had to move out of the place she was living in and I told her she should come live with me at my parents' house until we could find a place of our own. I was terrified at the notion of her living under the same roof as my dad, but I am very grateful that she understood and put up with it--and him--for several months.

I think you get the idea by now. In my mind, my father robbed me of my childhood, and even some of my early adulthood. We never really had a relationship. And over the years, what relationship we did have became more and more strained. For a long time, I hated my father. Hate is a strong word, but that is truly how I felt. I resented growing up without a father, even though I technically had one. I wouldn't want to talk to him or see him. The phone would ring, the Caller ID would show my dad's number, and I wouldn't answer. Or call him back. If I called my parents' house and my dad answered, I would often times hang up. That's how bad things were between us.

A lot of my resentment also stemmed from a period several years ago when my dad got sober for a while and got very active in Alcoholics Anonymous. Unfortunately, he never did anything about Steps Eight and Nine, which tell the alcoholic that they should make a list of all the people they have harmed, be willing to make amends to them all, and make direct amends to such people whenever possible. I never got any kind of apology from my father. Never. Ever. Even to this day.

I discussed my issues with my father many times with my therapist, my wife, other family members, and even a few friends. A lot of them told me that I should reach out to my father and try to repair the relationship, and that if I didn't I would regret it someday. But I just couldn't accept the suggestion that I should be the one to make the first move. After all, I did nothing wrong. My dad ruined my childhood and it was up to me to fix our relationship? That made no sense to me. (For the record, my therapist told me it was strictly up to me, and that I had to decide what to do based on how I felt.)

Fast forward to June of this year. My dad went to the Veteran's Hospital in Detroit for a routine check-up. They found some irregularities in his heartbeat and blood pressure and decided to keep him overnight for observation. To make a long story short, he ended up being in the hospital for a couple of weeks, during which time the doctors also detoxed him from alcohol. Unfortunately, while he was hospitalized my dad started suffering from dementia (possibly brought on by the detox). This was an incredibly sad development, and all I could think about was that I had probably missed my chance at any type of reconciliation. I was okay with that--I really didn't have much choice--but it still made me sad.

From the hospital, my dad went to an extended care facility for rehab and physical therapy. It was hard for me, but I went to visit him several times. He was "different" during these visits. Me, my wife, my siblings, and my mom all recognized this. He was a kinder, gentler person, and a soft side of his personality that we hadn't seen before--or at least in a very long time--came out. Even so, he would be having a normal conversation with us and then suddenly switch over to telling us some nonsensical story that he thought was real. My heart would break when this would happen. But we all just went along with it and accepted that things would be different now.

My dad spent four weeks at the extended care facility and when it was time for him to be released my mom asked me if I would help her get him home. I would do anything for my mom, so I agreed to help her. I also took my son with me, just in case I needed more help. To be honest, none of us really knew how physically able my dad would be; and my parents live in a second story flat. I had visions of possibly having to carry my father up the stairs, which I was more than willing to do if it was necessary.

To my surprise, though, when my son and I arrived at the facility, my dad was much more fit than I thought he would be. He could stand up and walk on his own, although the nurse made him ride out to the car in a wheelchair just to be safe.

When we arrived at my parents' house, my dad insisted on trying to get out of the car and up the stairs by himself. Amazingly, he was able to do just that. My son and I followed behind him as he negotiated the stairway. But he made it all the way without any problems. My mom even told him that he handled the stairs better than he did before he went into the hospital.

My dad sat down in "his spot" on the couch and my son and I went down to the car to get all of his  belongings. We brought everything upstairs and before we left I found the strength to actually sit down on the couch next to my dad. I told him I was glad he was feeling better and that he looked much better to me. This is where things get a little bizarre.

My father looked me in the eye and thanked me for helping him get home. "I can always count on you," he told me. "You're always around when I need you. I appreciate that." After hearing that, I stood up, gave my dad a big hug, kissed him on the cheek, and said, "I love you." And as I let go of him and moved away from him, I felt something very strange happen. It's impossible to describe exactly how it felt, but in that moment I could feel an incredible weight being lifted off of my shoulders. I felt all the resentment and hatred and negative feelings about my dad disappear. And suddenly, I was at peace.

Some of you reading that last paragraph might think I'm crazy. In fact, for a couple of days I thought I might be crazy. Which is why I waited to tell my wife what I had felt. I wanted to see if I still felt that way after some time had passed. And I did. So I eventually told my wife and sent an e-mail to my sisters and my mom. I told them that I was alright with everything now.

Forty-plus years of resentment and hatred towards my father, and it all disappeared in what my wife might describe as a "God moment." (By the way, it's just a coincidence that my dad's initials are G.O.D.) I never thought it would happen. Never. Ever. I always thought my dad would die and I would feel the resentment and hatred until the day I died. But that's all changed now. Better late than never.

"Make the call. Send the card. Bury the grudge." --Regina Brett (from her book Be the Miracle: 50 Lessons for Making the Impossible Possible)

9 comments:

  1. This is a very touching blog post, Dean, and one I can relate to. My dad, too, is a (recovering) alcoholic, and while he was never as bad as your father, he was always angry, we always had to walk on eggshells around him, and for a while, I hated him, too. Now that he's sober, the change in him is truly remarkable. He's a completely different--and better--person. It's hard to ignore the person he was in the past--but I firmly believe that people deserve second chance(s) so long as they've shown that they've changed. I'm so glad you've gotten to have that moment with your father, and that that weight has been lifted from your shoulders.

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  2. Very good post and I can see how this would be such a difficult thing to write. But I also know you could not have written it without the the complete and total forgiveness that you felt at that moment.

    Took me a long time to understand that with my son too. I kept waiting on those steps about making amends. I finally learned that his amends were for him not me and I could accept forgiveness in my heart for him even if he didn't ask for it. I know that feeling you describe. Acceptance and forgiveness takes that heavy burden from ones heart.

    I am so happy for you.

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  3. This is such a beautiful post! How wonderful that you have found your peace and can let go of the burdens and pains from the past. I also grew up with an alcoholic father and the picture you paint is one that is all too familiar. Thankfully my dad gave up drinking before his first grandchild came along. We enjoyed many good years before he passed. I hope that you will be able to enjoy plenty of time with your dad, as well. It seems, even at our age, we still need our parents.

    God bless you and your family,

    Summer

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  4. Thanks for being able to say and do what i am not strong enough to.
    John,cleveland

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  5. This is some incredibly brave, powerful, inspiring shit, my friend. Thank you for sharing it. You can pick your nose, but you can't pick your parents. Amazing to me how his perspective on your relationship was so radically opposite from yours, and probably from reality. I think the kind of unexpected, God-fueled forgiveness you experienced happens more often than you suspect. (And really, what other explanation could there be?) After all, the years of resentment and anger you held onto weren't hurting Dad; that kind of bitterness is like drinking poison thinking it will kill sombody else. You let go. You let God. Congratulations.

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  6. Wonderful - such a load off the shoulders. Thanks for writing it all down ... inspiring to read.

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  7. Forgiveness sets the prisoner free...and the prisoner was me. Forgiveness is about me, not the other person and not dependent on the other person (for anyone waiting for an amends or apology)
    I'm happy that you found your peace. Blessings.

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  8. A great post, very inspirational. Thank you for sharing your personal experiences.

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  9. I read your post and wondered if it was me who had written it- it is so, so similar to my upbringing. Most of my childhood memories revolve around my drunk Father- he was a jeckly and hyde type of person- one personality when sober, and another when intoxicated. I didn't know who he really was. He would go out and cut the lawn early on a Saturday afternoon, and when my sister and I ran outside to see him, he would sometimes just not be there- the lawnmower just sitting in the middle of the lawn- he had sneaked out for the entire day up until 3am when he would drive up our driveway, drunk from the entire day spent at numerous bars and pubs. My Mom would be sitting on the couch, waiting for him to return home, anxious and worried- which in effect rubbed off on my sister and I. I'm now an anxious person at times, and I blame it on this behavior that my Dad carried out many (countless) times. He'd just leave my Mom and us without a trace to go drinking all day. Then there were the odd fist fights we had, his getting sick in the living room because of how drunk he was, the multi-day binges where he'd rent a hotel and stay there, drunk the whole time and not call us with his whereabouts until day 3 or 4. Or the times he'd urinate right in the middle of the floor or on my Mom's belongings because he thought he was in the washroom... how about the countless times he drove drunk with my sister and I in the car... God only knows what sort of abuse his first two children went through (that he abandoned/became a deadbeat Dad towards)... his other Son (now in his mid-40s) calls ocassionally to see how my Dad is and to this Day my Dad never calls him back or attempts any sort of relationship with him... he kicked him out as a teenager and that's why my brother-in-law is as troubled as my Dad once was... I can sit here and release my Mom from all responsibility since she was the sober one and held everything together, but she was an adult when meeting him and she knew what kind of a person he was when she married him.. she bears some responsibility... I learned to hate him, and to this very day my hatred runs so deep when I think about the abuse he put us through, and also towards my Mom who made no attempt to rectify any of it. My Dad did eventually go to AA and cleaned up about 10 years ago; but still has never apologized and still blames me when I don't call him for a while.. I get the "you don't like us very much do you... did we hurt you that bad, son?" line. I don't know if that's a reverse-psychology tactic by my parents or they're just plain out in the dark about everything. I really do not like him to this day; but he is now sick and awaiting treatments for a serious illness. Yet he remains stubborn and an asshole much of the time and continues to play games with me, which I now decline. I suppose we'll never bury the hatchet; the best that can happen is we stay civil during this upcoming time, but part of me has sympathy for him and an even larger part of me hates his every bone. I am afraid of regretting my hatred one day, though. I realize my hatred towards him isn't my fault; it started at a young age and was his fault. I have kids of my own and would never dream of hurting them in any way shape or form, so how my Dad did this to us as young kids blows my mind. I feel for your story. I am emotionally scarred for life; I have trouble trusting people, I have problems getting close to people, I am also somewhat closed off from physical emotion with my wife and I see where it's all coming from now. As I get older (mid/late 30s) I see where my problems have come from.

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